Is Skip Running for Governor on State Time?
According to documents recently obtained by City Pages, a state employee working in Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III's office recommended that Humphrey spend more than a third of his working time traveling around the state this year to improve his chances of being elected governor in 1998. The documents, which consist of two detailed strategic plans for a statewide Humphrey campaign, go on to suggest the formation of a "working group" made up of at least five current and two former staff members of the AG's office to develop dozens of political contacts that would help Humphrey secure more delegates to the 1998 DFL convention.
A spokesman for Humphrey's office acknowledges that the documents were written by Ted Johnson, who recently returned to the Attorney General's office after a two-month unpaid leave of absence to work on President Clinton's campaign in Minnesota. But the spokesman denies that the plans were ever implemented, or that Humphrey has even seen them.
The documents come to light at a time when perpetual candidacies and nonstop campaigns are making it harder for citizens to distinguish between public representation and crass politicking on the part of their elected officials. Less than six months ago, Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and his chief aide were indicted by a grand jury based in large part on allegations by Moe's longtime secretary that she spent many of her days working almost exclusively on campaign activities--including fund-raising--while using state-owned equipment at taxpayers' expense. While disagreeing on the amount of time spent by the secretary on political duties, Moe and his attorney successfully argued that it was "a practice that's widely engaged in by Democrats and Republicans alike and has been for years." Because the secretary was an "unclassified," non-civil service employee, Ramsey County District Judge Donald Gross ruled that no laws were broken and dismissed the charges.
For the most part, it appears that politicians have returned to business as usual. "In Minnesota, I would have guessed that the whole Moe ordeal would have had an impact, but it certainly didn't seem to change the way campaigns were run either at the federal or the state level in 1996," says Pat Forciea, who ran the Wellstone Senate campaign in 1990 and has since formed the Missabe Group, a marketing and consulting firm.
According to a spokesman for the Attorney General, the first of Ted Johnson's two strategic plans for the Humphrey campaign was written approximately 18 months ago. It focuses on establishing a statewide network of approximately 30 contacts to help Humphrey capture convention delegates and sympathetic constituency groups. Johnson suggests that this "political team" of 30 be assembled by a "working group" of hard-core supporters, and names seven current or former staffers from the Attorney General's office as possibilities. Among the bullet points under the heading of "Action and Recommendations," Johnson writes, "Strengthen our relationship with this "political team" by regular contact with our office and the Attorney General. This will include phone calls and personal meetings...." Another bullet point recommends that Humphrey "add this team to our press fax list so they will be 'in the know.'" To date, no official Humphrey campaign--and thus no separate campaign office or press fax list--has been established.
The second strategic plan, developed specifically for Humphrey himself, was written about a year ago and concentrates on campaign travel. Under the heading of "Greater Minnesota Travel Goals," Johnson recommends dedicating "a minimum of five working days a month" to outstate travel, adding that "scheduling should incorporate this travel in 2 to 3 day road trips and state-wide fly arounds. This will add up to 85 out of 248 working days in 1996 (more than one third of your working time)." Another 50 visits concentrating on metro-suburban areas are recommended later in the plan.
Reached by phone to confirm that he had actually written the documents, Johnson said, "I do so many of these things that I don't know which one you are referring to. Could you fax me what you have?" He said he would speak with City Pages after he'd had a chance to review the faxes.
But five hours later the person who contacted us was Eric Johnson (no relation), the Attorney General's executive assistant and primary troubleshooter. "I encouraged Ted to give us his best ideas and he did so very diligently, producing two documents for an outside campaign group," Eric Johnson said. "He did it on his own time, at home on his own computer." But thus far, Johnson claims, all Ted Johnson's work has essentially gone for naught. "By no means has it been systematically followed," he said; on the contrary, it "has sat on the shelf." And even though one of the plans is specifically addressed to Humphrey, Johnson denied our request to speak with the Attorney General on the matter, saying only that "Skip has not seen these."
Why did Johnson solicit (and then shelve) the "best ideas" of a staffer in the AG's office 18 months ago, when the official formation of a campaign group was more than two years away and the election itself was almost four years down the line? "Ted was one of the young activists trying to make the case that the Attorney General should run for governor," Johnson said, further claiming that Ted Johnson was just one of a number of activists whose input he encouraged while declining to specify who any of those other activists might have been. "We have a large group of political activists within the office and a large group outside the office," he said in the course of confirming that all the people recommended by Ted Johnson for the inner-campaign circle were either current or former staffers.
One way to gauge whether Ted Johnson's campaign ideas were heeded or ignored would be through Humphrey's travel logs--will the AG spend 85 days in outstate Minnesota this year? Eric Johnson replied that it would be impossible to provide a detailed breakdown of Humphrey's '96 travel schedule before our deadline. He did say that Humprey took 176 vacation hours to help campaign for Bill Clinton, and he has been in numerous outstate cities on behalf of his anti-crime, anti-tobacco efforts. But his comments about Humphrey's frequent flyer habits sounded like full spin mode: "Skip is probably the most publicly traveled public official in terms of reaching out. He genuinely loves to meet and talk with people. Eighty-five days might sound like a lot, but he naturally does a lot. He's probably done 20 days just speaking on criminal justice.
"Ted's point that we should strive for more geographical balance in our travel is a good one. I don't see anything wrong with his argument that we should track our travel more specifically; we just haven't gotten around to implementing it. Our system is a little less sophisticated--we have a map with pins stuck in it. I told him it made sense as long as you're not mixing legitimate business trips with political trips [involving meetings] with delegates, because if that is done at all it needs to be done by a campaign committee," Johnson stressed.
In the same sense, he noted that Ted Johnson's proposal to coordinate the "political team" through a "press fax list" was "something we talked about getting up and running, but we didn't hire a campaign staff so it simply wasn't followed up on."
In many respects, a campaign's use of state-owned equipment such as faxes and airplanes is easier to document than time put in by staffers and public officials, particularly since most employees work more than 40 hour per week and can reasonably claim to be on "comp time" or otherwise off the clock while unofficially working on a campaign. Thus, unless the employee is disgruntled, as was the case with Moe's secretary, it is very difficult to prove a campaign has stolen staff time from the taxpayers. (Although criminal charges against Moe were dropped, he was cited by the Minnesota Ethical Practices Board, who ruled last June that there was "probable cause" to believe he violated campaign law by not reporting a minimum of $100 in in-kind contribution from his office staff and equipment.)
Some political observers believe that the electorate, not the courts or the legislatures, must be the ones to apply checks to campaign activities. "The ones best able to judge the behavior of an elected official are his constituents," says John Wodele, who has managed campaigns and run for public office. He helped prosecute Moe as a member of the Ramsey County Attorney's office. In other words, if the citizens of St. Paul object to Mayor Norm Coleman gallivanting around the state and believe he is neglecting their interests at home, they will vote him out of office. The same, in theory, would be true of Moe and Humphrey. But that assumes that practices such as the use of one's present office to mount a future campaign are brought to light for the public to judge. And in a system where the permanent campaign is increasingly the norm, whistle-blowers may be few and far between.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.