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.

"I had worked in Ramsey County for 14 years," Wodele continues, pounding his fists on the table for emphasis. "It wasn't like Susan Gaertner plucked me out of someplace else and brought me in and paid me this salary because she liked me. Tom Foley hired me--and he was my best friend! Nobody wrote any stories then." Wodele's leaning across the table now, the anger rising. Still, he acknowledges, "It wasn't the best situation in the world."

A few days after Gaertner was reelected county attorney and Ventura was elected governor, Wodele climbed into his pickup truck and hit the road. He figured maybe he'd be back home by Christmas. As he puts it, "I just went on one of those in-search-of-America trips. I headed west." He visited his son in Austin, Texas, and danced to the psychobilly band the Flametrick Subs with their backup dancers Satan's Cheerleaders at the Black Cat Lounge. Nobody there cared who he was dating, or why he didn't have a job.

Wodele had drifted to Atlanta when he got The Call on his cell phone. Before he had split town, he'd noticed a newspaper account reporting that Ventura had contacted former U.S. representative Tim Penny, a moderate DFLer, for an assist with the transition. The unemployed Wodele called ex-Penny staffer Steve Bosacker--who'd not yet been named chief of staff--and said, "If there's anything I can do to help, call me." There was. Bosacker did.

 

"Ragsdale called and he's a little upset," Hafner tells Wodele as he arrives back at the office from a morning press conference. At issue are quotes from the governor that appeared in a story in the Star Tribune; the Pioneer Press--for whom Jim Ragsdale works--didn't run any. Wodele calls back to explain via voice message that the Star Tribune writer got the quotes simply by catching the governor on the way to his car the night before: "All's fair in love and reporting."

At 10:15 a.m. Wodele convenes a meeting of his media relations staff, which includes David Ruth, Ventura's former producer back in the private sector for his KFAN (1130 AM) and KSTP (1500 AM) radio shows. The half-dozen staffers serve as liaisons to various state agencies and departments and as handlers for smaller media requests. On the dry-erase board is written: "Governor's Fishing Opener, Saturday May 15th." Someone has sketched a hook labeled "Jesse's Line" and drawn several fish with the names or initials of various local reporters scrawled on them.

Wodele, perched atop a large TV that rests on the floor among stacks of newspapers, addresses the gathering. The tension of the day's balance revolves around whether there will be agreement on the budget before nightfall. Down-to-the-wire deals and political posturing are typical of legislative sessions, but Ventura and staff are trying to avert the special sessions that became so common under Governor Carlson. The holdup, it seems, is a debate over additional funding for K-12 education, with Moe seeking $100 million more than the House has approved.

"Stay in touch with me if anything happens," Wodele tells them. "If there's a major agreement, maybe we bring the governor back here." He glances down at the cell phone on his belt and remarks, "The vibrating thing--sometimes I don't even feel it."

But there's other pressing business: "I want to talk a little bit about the fishing deal: Janet, Sam, and David are going to be there. I want all three of you to make sure that you're talking to me. Have your cell phones with you at all times."

Ruth: "Signal around the lake isn't real good; around the cabin it's not bad. We'll have the walkie-talkies."

Wodele: Right. He warns against settling into the mindset that the fishing opener is simply a fun event where nothing can go wrong. In politics, and particularly politics Ventura-style, nearly every gubernatorial utterance carries the potential to spark media flurry. "[Star Tribune political reporter] Dane Smith, I know for sure, is going fishing," Wodele cautions, "so you will have hard-core capitol press corps there, not just sportswriters." Point being that if more serious political stories surface while the First Fisherman pursues walleye, there will be news reporters on hand to give chase.

The underlying message: Be on your toes at all times; be aware of how every move, every comment, might play. "Try to think ahead if you can," Wodele says, as the meeting breaks up, "because he might not think of what might help him."

 

"Do we have any plastic forks?" Wodele calls out to Hafner. He's reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a plastic baggie filled with peeled, cut baby carrots and an orange. He spreads some paper towels across his desk and pops the top off a can of white chicken. Lunch.

As he eats, Wodele's got one ear to the phone, with a reporter on the other end. Suddenly he emits an alarmlike bleat. "Excuse me, one sec," Wodele says. "I don't know where I'm beeping."

When he clicks his cell phone on, a loud, clear voice announces, "John, the governor's ready to leave." Wodele exhales. "I'll be right there."

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