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Jerich's friendship with Johnson predates his career as a lobbyist. The two men were acquaintances at UMD during the '60s, and really got to know each other when they went out to Washington to testify against the BWCA 20 years ago. The two men were schooled in politics by the same mentors--former House Speaker Nick Coleman and Perpich--and socialized frequently in St. Paul and up on the Range. Those who know Jerich well maintain that he is a loyal friend with a heart of gold and has proven it with Johnson to the point of becoming somewhat indispensable in Dougie's life. For years, he has served as the senator's chauffeur, enabling his friend to rest his leg while traveling--and securing for himself a choice parking spot right outside the front entrance to the Capitol.
Significantly, Jerich also developed a close relationship with Irene. "When my mother died in 1990, Dougie's mother adopted me. I actually called her Mom," Jerich says. When Johnson worried about his mother being sick and alone when the Legislature was in session, Jerich would drive up to Cook, prepare her meals, and stay by her side. When Irene's health began to flag, Jerich drove her down to the Cities to see his own physician, who determined that she was being overmedicated. As a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Jerich arranged to drive a car out on the runway and put Dougie on a plane home. And when Denesse and Dougie were married, Jerich and his wife Valerie (herself a powerful lobbyist, and now treasurer of Johnson's campaign) went with them on their honeymoon to Deadwood, S.D.
The strong friendship between lobbyist and legislator has always raised some eyebrows at the Capitol, but never more so than when Johnson announced his bid for the governorship. Johnson's repeated assertions that Jerich is reimbursed for every mile he drives him have not discouraged the whispers about conflicts of interest, a charge both men deny. "People say, 'Oh, you're friends with the tax chairman, you must have it good,'" says Jerich. "But you notice that Dougie does what he thinks is right. I've lobbied for tobacco, and yet Dougie has voted for every single tobacco tax increase." (After Johnson announced two months ago that he had asked a tobacco company foundation to donate $5,000 to a hospital in his district, Jerich severed his ties with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which had paid him $21,500 during the first half of this year.)
But what Jerich can't deny is that he has what amounts to a lobbyist's gold mine--immediate and unprecedented access to one of the most powerful men in the state. On a recent Saturday, Jerich and Johnson traded barbs about each other's weight and introduced each other to friends while staffing a campaign booth at the Game Fair hunting trade show in Anoka. At 5 p.m., Jerich backed his Suburban and its accompanying trailer up to the main entrance and loaded up the 4-wheel all-terrain vehicle Johnson uses to get around on the campaign trail. The two then drove to the Bunker Hills golf course, where they were greeted by Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart and taken by golf cart out to a banquet honoring volunteers for the Burnet Senior Classic.
"Doug was very influential in helping us get the sales-tax exemption for charitable sporting events that was crucial to the existence of this tournament," Erhart explains. "We worked hard at the Legislature and talked to a lot of heavy-hitter lobbyists who said it couldn't be done. Then we got a hold of Ronnie here," he says, motioning toward Jerich. "That was on a Friday. By Monday it was a done deal."
"Dougie didn't even know anything about it," Jerich says of the sales-tax exemption. "Once he heard about it"--meaning once Jerich told him--"of course he was receptive; this is a great thing that enables thousands and thousands of dollars to go for cancer research. And it has helped other sports events give money to charity all around the state. I was happy to help out. And I didn't charge anybody one dime for it."
But a favor had been done, and now it was to be repaid. Midway through the dinner, the tournament's director grabbed the microphone, introduced the candidate to more than 1,000 potential voters, and said that without Johnson's exempting hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales-tax payments, their golf tournament could not have become "the number-one charity event in the state of Minnesota."
Asked about his relationship with Jerich, Johnson acknowledges: "That is a deal where I've had to walk that fine line. Every candidate for governor has lobbyists who are their friends; you don't serve for 20 or 30 years and hate everybody. But the difference with Ron and me is that we are such good friends.
"I know that my opponents in this race are murmuring because he is so visible. But, hey, here's the guy that when no one else was taking care of my mother--when she got sick, had serious medical problems, and we were in Duluth, he came up and hauled her down to Mercy Hospital. No one else would have done that. I am very, very careful to make sure there are no conflicts of interest; watching the campaign-finance laws and the gift ban, I am very careful on that. But I won't stop being his friend, or forget what he's done."
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