By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
THERE ARE FEW THINGS LAWMAKERS like talking about less than the lobbyists they work with on a daily basis.
This hesitancy underscores legislators' politically inconvenient but logistically necessary dependence on lobbyists. They write 90 percent of the bills, clue legislators in on what backlash they can expect from voting a certain way, and prep lawmakers on the minutiae they don't have the time to ponder.
Which is probably why a few of our requests for information about the most influential Minnesota lobbyists were met with outright hostility. One Senate staffer angrily declined an interview because it "denigrates the valuable work that lobbyists do."
Lawmakers are more reliant on lobbyists than either party would care to publicly admit. But that isn't to say all lobbyists are bad. Some work for nonprofits. Some are sincerely devoted to providing truthful information on issues they genuinely care about. Some even want to legalize weed.
Because a lobbyist's influence is often directly correlated with his financial backing, however, the biggest players rarely represent the little guy.
To shed light on this shadowy lot, we polled dozens of lawmakers, staffers, and state officials. With few exceptions, the interviewees insisted on speaking anonymously. But they provided a rare look at the unseen power brokers responsible for furthering—or in some cases thwarting—some of the biggest bills in Minnesota.
Name: Gerald Seck
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Key Clients: MN Coalition for Ethanol, Heartland Corn Producers
Minnesota is among the nation's leaders in ethanol production. The more than 1.1 billion gallons per year the state churns out ranks fourth in the country.
Gerald Seck is a big reason why.
In 1995 Seck and some of his colleagues made the rounds at community banks, local municipalities, and farming groups to solicit their involvement in an umbrella organization devoted to pressing for more ethanol production in Minnesota. The result was the Ethanol Coalition, a confederacy of business and farming interests no politician with a self-preservation instinct would dare cross.
The coalition successfully lobbied for two measures that had a profound effect on Minnesota's ethanol industry. The "10 percent mandate," passed in 1997, made Minnesota the first state to require by law a 10 percent ethanol blend at all gas pumps. The coalition also convinced lawmakers to extend a publicly financed consumer credit to ethanol plants, which in turn assured banks that lending to fledgling plants was a more-than-safe investment. As a result, the number of ethanol plants in the state doubled between 1996 and 2008.
Seck wasn't the only player to push for increased ethanol capacity, but he sticks in the memory of many legislators as a driving force.
"He's incredibly persistent," says one Republican representative. "And he's very persuasive. He presents his client's side very effectively."
As of late, however, ethanol's reputation as an eco-friendly alternative fuel source came under increased scrutiny. A University of Minnesota study released last year concluded that the benefits of corn-based ethanol had been greatly exaggerated and that the fuel was no more environmentally friendly than regular gasoline.
Seck and his clients are playing a more defensive game as of late, relying on PR to quell the backlash.
"We work to help ethanol plants establish relationships with local newspapers and radio and TV stations," says Seck. "Another big thing is making sure the ag commissioner and others in the governor's office remain on board."
Mission accomplished: In 2005, Tim Pawlenty signed a bill that will double the ethanol mandate to 20 percent in 2013.
Name: Ted Grindal
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Whether it's because he leads the largest lobbying firm in the state or because he's genuinely a stand-up guy, virtually every lawmaker went out of their way to sing Ted Grindal's praises.
"He's very kind," says a DFL senator. "I've never heard a bad word said about him."
"Grindal always comes to mind when it comes to an attractive lobbyist," says another DFL senator. "He does unnecessary fact-searches. And he always double- and triple-hits legislators."
The go-to guy for anti-tobacco lobbyist group Clearway Minnesota, Grindal was the driving force behind the Freedom to Breathe Act, which banned smoking in bars and restaurants across the state in 2007. Those who have worked with him credit his low-key, approachable demeanor as the reason for his success. He'll give you both sides of the issue and help you figure out for yourself which is right.
"The key is understanding the strengths and weakness of both your clients' and opponents' positions," says Grindal.
Of course it doesn't hurt that his firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen, represents more than 40 of the biggest-name clients in the country, including Microsoft and eBay.
"The guy has a lot of connections," says one senator. "And let's be clear: He has the necessary resources to get out his information."
Which is a diplomatic way of saying that Lockridge Grindal Nauen is very aggressive when it comes to funding campaigns. Grindal himself contributed about $12,000 to candidates in 2008, mostly to Democrats at both the state and national levels.
Therein lies another key to Grindal's effectiveness: his access to federal movers-and-shakers.
"I work with his larger firm in Washington, and the things they work on include getting federal money for public transit," says U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota). "Whenever I come back to the district, he always knows what's going on federally. When you combine the state and federal levels, you have a very effective lobbyist."