The 10 most influential lobbyists in Minnesota
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.
Mr. Nice Guy
Name: Ted Grindal
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Key Clients: Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, eBay
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."
Name: John Knapp
Party Affiliation: Republican
Key Clients: American Insurance Association, MN Business Partnership Inc.
John Knapp received unusually high praise from state lawmakers. A soft-spoken, hyper-connected attorney for lobbying powerhouse Winthrop & Weinstine, he's essentially the GOP's answer to Ted Grindal. Much like Grindal, his smarts and calm disposition have made him more friends than enemies during his 32 years lobbying the state Capitol.
"I'm a Democrat, he's a Republican, but I've always thought of him as a thoughtful, hard-working person," says one state senator. "He has very good insights on complex subjects, particularly taxes and intellectual property. He's a real educator."
A fixture within Minnesota Republican business circles for decades, Knapp has connections that played a central role in coaxing the Republican National Convention to St. Paul in 2008.
But his greatest contribution to the GOP comes in the form of cash. Corporations are prohibited from contributing directly to candidates, which is why lobbyists like Knapp have so much money to spread around in the first place.
"Because the contributions have to come from the lobbyists personally, the theory is that a portion of their salary is expected to make its way to candidates," says a high-level Senate staffer.
Based on Knapp's past campaign contributions, he appears to be raking in more than the typical lobbyist. In 2008, for instance, Knapp chipped in $20,250 of his own money to candidates— $5,700 of which went to then-Sen. Norm Coleman's coffers.
"He's one of the big-money ones, no doubt about it," says a senator. "I'd say he's one of the less slimy ones, but he's one of those guys whose clout is due to his resources."
Name: Bill Blazer
Key Client: Minnesota Chamber of Commerce
Some lobbyists derive exceptional influence not by their personality or campaign contributions, but via the powerful clients they serve. Lawmakers point to Bill Blazer, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, as a perfect example.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is the 800-pound gorilla in the Capitol. The Chamber spends twice as much on lobbyists as any other organization in the state; the $1.8 million it doled out in 2008 nearly doubled the next highest spender (Xcel Energy, which spent $936,602). The Chamber pays 16 lobbyists, but it's Blazer whom lawmakers point to as the organization's face.
"He's easy to get along with," says one DFL senator, "but he and the Chamber are probably the most aggressive of the lot."
In 2006, a bill informally dubbed "the Wal-Mart bill" passed a Senate committee and was gaining political traction amid the retail giant's corroding reputation. The legislation would have required any business with more than 10,000 employees to chip in on health care insurance for workers. But Blazer and his colleagues argued that the measure would bleed jobs.
"I asked him, 'Why are you guys fighting this? How can these workers expect to be taken care of?'" says another senator. "Their solution was to effectively pass along health care costs onto taxpayers and small businesses."
The bill was radioactive. With its substantial financial backing, and the clout it wields come election time, the Chamber of Commerce can change elections.
"Candidates are afraid of the Chamber," says the same senator. "A lot of times, lawmakers are on the fence on a lot of bills. When they are, they'll often take their cues from the Chamber."
Like any good lobbyist, Blazer is quick to deflect credit.
"I'm responsible for the lobbying we do at the Capitol, but the day-to-day responsibilities fall on Tom Hesse, our vice president of government," Blazer says. "To the extent that the Chamber is successful, it's due largely to Tom."
Name: Kevin Goodno
Party Affiliation: Republican
Key Clients: Medtronic, American Heart Association, Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota
During his time as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the former state representative garnered a reputation as a curmudgeon seemingly opposed to any and all financing of public health. Considering his boss, the stance was all but a prerequisite. Gov. Tim Pawlenty had budgets to slash and taxes to cut. Perched ominously before health and finance committees, the looming Goodno time and again announced cuts to hospitals and nursing homes—and in doing so, adopted a demeanor and tone one might expect from a man tasked with axing your grandma's dental insurance.
"It's hard to forget the brass knuckles he carried around as commissioner," says a member of the Health and Human Services Budget Division. "I liked him as a guy, but his take on health care expenditures was uncompromising."
