By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
For a time Wodele and his brother ran a local business involved in garbage collecting, landscaping, and school busing. In 1982 he ran for an open seat in the state Legislature--his second legislative bid--but lost in the primary. Wodele, who'd grown up Catholic in a small town, was pro-choice, and abortion became the race's defining issue. "My parents came out of church on a Sunday morning, and my picture was on everybody's windshield--with a fetus," he recalls.
He moved with his wife and three kids to Minneapolis in 1983 and landed a job lobbying for MedCenters Health Plan, one of the state's first HMOs. He also worked for the Minnesota Twins in the early stages of Carl Pohlad's ownership, peddling season ticket packages to corporations. Meanwhile, Wodele's close childhood friend Foley, by then Ramsey County attorney, was finding that increased coverage of crime meant he needed someone to handle media relations, a job the office hadn't previously had. Foley had taken to calling Wodele often for counsel and wound up offering him a position that combined media relations and lobbying.
As it turned out, Foley would need more media help than he realized; in 1988 he was nailed for drunk driving. "I remember getting the call," Wodele says. "It was late at night. Dan Oberdorfer was a reporter at the Star Tribune and got a tip." Wodele groggily told Oberdorfer he had no idea if the scuttlebutt was true, but he'd check. By the next morning, Foley had confirmed the story. "I said, 'Tom, you just need to be honest about this,'" says Wodele haltingly, his eyes tearing up at the recollection. "We said, 'If we just deal with this upfront and don't do the coverup, we can beat this'"--a strategy, he adds, that gained Foley a fair amount of respect with his constituents and the media. Foley easily won reelection: He ran unopposed. "It is so interesting," Wodele concludes, "how forgiving people are if you're honest."
In the mid-Eighties centrist DFLers began to join forces with the Democratic Leadership Council, a national collective of moderate Democrats that included the little-known governor of a small Southern state, Bill Clinton. Together Wodele and Foley set up the Minnesota chapter of the DLC. By 1991 Clinton was toying with the idea of a run for president, and Wodele was tapped to run the Minnesota operation of the campaign, when few others considered Clinton to be a serious contender. This past March Wodele traveled with Ventura to Washington, D.C., where the governor and First Lady Terry Ventura had dinner at the White House. When the president approached Ventura, his first question was "How's John Wodele doing?"
In 1993 Wodele made another bid for office, running, along with 17 others, for Minneapolis mayor. But Wodele got into the race late, didn't have much money, and faced tough competition from Sharon Sayles Belton and others. Wodele, who had typically identified himself as a DFLer, did secure endorsement from the Independence Party. He also got an assist from a guy named Dean Barkley, whom he'd met the year before, when Wodele was working for Clinton and Barkley was Ross Perot's local mouthpiece. (Barkley, of course, mounted several congressional bids, and he finally won major-party status for the Reform Party in Minnesota. He also encouraged Ventura to run for governor and served as chairman of the campaign.) In the crowded primary field, Wodele came in sixth, with 3,400 votes, drawing 6.7 percent of the ballots cast. This would be his last bid for office.
Wodele's old buddy Foley had his own political aspirations. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1994 against DFL-endorsed Ann Wynia. Foley lost, and gave up his Ramsey County office in the process; Susan Gaertner was elected to fill it in November 1994. Shortly thereafter Gaertner appointed nonlawyer Wodele as chief of staff and later made him chief of the child-support enforcement division.
Somewhere along the line, the two began dating. That caused some discomfort among several office staffers, who began tipping off local newspapers. The story that ultimately hit the newsstands, in the August 30, 1998, edition of the Pioneer Press, hit hard: "Gaertner, Assistant Confirm Relationship." Reporter Chuck Laszewski's article questioned whether the couple's romantic involvement violated the county's code of ethics, and he pointed to an increased level of turnover in the office, particularly in the child-support division. Furthermore, a dozen current and former employees--only one of whom spoke for the record--claimed Wodele had a penchant for yelling at office workers. ("I was very demanding," Wodele allows now. "I don't think I'm a badass. I think I'm a pretty nice guy to work for, if you want to do things right.") Sources also claimed that the relationship between Gaertner and Wodele--both divorced--made it difficult to raise concerns about Wodele's management style. Wodele announced his resignation within two weeks, aiming to defuse the issue in Gaertner's upcoming reelection campaign.
"I fundamentally felt that I was treated very unfairly by the Pioneer Press," stresses Wodele, who says a reporter showed up at his ex-wife's door one evening to ask if Wodele had been involved with Gaertner while the two were married. Today, the bane of Wodele's existence, Laszewski, says simply, "I stand by what we wrote."