Borrowed Time

Skip Humphrey has spent years building a politically connected staff in the attorney general's office. Now it's payback time.

DFL gubernatorial candidate Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III hasn't been shy about trumpeting his record as attorney general. Follow Humphrey around for a day and you're likely to hear about the good works his office has undertaken in the battle against violent crime, consumer fraud, and Big Tobacco. Whether an event is designated an official appearance or a rally matters little; Humphrey the AG turns into Humphrey the candidate in a matter of minutes, leading--as he did last week--a students' tobacco workshop one moment, a campaign press conference the next.

Not that there's anything terribly unusual about that. Politicians are almost always running for election, and few could honestly claim their actions in office aren't designed with an eye to the campaign trail. What sets Humphrey apart from his fellow pols is the degree to which not only the candidate, but many of the people around him, switch easily from the state's business to the campaign.

Ever since the Humphrey-for-governor effort began almost four years ago, employees in the AG's office have made up a significant part of his roster of advisers and volunteers, not to mention his financial contributors. Criticism of this close relationship between a taxpayer-paid staff and a political effort was widely circulated during the primary campaign by Humphrey's opponents but never made public, in part because on this issue most politicians sit in glass houses. But as the governor's race pulls into the home stretch, it's clear that more than almost any Minnesota politician before him, Humphrey is benefiting from the backing of a politically savvy staff built over 16 years of service as the state's top attorney.

Alms race: AG staffers are putting their money on Skip Humphrey
Terry Gydesen
Alms race: AG staffers are putting their money on Skip Humphrey

Topping the list of attorney-general employees who work for the Humphrey campaign is Eric Johnson, his executive assistant in the state office and the political director of his campaign. Tom Triplett, the AG office's chief operating officer, is the campaign's budget adviser. In all, campaign press secretary Tammy Lee says, about a dozen of the 535 employees in the AG's office also devote substantial effort to the gubernatorial effort; only one, Eric Johnson, has taken a leave of absence, and he did so only in the last two months. Several other campaign staffers and volunteers are former AG staffers, including Amy Finken, a former assistant attorney general who is now Humphrey's campaign manager.

"Absolutely no one from the attorney general's staff who works on the campaign does so during office hours," asserts Lee. "If they had to come here for a meeting during the day, they would take vacation time. They are very careful and meticulous about their time cards and making certain that there is no overlap or the appearance of overlap. We wouldn't want to blur the line--wouldn't even want to come close to the line."

Cyndy Brucato, spokeswoman for GOP gubernatorial nominee Norm Coleman, acknowledges that it's not uncommon for government employees who've worked with a politician to volunteer for his or her campaign. About half a dozen of the 30-some staffers in the St. Paul mayor's office have volunteered for the Coleman for Governor committee; one, the mayor's scheduler, is a part-time campaign employee. Brucato herself has made the switch from government worker to campaign staffer and back: In 1994 she went from serving as Gov. Arne Carlson's press secretary to doing the same job for his campaign, then returned to the governor's office after Carlson won. "When I went to work for the campaign, I took a leave of absence from the governor's office," she says. "Because it can be really dangerous. It is very, very difficult as a state employee working on a campaign to say, 'Well, I'm not going to put this hour down on my time sheet while I'm doing campaign work.'"

Especially when government work and campaign work happen to overlap--as they do for candidates whose official jobs are easily tailored to fit the needs of a campaign. Two years ago City Pages obtained a 1994 memorandum written by AG staffer Ted Johnson that suggested that Humphrey devote at least 85 days per year--one-third of his official working hours--to statewide travel aimed at promoting his political visibility. "The basis of the election strategy is determining where the votes are, who they are, and what to say to them," the memo read. "This will be the cornerstone for scheduling the Attorney General and targeting our message."

Back then Eric Johnson (no relation to Ted Johnson), speaking from the AG's office on behalf of the campaign, acknowledged that he had solicited the memo. "I encouraged Ted to give us his best ideas and he did so very diligently," Johnson told City Pages. "He did it on his own time, at home on his own computer." As for Humphrey designing his official travel around campaign goals, Johnson said, the plan had never been implemented.