Since registering as a lobbyist with Freidrickson & Byron in 2006, Goodno has done a complete 180, much to the astonishment of his former adversaries. He's aggressively pushed for more health care spending, representing organizations like the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota (he's the group's president), the American Heart Association, and Meals on Wheels.
The freshest ink on his résumé would have seemed unfathomable earlier in the decade.
"I remember him as being very rude, very disrespectful," says a DFL senator. "Looking back, I think he was uncomfortable delivering the governor's message. He was taking on issues that weren't true to his values."
Goodno won't elaborate on what, if any, misgivings he harbored while manning his old post, but acknowledges the transformation.
"I'm definitely wearing a different hat now," he says, leaving it at that.
The Black Widow
Name: Maryann Campo
Party Affiliation: Republican
Key Clients: Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minnesota Tavern League
During her 19 years as a contract lobbyist, Campo has garnered the distinction of being the most relentless and direct advocate prowling the Capitol corridors. Whether they love her or loathe her, lawmakers agree there's something about Maryann.
"She tends to rub a lot of us the wrong way," says a DFL senator. "You're walking down the hall and bam! she's in your face with some random story. That can be annoying."
The go-to lobbyist for bar proprietors the state over, Campo fought against the statewide smoking ban, aggressively seeking exemptions for membership bars. Last year she peddled a bill that would have legalized slot machines in Minnesota bars (to no avail). Campo's proudest moment came in 2004 when she crusaded against a proposed .08 percent blood-alcohol level limit for driving a vehicle—a threshold she and her clients maintained was too low.
"Because of my efforts, Minnesota was the last state in the country to enact the .08 rule even though we were expected to be among the first," she says proudly. "If you want to know why I have a reputation for being a warrior, it's because my clients and I fight for things that are politically unpopular."
Her idiosyncratic style, coupled with a merciless streak, compels at least one senator to refer to her as the "the black widow."
"She's very patient, but not very forgiving," he says. "She's one person that you don't want to cross. Some of the organizations behind her have a couple hundred thousand people, and if you can get a couple of dollars from each one, wow, you're cooking with fire then."
Campo makes no apologies for her combative demeanor.
"My style is East Coast," she says. "I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I know not everyone appreciates my approach, but that's who I am."
The Unholy Relic
Name: Ron Jerich
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Key Clients: Xcel Energy, Qwest
Ron Jerich is a jocular character, exceedingly charismatic and quick with a joke. But beneath the grandfatherly veneer, according to those who've dealt with him, is a hustler with savoir-faire, money, and connections to burn. In that sense, Jerich is a throwback to a different era. He personifies the influence-peddling backdoor dealer who roamed Capitol halls before a 1993 gift ban put a damper on their activities.
"To this day, though, he certainly plays on his friendships and connections more than anyone I can think of," says a Democratic senator.
The quintessential contract lobbyist—"hired guns," they're often called—Jerich leaves few clues as to his personal sympathies. The one trait his clients all have in common is deep pockets: Xcel Energy, MN Ethanol Producers Association, Qwest, and Delta Airlines top the list.
Jerich's far-reaching clout is best illustrated by a 2002 scandal that he helped resolve. At the time, American Bankers Insurance Group was facing a $10 million fine for selling unlicensed insurance policies to about 200,000 Minnesotans. Looking to avoid what was then the state's largest-ever civilian penalty, American Bankers sought to implement a "political strategy," according to sworn testimony. Jerich recommended they get friendly with ranking officials, a political strategy that entailed getting rid of James Bernstein, commerce commissioner under then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. To that end, American Bankers cut a $10,000 check to the Tim Pawlenty for Governor campaign, which was illegal.
"It speaks to Jerich's reputation as a money man, a guy who'd take you over to the Blue Horse and pay for your martini and lunch," says a state investigator familiar with the case. "But since you can't do that anymore, Ron likes to pass the money around through committees and to his friends."
Jerich didn't return messages requesting an interview and was never accused of any legal wrongdoing associated with the case. Officers at American Bankers agreed to settle for $2 million.
