When the Republican National Convention comes to St. Paul in September and the city's otherwise sleepy streets are pulsing with journalists, delegates, motorcades, and protestors, a few well-known local Republicans will no doubt figure prominently in the national spotlight. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Norm Coleman, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and maybe even state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert will find themselves Blitzer-ed, O'Reilly-ed, and perhaps Colbert-ed.
Yet a handful of Minnesota's most powerful Republicans will be invisible to national audiences. These high-powered Republican players prefer to work in the shadows. They wield their power in many different ways. Some are strategists, others are organizers, financiers, fundraisers, or facilitators. They've shaped the conservative landscape in the state. A few have had a national impact.
And chances are most Minnesotans have never heard of them.
For Minnesota Republicans, there is a hard-earned glory to hosting the convention. At the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia, the Minnesota delegation was seated on the convention floor next to Guam. Delegates were assigned to a hotel an hour and a half away.
In 2008 those delegates will be sleeping in their own beds. "The message that Minnesota matters in national GOP circles is huge," says Sarah Janecek, a prominent Republican who publishes the Politics in Minnesota newsletter.
It's been a long haul for the state's Republicans. "The national conservative revolution of the '90s didn't reach as deeply into Minnesota politics," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. Actually, it was just late. Around 1997, a handful of party stalwarts started to turn things around.
Republicans won the House majority in 1998. Party membership increased, and the checks were practically cashing themselves. Things were looking up, until they weren't. November 2006 turned out to be a slaughter.
"Politics is cyclical," says state Republican Secretary-Treasurer Tony Sutton. "We're trying to feel our way through the losses of '06."
Vin Weber, a former U.S. congressman and an omnipresent force in Republican politics, has seen the sidelines before. "When the conservatives were not the dominant wing of the party they were much more open to young people and outsiders. They were the outsiders."
Many Republicans hope that hosting the party's national convention will signal a resurgence of Republican power in Minnesota. If so, the current will surely pass through the people on these pages—the shadow figures of the state's conservative power base.
The 10 most powerful Minnesota Republicans:
- Jeff Larson, The Quiet Giant
- Mike Wigley, The Taxman
- Robert Cummins, The Sugar Daddy
- Jack Meeks, The Lifer
- Annette Meeks, The True Believer
- Mitchell Pearlstein, The Intellectual
- William Cooper, The Crusader
- Chris Georgacas, The Whiz Kid
- Evie Axdahl, The Stalwart
- Marsie Leier, The Pioneer
THE QUIET GIANT
Founder, Feather, Larson & Synhorst
CEO, Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee
Jeff Larson is "perhaps the most powerful GOP operative nationwide," says Sarah Janecek. "And he earned it." Many say that he was also the single most important person in bringing the Republican National Convention to St. Paul.
Larson is a powerhouse political consultant, specializing in highly sophisticated and doggedly thorough campaign techniques: telemarketing, email blasts, strategic maps and manuals for campaign foot soldiers, and a host of other obscure and powerful services.
His company, Feather, Larson & Synhorst (FLS), which he founded with two other campaign heavyweights, was paid $18 million for its work on George W. Bush's national re-election campaign. The company's website boasts that Larson has "worked on behalf of 35 state parties, dozens of gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and U.S. congressional candidates, along with national organizations including the Republican National Committee."
For a time, there was a blurb on the FLS website from none other than über-strategist Karl Rove, a friend and colleague of Larson's. "I know these guys well. They become partners with the campaigns they work with. From designing the program to drafting scripts; from selecting targets to making the calls in a professional, successful way, they work as hard to win your races as you do."
Larson has worked himself into the highest echelons of Republican politics from the dregs of the political hierarchy. His first job in politics was as a driver for Bud Westman, a man vying for a North Dakota Senate seat. Within weeks Larson was Westman's deputy campaign manager. Westman lost and Larson moved on. In 1984 he was working the re-election campaign for the state's governor. After another loss, he made an incongruous leap to executive director of the Delaware Republican Party. Incongruous leaps became Larson's thing. Next he was a Republican National Committee field agent under Lee Atwater. Can you smell a Rolodex cooking?