Still, critics have long insisted that for years Humphrey's staff has reflected his political ambitions. Governor Carlson at times went so far as to veto the state appropriation for the office, saying new hires seemed designed to further the AG's career rather than the interests of citizens. One position that has attracted particular ire is that of Humphrey's driver: Most elected officials use a police or State Patrol officer as their chauffeur, but Humphrey has hired three different civilian drivers, all of them DFL activists. (Ted Johnson, the author of the aforementioned memo, was one of them.)

Of course, similar charges have been leveled against Coleman, who during his tenure as mayor has pumped up St. Paul's public-relations efforts, and who after his election in 1993 appointed key operative Erich Mische to serve as communications director and strategic planner in the mayor's office. Critics said the job involved promoting Coleman as much as the city of St. Paul; at one point Mische took a three-week leave of absence to campaign against a living-wage initiative the mayor opposed. Mische left his government job last year but remains an adviser to the Coleman campaign.

Humphrey's employees have not only given to the campaign of their time; they've also given money, especially during a crucial period last year when the public at large wasn't paying much attention to the race, yet resources were needed to court DFL delegates. More than one-third of the people listed in Humphrey's 1997 campaign-finance report as having made in-kind contributions for food and beverages--contributions that typically come from people who host fundraisers--were employed in the attorney general's office at the time.

On August 12 of last year, for instance, Deputy Attorney General Cindy Jesson hosted a fundraiser that brought in $2,000. Twelve days later Curtis Loewe, manager of the AG office's consumer-affairs division, held a shindig that netted $1,400 for his boss's campaign effort. Then there was Cindy Lavorato, an attorney in the AG's office who is married to Brian Rice, a politically connected lawyer at the Minneapolis firm Best & Flanagan. On December 10 Rice staged a fundraiser at which $3,500 in PAC money--plus $250 from Lavorato--was given to Humphrey's campaign. Five days after that, four more AG staffers held yet another fundraiser that brought in more than $2,500 for Skip.

Add in individual contributions from Humphrey employees, and over a four-month period from August to December of 1997, AG staffers contributed or solicited more than $10,000 for his quest for the governor's office. So far this year, according to the campaign's August 30 financial report, 24 members of the AG's staff have contributed a total of $13,120 to his gubernatorial effort. Several--including Lavorato, director of communications Leslie Sandberg, and assistant attorney general Mia King--wrote checks for $2,000, the maximum allowable total.

"It's not at all unusual having [government staffers] asking to contribute," notes Brucato. "I made a contribution to Arne's campaign. But you have to be very clear about setting up the firewall between the campaign and the office. The governor had very strict rules--no one [in his office] was to host a fundraiser. And [Coleman's] fundraisers are never hosted by anybody involved in the mayor's office. Not in a million years."

Fundraising by people working in government offices has been a particularly touchy subject during the past two years, ever since two staffers in the office of Senate Majority Leader (and Humphrey running mate) Roger Moe were indicted by a Ramsey County grand jury for allegedly ordering a co-worker to compile a list of potential campaign contributors. The indictment was thrown out by a judge, much to the relief of Capitol insiders who had argued that some overlap between official and campaign duties is unavoidable for political appointees. "My problem is that I actually consider it part of their job," says Wy Spano, a political consultant and co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "But I know that I'm in the minority on this, and the law we have in Minnesota is clear."

That law says that state employees may not use the public's resources--such as computers, phone lines, and their own working hours--for campaigning. Unlike federal employees, however, they are allowed to work for candidates in their off hours, and to contribute financially. "I would be very surprised if a lot of people working for the attorney general didn't want to help him, because he's apparently a really good boss," says Spano. "But with them all being lawyers and stuff, I'd be very surprised if they broke the law doing it."

Which is about as good an explanation as any of why, in political circles, questions about candidates' use of public employees are greeted with a resounding yawn: As long as the time cards and phone logs are clean, the argument goes, there's nothing to worry about. "I think it's people outside of politics who can't quite understand it," says D.J. Leary, Spano's co-editor and a veteran of many campaigns (including those of Skip's father). "But those that are in it don't see any particular conflicts."

Staff writer Britt Robson and editorial intern Dan Gearino contributed to this story.>

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