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 have to read the papers quickly. I've already read the Pioneer Press," John Wodele says, as he scans the front pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's 7:30 a.m., and it's still quiet inside the bone-white walls of the state capitol, which doesn't open for business for another half-hour. On this cold, damp Tuesday morning, May 11, Gov. Jesse Ventura's director of communications is here early, as always, in his ground-level corner office. An intern pops her head in: more coffee?

"The stories today are all about shutdown," Wodele says, gesturing at the headlines. The belly-bumping standoff between House Republicans and Senate DFLers over the state budget dominates the news, and Ventura has been floating hints that he just might be willing to halt government operations if a deal isn't struck fast. All of which prompted Wodele to put in some extra hours the previous weekend on top of his already intense schedule.

As near as he can remember, he worked last Friday until 9:00 p.m., when Ventura appeared on KTCA-TV's Almanac to talk about the budget impasse. There the governor suggested he would revert to literal arm-twisting of the legislative leaders to force a deal. By now, four months into what scholars may someday call the Ventura Era, Wodele says, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum have gotten used to such antics. "What I'm finding is they've been through this so many times, they don't get worried about what they read in the newspaper. They don't get all worked up about his communication style--they're looking for the message in there."

On Saturday Wodele came in early and didn't leave until 10:00 p.m., after drafting a budget statement for Ventura to deliver the next day. On Sunday morning, reporters started paging him at 9:00.

He reviewed what he'd written the night before, deemed it "too provocative," and set about revising. After the 1:00 p.m. press conference, Wodele went home at 2:30, for a very short, very typical weekend.

Wodele's spartan office is directly below the governor's. It is surprisingly uncluttered. A few plants sit in the corners, a copy of the latest issue of the media-industry glossy Brill's Content rests on an end table, uncorrected bound galleys of The Wit and Wisdom of Jesse "The Mind" Ventura (an unauthorized, quickie compendium of quotes) lie atop his desk. A picture of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall.

From this bunkerlike office, the 51-year-old Wodele (pronounced "WOOD-lee") serves as head gatekeeper between the media and the governor. He takes boundless calls from reporters, fields the never-ending media requests for interviews with Ventura, and functions as the governor's official mouthpiece. He suggests language and phrases for Ventura to use in speeches, providing him with "talking points"--a few key particulars to focus on--or quickly bringing the governor up to speed, briefing him, prior to a public appearance. Sometimes Wodele's job is simply to step forward and utter the press-conference-closing "Thank you."

Media relations is now just another part of modern politics, but Wodele's job is clearly different from that of those who've filled his chair before him. Ventura is the celebrity-as-governor and governor-as-celebrity, and the level of media interest in him--locally, across the nation, around the globe--is inarguably greater than it ever was in Ventura's immediate predecessor, the comparatively mild-mannered Republican governor Arne Carlson, or for that matter, any of the 36 other governors in state history.

That fascination is amplified by Ventura's own personal style of relating to the media. Alternately brusque and good-natured, Ventura has a habit of simultaneously belittling the press and giving them an it's-all-in-fun wink-and-a-nudge to let them know he understands the game. Early in his term, he grew irate when a reporter questioned his singing ability. When he picked out a Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicle as his official transport, he cracked about the benefits of its heavy-duty suspension "for running over reporters."

At other times, Ventura has had to hastily backtrack from his almost stream-of-consciousness style of commentary. The rookie governor took a beating after his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, during which he suggested that St. Paul's street design was the bungled work of drunken Irishmen. A few weeks ago he hastily apologized for implying that lives could have been saved inside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had someone besides the gunmen been carrying a concealed weapon. Wodele can suggest talking points, but clearly there are times when Ventura will follow his own whim and instinct. After all, that's a big part of why the guy got elected in the first place, and he's not about to alter his m.o. now.

Wodele scans Ventura's schedule for the day: a morning press conference to promote technology spending, an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program for some budget posturing, and a midafternoon appearance with Gen. Colin Powell at South High School in Minneapolis. His thick, brown hair shows just a few hints of age, but his eyebrows have gone owlishly gray. Even though he holds what is essentially a desk job, Wodele is a man in motion--a flurry of speedwalking and quick, deliberate movement, a figure who seems driven by a perpetual restlessness.

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."

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."

"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."

Wodele and Ventura pile into the fabled red Lincoln Navigator that serves as the governor's official vehicle, for a quick drive to the Minnesota Public Radio studios in downtown St. Paul. Wodele preps Ventura for the likelihood that other media will be there as well. "Last time we were down here, a lot of TVs were there....you just sort of give them, you know, 'Everything's cool,'" instructs Wodele, referring to the budget stalemate. As the truck pulls onto Seventh Street, Ventura notices a WCCO-TV truck camped at the curb. "Oh jeez, they got the live eye in the sky here," he groans. "I'd hate to have their jobs."

Ventura heads into studio 3D with Midday host Gary Eichten; Wodele beelines for the producer's studio, where he grabs a chair in front of a console. Through the glass he can see the backside of the ever-twitching First Head. The sound of Garrison Keillor's sonorous voice, on the "Writer's Almanac" feature, fills the studio. This past spring Keillor raised Ventura's ire with his parody of the governor in his quickie book, Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente.) Wodele's bored and wonders aloud: "Why would you put this on at noontime when people are driving?"