His RNC fieldwork gig covered 13 states, including Minnesota. He worked the RNC job, with an added position in the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, until Bill Clinton's election slammed the door on his party ambition in 1992.
If Larson was demoralized, he was not immobilized. He stepped into an underworld of political campaigning that would be his gateway to unfathomable political influence. That underworld was a place where a few bright and tireless entrepreneurs began experimenting with the possibilities of using emerging technologies to supercharge old-fashioned, pavement-pounding campaigning.
He started with a company called Strategic Communications, and in 1999 he helped launch Feather, Larson, and Synhorst.
Larson lives across the river in Hudson, Wisconsin, now, but he still has a base of operations in Minnesota, and he's CEO of the Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee, which is tasked with laying the groundwork for the RNC.
You won't find him flaunting his success in front of cameras or crowds. He's a man who has little interest in being a public persona. He's "one of the least known national Republican players you'll find," says Vin Weber. "He has the classic Scandinavian penchant for anonymity."
Founder, Taxpayers League of Minnesota
It was the kind of moment Mike Wigley, founder of the rigorous and often antagonistic Taxpayers League of Minnesota, no doubt cherishes. In 2003, with a newly elected Tim Pawlenty refusing to hike a single tax in the face of an acute budget crisis, former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson stood at a Humphrey Institute podium flanked by three fellow former Minnesota governors and demanded, "Where's Mr. Wigley? He runs state government. Do you know Mike Wigley?"
Wigley is the brains behind the "no new taxes pledge," a tool his Taxpayers League started pushing on state legislators. When he was still in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Pawlenty took the pledge, under the influence of Wigley's patented brand of urging, to raise no kind of tax no matter how deep the state's financial woes.
Wigley made his millions in construction. He's chairman, president, and CEO of Great Plains Companies, Inc. He has degrees from Stanford and Harvard. And he's got a monomaniacal fix on his issue: taxes. Specifically, eliminating them. And he's a walk-the-walk man: He's donated $95,500 of his own money to the Taxpayers League over the years.
When state government hits a wall over one tax issue or another, you will probably find Wigley in a corner somewhere smirking. But it's not just about muscle. The league doubles as a research center, issuing talking points to fuel the tax debate. Sure, says Weber, "Wigley pisses a lot of people off—but that's his job." Weber observes that Minnesotans—liberals and conservatives alike—occasionally lock arms on tax issues. "And in a liberal political climate, in areas where we do have some common ground, there needs to be somebody to organize around it."
And organize Wigley does. Relentlessly. He's called for the resignation of a state Republican speaker of the House. In recent months, he's called on Chamber of Commerce members to revoke their membership.
"He's been able to mobilize an extraordinary amount of money for anti-tax campaigns," says Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton. "That voice didn't exist in Minnesota politics before him. He made a material difference in Minnesota politics."
THE SUGAR DADDY
Founder, Freedom Club Political Action Commitee
CEO, Primera Technology
Deephaven's Robert Cummins, 56, is that most curious of political animals: He asserts his influence through money alone and seeks no special attention for it. He's never run for office; he doesn't write op-eds or speak to the media; he's not on the lecture circuit. He is a strict conservative, an evangelical Christian, and as CEO of Primera Technology, a very wealthy man.
He distributes his fortunes generously, but not widely. These days, most CEOs give to both major parties—a sort of protection plan against the inevitable shifts of the political winds. Cummins's money is red only. He's given $325,000 to the state Republican Party since 1998, and in that same period he's written dozens of checks to state committees and candidates—$250 and $500 at a time—totaling more than $35,000.
He's also a faithful contributor to Freedom Club—a group founded by a cadre of Minnesota entrepreneurs, including Cummins (who led the group in its early stages), which raises money for the Republican Party and its candidates through separate state and federal political action committees, or PACs (since the club's inception, he's given the state PAC $13,000 and the federal PAC $30,000). The group donates to candidates and causes that toe a strict conservative line. It's a powerful interest group in the state that has irked Democrats and Republicans alike.