"Pawlenty gave them a sweetheart settlement," says the investigator, "It was much, much less than anybody thought."
of Parks and Rec
Name: Brian Rice
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Key Client: Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board
Brian Rice is a wealthy man. A lobbyist for pension groups, Rice has long advocated more generous retirement funds for firemen, cops, and teachers, but it's his work for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board that ensures the vitality of his finances long after his own retirement.
The salary he commands representing the board has long been a source of intrigue for those who follow city politics. Last year Rice's firm raked in $433,830 from the board; in 2008 it pulled in $608,507. The unusually high salary has led some critics to wonder if there's a competitive bidding process in place. Whatever the case, the board sees a healthy return on its investment—it receives between $6 and $10 million annually in state funding.
"I can't sit around here and say it's all me," says Rice, who's lobbied on behalf of the park board since 1985. "It's really the tradition that goes back to the 1800s. Minneapolis has the best parks system in the country, and I'm proud to represent it."
Rice drew some criticism in 2009 when he chipped in $20,000 to a very self-serving campaign. The Citizens for Independent Parks authored a proposal that would have granted the board greater independence. The measure would have allowed the Park Board to effectively bypass City Hall and appeal directly to the state for funds. Given Rice's established connections in the state Capitol, some in the city's political scene saw it as a naked power grab.
"He's already the park board's Rasputin," says a state official. "Whatever he says goes. The park board keeps complaining about how much they don't have, and yet they're paying more than a half-million-dollar salary to Rice. You can get a pretty good lawyer for a third the price of Brian Rice."
The Weed Killer
Name: James Backstrom
Key Clients: Minnesota Police & Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs Association
Law enforcement doesn't make the laws, the maxim goes—they just enforce them. Things aren't so simple in practice.
Although technically not a lobbyist (he's not registered as such), Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom frequently advocates on behalf of law enforcement, and has made his voice loud and clear inside the corridors of power.
"There's a joke that says whenever Jim Backstrom loses a case, we have to make a new law," quips one senator.
Or sometimes thwart one. When both chambers overwhelmingly passed a bill legalizing the regulated use of medical marijuana, law enforcement fought back. Despite the wishes of both parties and 60 percent of polled Minnesotans, Backstrom turned the tide by penning an editorial on behalf of the Minnesota Police & Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, and the Minnesota Sheriffs Association. The op-ed ran in newspapers across the state in May 2009 and argued that legalized medical marijuana would lead to pot use by children, that weed is medically unsafe, and that medical organizations were against the measure.
Immediately after the piece went to print, bloggers and news sites pointed out the glaring fallacies inherent in each claim. Nevertheless, Backstrom and Co. had an easy mark in Governor Pawlenty, whose presidential ambitions made him less beholden to Minnesotans than to national polls of likely conservative voters. T-Paw vetoed the bill, citing the "feedback" he received from law enforcement.
Name: Dick Day
Party Affiliation: Republican
Key Clients: Gambling and horse racing industries
Calling Dick Day "influential" might be a bit of stretch, considering he entered the lobbying business just six weeks ago, but the former Senate minority leader nonetheless makes the cut for exemplifying the notorious "revolving-door" relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.
During his six terms in the Senate, Day's pet issue was a bill that would allow Canterbury Park racetrack and casino to include slot machines. So when Day announced on December 7 that he'd soon be leaving his post to head a recently formed lobbying outfit called Racino Now—devoted to approving in slot machines in Canterbury—it turned some heads.
"I don't mind that as an elected senator, he thinks it's in the public interest to have slot machines," says a former colleague. "But to announce the same day that you're going to be making money advocating the same thing...I mean that's absolutely outrageous!"
Day gambled that he could be more effective working from the outside. He immediately took advantage by hitching his issue to the ongoing Vikings stadium controversy. The increase in revenue would solve the problem, he told reporters and officials, claiming the slots would rake in $125 million annually.
"I think the move was kind of nuts on his part," says a state senator. "He couldn't get much traction on the issue as a lawmaker, so why does he think he'll do any better as a lobbyist?"
Concerning his personal finances, however, it was a safe bet, the senator says. "I'm sure the money's better."
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