Ventura is here to talk about the budget impasse: "I am going to make the governor's residence available tonight," he tells Eichten, extending an invitation to Moe and Sviggum to drop by to settle their differences. "I'll even lock them in a room with Franklin, my bulldog." Later the governor will suggest that he intends to feed his flatulence-prone pooch a load of flatulence-producing raw hamburger in order to speed negotiations.

As he listens to Ventura talk, Wodele pulls out a white legal pad and starts scribbling: "This stalemate is baffling--because no matter what happens, this budget will provide for the largest tax cut in the history of the state." He intends to slip the note to Ventura, but there's no break in the program.

Near the end of the hour, he ducks into the hall, where two cameras are shooting Ventura through the glass. When the governor emerges, Wodele informs him, "There's a horde of 'em out here. We'll give 'em a couple of questions." Outside the elevators, the governor stops for a chat with the assembled press. Reporter: "Are the rumors that you'll return to wrestling true?" Ventura, gamely: "Never say never."

Back in his office, Wodele confesses that the idea of inviting legislative leadership to the governor's residence wasn't exactly spontaneous. "We strategized as to how to approach the negotiations from here on in." The positioning calls for the governor to be cast in the role of the facilitator--willing to keep his doors open at all hours. If party leaders don't comply, they more clearly become obstructionists to the process.

Wodele settles back and starts munching carrots again. He scans a copy of a letter from Sviggum to Moe that was copied to the governor's office and the media and exclaims, "There it is! There's the answer!" Of the ideas floated in Sviggum's letter, Wodele figures that point No. 6--"Use up the $50 million from the November forecast for K-12 education"--could be the one to loosen the logjam. "It gives him an out," says Wodele of Moe.

More calls: "Hi, Neal, this is John Wodele, returning your call on Howard Stern. I'm not aware that we have a decision on that yet." He hangs up, dials again: "Michelle, do we have a decision on Howard Stern yet?"

The question revolves around whether Ventura will appear on Stern's show to promote his hot-off-the-press autobiography I Ain't Got Time to Bleed. Ventura's publisher, Villard Books (a division of Random House), likes the idea; the governor, Wodele says, "is thinking he doesn't want to," and adds that an appearance might be "a little bit difficult for some of the constituents back home to handle." Can this be the Ventura that Minnesota elected, wary of wrestling with shock jock Stern? Wodele: "His concern is that there's a certain dignity that goes with the office."

At just after 2:00, Hafner announces, "It's Mike Allen, from the New York Times." Allen wants to know if Ventura is helping another wrestler-turned-politico--Bob Backlund, who is running for Congress in Connecticut and is known for his "cross-face chicken wing" move. "I'm not aware that the governor is," Wodele responds. "I've heard the governor say that he's not aware of any laws that prohibit wrestlers from being elected to office." Wodele and Allen shoot the breeze about a recent article in the Pioneer Press that meant to suss out how much promoters might pay to see Ventura step back into "The Body" that made him famous.

Hafner pops in again: WCCO-TV's Pat Kessler is on the line, wondering if it's true that Ventura has been offered money to get back into the ring. Wodele picks up the phone and opens with a joke: "Only if I get ten percent."

The breakneck storm of calls is just another example of how different Wodele's job is from that of his predecessors. Cyndy Brucato, who served as Governor Carlson's deputy chief of staff from 1991 to 1996 and oversaw the office's communications, notes that "celebrities have a different relationship with the media than public officials do, and that's something that Wodele recognizes instinctively. On a given day, I would probably have a dozen media inquiries." Wodele says that at the beginning of the year, his voice mailbox--which maxes out at 50 messages--needed to be emptied four times a day.

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."

Wodele is standing off to the governor's left, arms folded, fighting back yawns. When one reporter asks how Ventura feels about the tax cuts in the package, he repeats, "Again, structural balance will be of utmost importance."

"Does this give you new faith in the bicameral legislative system?" wonders another.

Ventura pauses. He looks irritated. He doesn't answer. Then he starts to grin, and there's a glint in his eye. The steam seems to be lifting. His head twitches. Maybe the briefings are starting to pay off. With Wodele close at hand, the governor deadpans: "Ask me about my singing."

 

Words are Wodele's business. He spends his long days crafting them, delivering them, clarifying them, restating them, and repeating them. His words find their way into the mouth of the governor and onto the front pages the next morning. Some words float by and are gone, and others linger, like the ones that roll endlessly across his office computer screen: "There's a semi coming, but I think we can make it."

These aren't Wodele's words. He picked them up more than 20 years ago, down in Wabasha. As he recounts the story, Wacker Schurhammer and Duke Dugan were old buddies, both in their 70s. Duke had cancer and was going for treatment in Rochester, and Wacker would drive him to his chemo sessions. One morning the old pals started the day at the Kellogg Municipal Liquor Store, a favorite hangout, at 8:00 a.m. They headed out on State Highway 42, coming, as they always did, to the intersection of U.S. Highway 61, where they had to cross four lanes of traffic.

Wacker to his pal: "Duke, how does it look?"

Duke: "Wacker, there's a semi coming, but I think we can make it."

They didn't.

Duke died instantly. Wacker wound up in the hospital. Wodele came by for a visit, where Wacker recounted Duke's last words before they pulled out into traffic.

The words have never left Wodele, who still repeats them to this day, sometimes in response to a reporter's question, sometimes just as a cautionary rule for living the kind of life he's chosen: "I think everyone has been in the position where there's a semi comin'. It's a good reminder to stay on top of your game--there's a lot of semis out there."

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