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.

Kessler, who has been covering the capitol in one fashion or another for 20 years, also gives Wodele top grades for his adept handling of the media. "This is a guy who is walking a tightrope between Ventura the governor and Ventura the celebrity," says Kessler, who sees no signs of the media bonanza tapering off. "The cult of Jesse is getting bigger. Considering that [Wodele] has to deal with hungry, angry, frustrated reporters and deal with a hungry, angry, frustrated governor, he really balances this out very well." Still, the veteran reporter adds, "I disagree with what I call sometimes 'controlled access'--that we can only ask certain questions on a certain day or that [Wodele] may try to restrict questions to a certain topic. I believe that if the governor's out in public, we should be able to ask whatever we want."

 

"Okay, this is National Scholarship Month." Wodele's in the back of the SUV, prepping the governor as they head for South High.

"Okay."

"You're familiar with Alan Page and his scholarships?" asks Wodele. Page, the ex-Viking star defensive tackle turned state supreme court justice, established the Page Education Foundation, which grants scholarships to minority kids.

"Somewhat."

Wodele coaches Ventura to talk about how Page's program stands as a shining example of public-private partnership. He suggests a phrase: "People like Alan Page are role models for how this is done." The idea is to slip a little subliminal policy talk into a few minutes of remarks, subtly making the point that it's not strictly up to government to fund education.

The event is to be keynoted by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, who now chairs the private, nonprofit America's Promise, a corporate-backed entity that matches public-education dollars for at-risk kids. Notably, Powell's name has often been bandied about as a presidential candidate (a week after their meeting, Ventura will publicly muse that the dream third-party ticket is Powell for president and himself for veep). Again Wodele tells Ventura that the governor should praise the work of these programs. Ventura tosses out a line: "General Powell is helping me out." Wodele nods. "Right."

It's just after 3:30 p.m. when they pull up at the school. The two hurry down corridors peopled only by a battery of security guards and off-duty cops. A camera flashes. A steel door opens, and Ventura is standing behind the curtain, shifting from one foot to the other. Wodele slips out to the platform, and leans against a baby grand piano.

Ventura introduces a scholarship winner, but bungles the last name, saying, "Callahan." When the student steps up to the microphone, she corrects him--it's "Cameron." The governor shrugs sheepishly and gestures at the piece of paper he was reading from as the culprit. Wodele ducks out of the room before Powell even gets to the stage. He checks his watch, flips his phone, flexes his neck, waits it out. Then, from inside, applause. "Sounds like a game-ending clap."

For the next leg of the trip, Wodele climbs into a different vehicle so that Powell and Ventura can talk privately on the way to the Hyatt hotel in downtown Minneapolis for a "Dollars for Scholars" bash. More calls: Wodele learns from Bosacker that Sviggum left the capitol at 4:30 p.m. Read: Hopes for a budget deal are deflated--"nothing before 9:00 p.m." Wodele already knows that the speaker is planning to attend his daughter's track meet in Lakeville at 6:00.

The caravan lands. Ventura, Wodele, Powell, and security cram into a freight elevator and head for the 24th floor. While Wodele's pacing the hall outside the shrimp-and-cocktails shindig, he gets a call from Bosacker. "We have a deal!" he exclaims. In the elevator down, Wodele clutches a General Powell action figure and a little red wagon from America's Promise. "Now," the governor exhales, referring to the budget deal, "I can watch the basketball game in peace."

Back in the SUV, manic dialing: "We're on the way back, and hopefully we can have the governor out of there by 6:45."

"Six-thirty," Ventura declares bluntly.

The truck hits I-94 eastbound at rush hour. Wodele's on the cell phone, scribbling details: "OK, so it's $50 million up front and $100 million a year if..."

An upbeat Ventura starts mouth-drumming, giving voice to the secret music in his head: "Bom bom ba-da, ba-da bom bom bom."

Wodele: "Pam, is there somebody there who can put these thoughts on a piece of paper for the governor?" He turns to Ventura: "It's $1.6 billion in the first biennium and $1.5 billion in the second...we're giving them $50 million for education and an additional $50 million if the forecast is good."

Ventura: "What about rail?"

Wodele: "We get rail. It's in the capital budget. The key here--it's going to be important that you hold their feet to the fire to make sure to maintain structural balance."

At just before 6:20, the governor appears before the media for the third time today. "I'll open up by saying, you know, you bring out Franklin..." The press laughs. Then he turns serious and says, "Structural balance will be of the utmost importance."

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