William Cooper credits Freedom Club efforts as being a "key element in the resurgence of the state Republican Party."
But it's not just the party that gets Cummins's money. He also feeds the coffers of organizations doing the fieldwork of conservative core issues. Since 2004, he's given $408,000 to the anti-gay-marriage groups Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage and the like-minded Minnesotans for Marriage.
CEO, The Walker Group
The logging town of Walker didn't have but one and a half square miles to it when Jack Meeks was growing up. But it had a Teenage Republicans club that he organized himself at age 14. Now 56, he's been a Party man all his life.
Tony Sutton calls Meeks a master grassroots strategy man. "On campaigns big and small," he says, Meeks "is the guy who puts it all together." If you're a Republican interested in an elected office in Minnesota, you're going to cross paths with Meeks. He organized volunteers for both of George W. Bush's statewide campaigns, and he brings a kind of top-down experience to his bottom-up efforts. He was Vin Weber's chief of staff in the U.S. Congress, and when Ronald Reagan was assembling his transition team in '79, Meeks was asked on board. He served on the Republican National Committee for 13 years.
In a party sometimes split between social and economic conservatives, Meeks is both. Last year he signed a two-page letter shipped to state delegates urging them to turn their backs on McCain and Giuliani: "Between them, they have supported tax hikes, free speech restrictions, amnesty of illegal immigrants, gay marriage, and abortion."
Not a man to waste an opportunity, last year Meeks joined forces again with his wife, Annette, and their old comrade Weber to launch Twin Cities Strategies, a public relations firm that woos clients looking to get a message out in the blur of the Republican National Convention. He's also president and CEO of the Walker Group, a consulting firm he founded in 1992.
Meeks was a Romney man until the bitter end—he served as Minnesota co-chair to the Romney campaign. He's had his differences with Governor Pawlenty—most notably over the expansion of gambling in Minnesota, which Meeks opposes. All the same, he told the Star Tribune in 2005 that Pawlenty is "the best governor in my lifetime."
THE TRUE BELIEVER
President, Freedom Foundation of Minnesota
Vin Weber calls Annette Meeks "one of the most dynamic conservatives in the party." Tony Sutton calls her "a party thought leader." Her conservative credentials are impeccable. During the fabled Republican Revolution in 1994, she was deputy chief of staff to none other than Newt Gingrich.
Meeks is a conservative to the marrow. She sees "soul-searching" and "depth" in George W. Bush. She decries liberal dominion of our universities and she initiated a short-lived project when she was CEO of the Center of the American Experiment called Foundations for Active Conservative Thinking (FACT)—which meant she had opened up a Minnesota front in a nationwide conservative uproar over a perceived far-left-lean in American academia.
She was voted out of her leadership role at CAE in 2006 and started her own conservative think tank: Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.
A Minnesota delegate to every Republican National Convention since 1988, Meeks is now a partner—with her husband, Jack—in the RNC-focused public relations firm Twin Cities Strategies. She hosts a weekly radio show called The Polichicks, and she's a Pawlenty appointee to the Metropolitan Council. Friends say she's backed off party activity since the appointment. Still, says Weber, an old friend, "she's constantly in motion. Lots of people want her to run for office."
President and Founder, Center of the American Experiment
It was almost 1990 when Mitch Pearlstein announced to friends and colleagues that he was going to open a conservative think tank in Minnesota—a state that hadn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972.
"Conservative ideas are not terribly well attended to in this state," Pearlstein told a reporter at the time, "in part because they're not terribly well articulated."
Nearly 20 years later, the center is still with us. It has survived internal rifts and financial scares, and through its studies, books, lectures, and conferences it is endlessly feeding a pipeline of intellectual and analytical ammunition for conservative crusaders—from activists to elected officials—statewide. Center fundraisers have drawn the likes of Bush Sr., Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Henry Kissinger. The center is something of a trailblazer in the vast universe of conservative think tanks. Before Pearlstein came along, no such undertaking had adopted, as he describes it, the "most difficult, nastiest issues" of a single state as its focus. Today there are many.
