After election loss, former Douglas County DA finds new passion

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Dan Blank spent nearly his entire professional career as Douglas County's top prosecutor, so when he was unseated from his 26-year tenure as district attorney in a primary battle last August he said he didn't want to rush into a job search.

He said he deliberately took a few months to reflect on his election loss, considering opportunities and putting out inquires in private-practice and business sectors.

The job he eventually landed, though, was not even on his radar: director of administrative services for the Diocese of Superior.

"Boy, if I would've laid out plan A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I don't know if the Catholic Church would've made the list," he said. "I think, appropriately, it's kind of a quiet, sort of out-of-the-normal employment business sector job, so I was pleasantly surprised and honored to be asked to consider it."

Blank, 53, describes himself as "just a regular Catholic guy." An Iowa native who grew up attending Catholic schools, Blank and his family have long been active at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Superior.

But he said a job with the diocese was never on his mind until the position became open and he was encouraged by others to consider it. Sure enough, the Most Rev. James P. Powers, who was installed as Superior bishop last February, invited him in for a meeting and offered him the position.

"This has been a real blessing and a breath of fresh air in a lot of respects," Blank said in a recent interview. "I'm absolutely learning from square one. It's a system with policies and rules and hierarchy that I was not familiar with. And so every day truly is a new and exciting experience."

Blank describes the role as the administrative arm of the diocese — he answers to the bishop but is responsible for overseeing policies and procedures for employees and volunteers, personnel issues, budgets, property management and strategic planning.

The diocese encompases 16 counties in Northwestern Wisconsin and includes more than 100 parishes and 15 schools. There are more than 70,000 Catholics in the region.

Leaving the DA's office

Blank acknowledges that he was hit hard by his re-election loss to challenger Mark Fruehauf last summer. He had served in the role since he was first elected in 1990, when he was just a year out of law school.

"I wouldn't have run for re-election and campaigned as hard as I did if I didn't really care for the job I had," he said. "I had really grown to appreciate public service and just felt that was the right match for me."

Almost immediately, he said, he was getting questions about what was next for him.

"I sort of consciously decided I wasn't going to do anything or make any decisions for a month or two, even though there was a lot of pressure starting the next day," he said. "I had to fight that off and tell people to give me some time."

Blank said he wasn't particularly interested in moving into another area of law, noting he hadn't kept up in divorce, real estate or civil litigation areas of practice. The easy thing would have been to "cash in" as a defense attorney, he said.

"That wouldn't have felt right to me," Blank said. "No disrespect to the defense bar, but that wouldn't be me. I gave 110 percent to prosecution and victims' rights. I could not give 110 percent to defendants and defendants' rights."

Joining the diocese

Blank said the election loss forced him to move out of his comfort zone, which turned out to be a good thing.

"It was time to move on to something new," he said. "The 'something new' found me."

Blank has been active with his church, serving as a reader, eucharistic minister and confirmation teacher. He's worked with children and teens, also serving as a youth basketball coach — though he said the demands of the job as district attorney made it difficult to fulfill his passion for volunteer work.

He said he does miss the legal realm, but has enjoyed getting up to speed in his first month-plus on the job at the diocese.

"It was kind of exciting to think about trying something new and I'm really glad I landed in this spot," he said. "I think it's a good opportunity for my personality and my interests and my sort of extroverted, interpersonal style."

Blank joked that moving from the highly public — and at times highly controversial — role of district attorney into the private sector has been like "reintegrating into society." For a quarter-century, he prosecuted emotionally charged murder cases and once had his Superior house firebombed by gang members.

"It's definitely out of the public microscope and that is a relief," he said. "Being on that public stage all time was hard on me and it was really hard on my family."

Continuing his work

Blank said he sees room to incorporate his legal experience into the new role.

The church has an interest in justice issues, he noted, from jail ministry to studying the impacts of criminal behavior. He said he hopes the church can help address community issues ranging from drug addiction to lack of self-esteem for girls.

He said he also wants to help address the church's priest shortage issue, which has caused parishes to close and merge, by inspiring younger members to consider ministry careers.

"I think the Catholic Church and some of its programs are doing a good job in serving people," Blank said, "but I think one of my goals might be to interject some other perspectives and ideas on where the church might be able to go and how it can further serve the people of the diocese."

He said there is one big difference from being district attorney. He can continue to work on social issues, but no longer faces the enormous public pressure, tight deadlines and understaffing that came with the job.

"The Catholic Church has a long tradition of community service and education and we've got to continue to be part of the package of society here that does good things and helps solve problems," he said.