The Player

From West Bank radical to White House insider, he's remained the most powerful man you've never heard of.

Up on the 52nd floor of the First Bank building in downtown Minneapolis, the corporate anteroom of Key Investments, Inc. was crowded with important and self-important people. In one corner, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was casually but consistently spreading the word of his gubernatorial campaign. Ten feet away, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew engaged three men in a genially animated discussion, their charcoal suits exquisitely set off by the teak walls.

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton sat on a couch balancing a small plate of food on her knee; as the object of this October fundraiser, she was busy greeting an informal procession of well-wishers. Former mayor Don Fraser was perched nearby, looking as rumpled as ever in his bulky sweater. Through the wall-length window at the far end of the room, one could look down on the setting sun in the far distance.

Then a bespectacled man with a bit of a duck walk and hair combed over his balding pate entered, and a shiver of high alert went through the room. Conversations continued, their purposes hollowed out, as dozens of eyes darted in quick reconnaissance to measure his forward progress.

The man took his time, shaking some hands and hugging some shoulders, dutifully playing the humble celebrity as the assembled lawyers, lobbyists, and corporate minions posed to pay their respects. For each he had a relevant comment, pithy yet detailed; as he moved through the crowd his body language shifted from ebullience to casual ease. This was his corporate anteroom, his food and drink, his view; most importantly these were his people, a tightly secured chunk of his world.

It was almost exactly 30 years ago that 25-year-old Vance Opperman poured drinks at the West Bank's Triangle Bar and traversed the neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota to drum up anti-war sentiment. Hundreds of favors, thousands of phone calls, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, he counts Vice President Al Gore among his friends and has enough clout to get President Clinton to return his phone calls. As the counterculture became the over-the-counter culture, Opperman never stopped shaking hands.

Outside his hometown, Opperman has become known as the ruthless corporate fighter who steered Eagan-based West Publishing Inc. through an industry revolution. He is also recognized as the big-time donor who promised large sums to Democrats at a crucial point in the 1996 campaign--two weeks before the Justice Department cleared the way to a corporate acquisition that would make him fabulously wealthy. One Washington-based advocate of campaign-finance reform considers Opperman "a perfect example of what is wrong with the political process."

But in Minnesota, it is hard to find people with a discouraging word to say about Opperman. Off the record, people from both ends of the political spectrum say that his wealth and power deter any honest criticism. Then, almost inevitably, they note with genuine affection the quiet, behind-the-scenes courtesies he has extended to those less fortunate or less prominent.

"The times have changed, society has changed; Vance hasn't really changed that much," says former Minnesota DFL Chair Rick Stafford. "Hey, even with his money, he is probably more of a liberal than I am. He is that rare Democrat who has a big heart and big pockets."

So how do those contrasts square? How could a man be regarded by some as the ultimate influence-buyer, and by others as the perfect exemplar of community citizenship? How does a '60s activist become a '90s insider and have people say that he never changed?

Simple, suggests Kent Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington: At the level Opperman plays the game, those questions don't matter. "Raising and giving money is not really based on ideology, it is about the type of people," he says. "The real political players like fundraising, they like being at the center of power. These are people who are playing the system. What they really like is being in the action."

Vance Opperman has been at the center of activity nearly his entire life. According to his father, Dwight, early tests at school verified that Vance had a genius-level IQ, and by kindergarten he amazed his teachers with a precocious vocabulary. Born an hour outside of Des Moines, Iowa, on January 8, 1943--"Elvis Presley's birthday, although The King would have been eight years older," Opperman likes to point out--he was an only child for nearly a decade. He honed his social skills among a pool of military families whose mothers took turns baby-sitting on days off from work while their husbands went to college on the G.I. Bill. After Dwight Opperman obtained his law degree and got a job with then-St. Paul-based West Publishing, the family settled into what Vance calls "the classic Ozzie and Harriet scenario of the Eisenhower years," with a basketball hoop above the garage and pot roast on weekends.

Even by the stereotypically blissful standards of the era, Opperman was blessed with an inordinate amount of familial love, support, and attention. He cites his "fabulous" mother as a major influence, and calls her death four years ago "the biggest loss of my life; I still miss her every day." People who know both Vance and his father often remark upon how much Dwight cherishes him. That Vance became a DFL stalwart while Dwight remained a conservative businessman and major Republican contributor made no difference.

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