Pearlstein is a prolific author of books on school choice, the family, and other conservative touchstones. Larry Jacobs calls Pearlstein Minnesota's George Will, "but nicer."
From CAE's inception, Pearlstein has emphasized that the organization is nonpartisan. Conservative, yes. Republican, no. Not surprisingly, the center draws Republicans by the bushel—many of the state's most influential Republicans have served as CAE advisors or directors. The traffic from CAE board or staff positions to public or party office and vice versa (U.S. Rep. John Kline was an executive vice president, Carol Molnau headed a task force) has drawn challenges over the integrity of the center's nonprofit, nonpartisan status, which the think tank has enjoyed without any federal-level objections for nearly 20 years.
Pearlstein spreads his influence widely, with positions at the Commission on Parenthood's Future, the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute Advisory Council, the Public Policy Advisory Committee of the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas, the Hiawatha Leadership Academy's Board of Advisors, and the Partnership for Choice in Education.
Former Chairman, Republican Party of Minnesota
TIhere he sat, in a Hennepin County courtroom in 2003, the CEO of TCF Financial Corp. and former head of the state Republican Party. It was nothing sinister that got him there. He had been ticketed for speeding on his snowmobile not far from his $15 million home on Lake Minnetonka. One regulatory agency, the Department of Natural Resources, had set a speed limit for snowmobiling, and another, the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, had set their own, lower limit. Too much regulation? This was Cooper's life's work. He filed a 21-page brief to quash the ticket. The effort failed. He appealed and failed again. Never mind, he told reporters at the time: It's the principle of the thing.
Cooper is the consummate crusader. He loses battles; everybody does. But when he wins, he wins big. He was a powerful finance man first—performing nothing short of a resurrection on TCF in the mid-'80s. As the chair of the state Republican Party, Cooper radically overhauled the party's infrastructure, transforming it into a modern, formidable fighting machine.
Cooper was elected chair of the state Republican Party in 1997. It was an unusual move for a prominent corporate officer. He stayed on at TCF and drew no pay from the party. He wasted no time turning the party upside down. "We raised a lot of money and organized the machinery of the party," Cooper says. He was plumbing his Rolodex, making calls starting at 7:30 in the morning. He made hundreds of calls, and contributions were piling up by the millions of dollars. The party built call centers, computer systems, and a coveted database. "We called millions of Minnesotans and asked them their political affiliation and how they felt about various issues." The information was entered into a computer and sorted by district and even by issue. Access to the list was granted strategically. "We wrote a platform in clear English and asked candidates to pledge to uphold it," Cooper says. "We knew who did and who didn't and for what reason."
For the first time anybody could remember, the party was running candidates in every race—even races they were sure they'd lose—forcing the Democrats to spend down their war chest.
Meanwhile, Cooper was holding big-ticket fundraisers at his home and feeding state and national Republican coffers from his own pocket. He cut a $100,000 check to the RNC Republican National State Elections Committee in 2000 and a $10,000 check to the state party in 2005. His wife gives to the Republican cause, too. So do his kids.
Cooper's legacy in the party was in showing it how to fight. "He never lost the gritty persona of a Detroit beat cop," says Sarah Janecek, referring to the job that got Cooper through college. Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and a veteran observer of the state's political personalities, calls Cooper a "smart, biting, and unreconstructed libertarian Republican."
THE WHIZ KID
Former Chairman, Republican Party of Minnesota
It all happened in Norm Coleman's living room. The press was there. Jack Kemp—remember him?—was there, too. The St. Paul mayor had converted, and he wanted to talk about it. Specifically, he had decided to shed his Democratic Party membership and step into the warm embrace of his new political community, the Republicans.
Chris Georgacas was chair of the state Republican Party then, and he had no small role in Coleman's conversion. He would later run Coleman's bid for governor.
