The Man Behind the Mind

Budget brawls and bulldog farts. Shock jocks and Satan's Cheerleaders. Jesse Ventura stars in the season's political blockbuster, but First Flack John Wodele directs the show.

On his way to the daily 8:00 a.m. senior staff meeting, Wodele ducks into the office of his communications staff to ask, "Say, what happened to the BBC thing?" A documentary crew that had been scheduled to shadow the governor has canceled at the last minute. "So he's not news anymore in England?" Wodele muses. At that, he buzzes down the narrow corridor and scurries upstairs into the office of Steven Bosacker, Ventura's chief of staff. Bosacker, a former staffer for U.S. representative Tim Penny and recent executive director of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, became Ventura's first permanent appointment, in mid-December.

"I was here last night until 8:00 and the governor had not talked to the media. Where did they get those?" wonders Wodele, more curious than pissed about budget-related comments from Ventura that cropped up in a Star Tribune story this morning. Bosacker shakes his head: "I have no idea."

There's talk of the fishing opener for the coming weekend, a time-honored gubernatorial media event--details to be announced. Director of Operations Paula Brown floats another subject: "We need to figure out how we want to handle requests for the governor's signature on action figures." She explains that about a dozen of the dolls, just released under the aegis of the nonprofit Ventura for Minnesota Inc., have been mailed into or dropped off at the office. Wodele and Bosacker discuss handing the job off to Ventura's campaign staff. "Maybe we should get a public message out," says Wodele, to stop folks from bothering about autographs.

"They should not ship them here," says Bosacker, who spins his chair to grab a phone and pull it to his desk. He calls the governor's D.C. office and asks two staffers to get on the speakerphone. The first order of business is an upcoming June trip to D.C. by Ventura: What media requests have been made? "Tim Russert"--Meet the Press moderator and host of CNBC's The Tim Russert Show--"wants him again. Hardball...same old same old: They all want him," says Wodele, as he grabs another cup of coffee.

Bill Ranger in D.C. says he's been picking up something about an invitation for Ventura to "talk to the troops." Bosacker's eyes widen: "When you say, 'Talk to the troops'--where?" Bill explains that the suggestion was first floated in the media only informally; Bosacker and Wodele tell him to track it down. Wodele enthuses, "I would say that it sounds like something the governor would love to do. It would be good for his morale--if we could put a SEAL hat on him or something."

The meeting breaks up just before 9:00 a.m. Wodele speedwalks back downstairs and checks his watch. His administrative assistant Janet Hafner brings in a few messages, including a request from the Chicago Tribune to tail the governor on Wednesday and Thursday. Wodele winces. Another message: "Pioneer Press--they want to know about the fee increases," a reference to plans being kicked around to raise additional money for the cash-strapped Department of Natural Resources. Wodele immediately dials the number, gets voice mail. Tries another number: "Chris, this is John Wodele." After a bit of small talk, Wodele says, "He supports the fee increase and is willing to go with a match...let me check...is that what they're telling you?...So, what fundamentally is your question?" Another inquiry and Wodele sours: "If the Legislature is driven by a column by--what's-his-first-name?--Dennis Anderson [Star Tribune outdoor-sports writer], they've got a problem!"

Wodele checks his watch and abruptly announces, "Chris, I gotta go. Do you need anything else? I can call you from the car." He pulls on his gray sportcoat and speedwalks out of his office, down into the bowels of the capitol and the tunnels below. Mid-trek he takes a hard right into the men's room.

As he pauses at a urinal, the First Flack offers, "The governor doesn't have time to bleed. I don't have time to pee."

 

A week later Wodele is winding down at the New French Bar in Minneapolis, clad in a white polo shirt, nursing an Amstel Light, catching his breath. The hours so far have been grueling, he says, but there should be some daylight soon--time for bicycling, time for gardening and growing raspberries on his 27-acre spread near Wabasha. "I think it is very important to Governor Ventura's success that I work very hard now," he stresses. "Loyalty is very important to me."

Wodele has always possessed a hard-driving, even workaholic, sense of ambition. In 1973, at the age of 25, he was elected mayor of his hometown of Wabasha (he served three two-year terms) while governor-to-be Ventura was serving the navy in the Philippines, still sowing his wild oats without a thought of electoral politics.

Tom Foley figures that he and Wodele have known each other "for about 47 years," dating back to their childhood in Wabasha. One year Wodele was student council president when Foley served as class president; Wodele was a quarterback on the high school football team, and Foley caught his passes playing end. "John's a pretty intense individual. He's not afraid to be very outspoken about what he believes," Foley says. "I found him to be someone very loyal, very honest, and a person of unquestionable integrity."

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