Tony Sutton calls Georgacas a savvy strategist who is "one of the smartest people I've ever met."
Today he serves on the board of directors for the conservative think tank Freedom Foundation of Minnesota; he's a Pawlenty appointee to the Metropolitan Council; and he's a key player at Goff and Howard, a St. Paul-based public relations firm that boasts a client list of giants like Clear Channel, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart, plus local enterprises like Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, Grand Casino, and the University of St. Thomas.
When Georgacas was elected to head the state Republican Party in 1993, he was just 29—the youngest such leader in either party nationwide. Recognizable for a time by his black cowboy boots and pinstripe suits, the kid quickly made a name for himself as the quintessential party goad. He was a blast-fax man, and there was hardly a Democratic indiscretion that Georgacas didn't fax on. He was a master at identifying those indiscretions. His brand of opposition research merged paper trail with campaign trail—poring through documents one day and dogging politicians with a video camera the next. He was fixated on Paul Wellstone. He called the man "Senator Welfare" and worked obsessively—if unsuccessfully—to unseat him.
He left his party post in 1997 and moved to the Center of the American Experiment, where he began work on something initially called just the "Georgacas Project." The idea was to create Minnesota's equivalent to the Contract for America. Georgacas had a budget of roughly $400,000 to begin the project, which was to be a comprehensive "prescriptive evaluation" of Minnesota's state and local governments. The result was the 400-page "Minnesota Policy Blueprint," which was in Pawlenty's hands the day he took office. A decade later, the "Blueprint" still pulses in state Republican politics.
Minnesota Representative, Republican National Committee
In January 1995, 200 Minnesota Republican activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness the swearing in of their hero Newt Gingrich. It was the Republican Revolution, and Maplewood's Evie Axdahl was there. "We worked at it this long because we wanted to build a better future for our children and our grandchildren," she told a Pioneer Press reporter at the ceremony. "That's what this revolution is all about."
Axdahl has represented Minnesota to the Republican National Committee since she was elected in 1989. She served on the State Central Committee for 14 years and has represented the state Republican Party at the Republican National Convention five times. When the 2008 Republican presidential race was still wide open, Axdahl was tapped by Mitt Romney to join his steering committee. That Romney won Minnesota on caucus night is testimony to Axdahl and the handful of veteran Republican activists she runs with.
Something of a soldier for the party, Axdahl's been flying the Republican flag in Minnesota's Fourth District—which last elected a Republican to Congress in 1947—for decades. Friends and colleagues, when pressed to describe Axdahl, all gravitate toward the same word: stalwart. She's forever slogging through the trenches looking for that just-right candidate who might bring out some of the red in her deep-blue district.
"It's tough to stay motivated in the Fourth," says Sarah Janecek. Axdahl has had no struggles with motivation. And in her years with the party, though isolated in her district, Axdahl has made herself indispensable.
Former Minnesota Republican Party head Chris Georgacas calls 79-year-old Marsie Leier of Roseville "the godmother of several generations of Republican activists." She led the conservative takeover of the state party apparatus in 1980 when she was running Ronald Reagan's Minnesota effort (she ran all three of Reagan's campaigns in the state, beginning in 1976).
Leier has been throwing her considerable clout behind Republican candidates for the better part of 50 years. Her admirers in the party all point to the election of U.S. Congressman Joe Kline as a sort of parable of her powers. The relatively unknown Kline, an ex-Marine who had never held elective office, beat tough odds and won his party's endorsement in 1998 to run—and win—against incumbent Democrat Bill Luther, who had both name recognition and deep pockets. In every telling of Kline's triumph, Leier emerges as the kingmaker. She had her candidate making state delegate house calls instead of phone calls. She worked the delegates a little more on her own. In public and behind closed doors, she invented inevitability for her favored candidates, whether Kline, Coleman, or Pawlenty.
"She has claimed to be retiring from politics for the last 25 years," Georgacas says, "yet she always manages to get involved and help somebody."