Up on the 52nd floor of the First Bank building in downtown Minneapolis, the corporate anteroom of Key Investments, Inc. was crowded with important and self-important people. In one corner, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was casually but consistently spreading the word of his gubernatorial campaign. Ten feet away, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew engaged three men in a genially animated discussion, their charcoal suits exquisitely set off by the teak walls.
Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton sat on a couch balancing a small plate of food on her knee; as the object of this October fundraiser, she was busy greeting an informal procession of well-wishers. Former mayor Don Fraser was perched nearby, looking as rumpled as ever in his bulky sweater. Through the wall-length window at the far end of the room, one could look down on the setting sun in the far distance.
Then a bespectacled man with a bit of a duck walk and hair combed over his balding pate entered, and a shiver of high alert went through the room. Conversations continued, their purposes hollowed out, as dozens of eyes darted in quick reconnaissance to measure his forward progress.
The man took his time, shaking some hands and hugging some shoulders, dutifully playing the humble celebrity as the assembled lawyers, lobbyists, and corporate minions posed to pay their respects. For each he had a relevant comment, pithy yet detailed; as he moved through the crowd his body language shifted from ebullience to casual ease. This was his corporate anteroom, his food and drink, his view; most importantly these were his people, a tightly secured chunk of his world.
It was almost exactly 30 years ago that 25-year-old Vance Opperman poured drinks at the West Bank's Triangle Bar and traversed the neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota to drum up anti-war sentiment. Hundreds of favors, thousands of phone calls, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, he counts Vice President Al Gore among his friends and has enough clout to get President Clinton to return his phone calls. As the counterculture became the over-the-counter culture, Opperman never stopped shaking hands.
Outside his hometown, Opperman has become known as the ruthless corporate fighter who steered Eagan-based West Publishing Inc. through an industry revolution. He is also recognized as the big-time donor who promised large sums to Democrats at a crucial point in the 1996 campaign--two weeks before the Justice Department cleared the way to a corporate acquisition that would make him fabulously wealthy. One Washington-based advocate of campaign-finance reform considers Opperman "a perfect example of what is wrong with the political process."
But in Minnesota, it is hard to find people with a discouraging word to say about Opperman. Off the record, people from both ends of the political spectrum say that his wealth and power deter any honest criticism. Then, almost inevitably, they note with genuine affection the quiet, behind-the-scenes courtesies he has extended to those less fortunate or less prominent.
"The times have changed, society has changed; Vance hasn't really changed that much," says former Minnesota DFL Chair Rick Stafford. "Hey, even with his money, he is probably more of a liberal than I am. He is that rare Democrat who has a big heart and big pockets."
So how do those contrasts square? How could a man be regarded by some as the ultimate influence-buyer, and by others as the perfect exemplar of community citizenship? How does a '60s activist become a '90s insider and have people say that he never changed?
Simple, suggests Kent Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington: At the level Opperman plays the game, those questions don't matter. "Raising and giving money is not really based on ideology, it is about the type of people," he says. "The real political players like fundraising, they like being at the center of power. These are people who are playing the system. What they really like is being in the action."
Vance Opperman has been at the center of activity nearly his entire life. According to his father, Dwight, early tests at school verified that Vance had a genius-level IQ, and by kindergarten he amazed his teachers with a precocious vocabulary. Born an hour outside of Des Moines, Iowa, on January 8, 1943--"Elvis Presley's birthday, although The King would have been eight years older," Opperman likes to point out--he was an only child for nearly a decade. He honed his social skills among a pool of military families whose mothers took turns baby-sitting on days off from work while their husbands went to college on the G.I. Bill. After Dwight Opperman obtained his law degree and got a job with then-St. Paul-based West Publishing, the family settled into what Vance calls "the classic Ozzie and Harriet scenario of the Eisenhower years," with a basketball hoop above the garage and pot roast on weekends.
Even by the stereotypically blissful standards of the era, Opperman was blessed with an inordinate amount of familial love, support, and attention. He cites his "fabulous" mother as a major influence, and calls her death four years ago "the biggest loss of my life; I still miss her every day." People who know both Vance and his father often remark upon how much Dwight cherishes him. That Vance became a DFL stalwart while Dwight remained a conservative businessman and major Republican contributor made no difference.
"There has never been any strain between us," Dwight Opperman claims. "We differ on a lot of political issues, but they are not unfriendly differences; hell, he's my son! Besides, now they kind of complement each other. I have political friends, he has political friends, and so even if [the government] changes parties, we have someone in control.
"I have little regard for politicians," he continues. "Vance is the one who thinks it is an honorable profession. But he's got better judgment than I do. I'd rather have a monarchy, and make him king." Later, when asked if he admires Vance more than anyone in the world, Dwight replies, "Yeah, that's probably right." For a moment there are tears in his eyes.
Vance's only sibling, Fane Opperman, remembers a brother 10 years older "who excelled at everything," whose science projects took over the kitchen table and proceeded to win awards at the State Fair, and who became a state debate champion while at Ramsey High School in St. Paul. "Because of the age difference there was no sibling rivalry," Fane says. "Vance, along with my parents, was a tremendous role model. I idolized him then and I always have.
"I'll always remember visiting relatives when I was about 5 or 6, and we would end up in the living room, and all the adults and the children would eventually be around Vance. He might be talking about science or politics or just telling jokes, but he'd be commanding the floor. He likes to be in command and because he's so brilliant and articulate, he's got a natural control."
Opperman was still an adolescent when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer. He pegs the exact moment to watching Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist hearings at the age of 10 or 11; the family was living in St. Paul's Midway section, where static from the nearby streetcars interfered with the TV reception. By the time he arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1964, Opperman was burning with the optimism of Kennedy's Camelot and had become an integral part of a nascent student movement.
In 1963, he was elected vice president of the National Student Association, a group affiliated with the Students for a Democratic Society. The position called for him to travel around the country organizing on college campuses. It was a propitious time for such an assignment as the civil-rights crusade reached a crucible with the freedom rides in the South. Years later, Opperman and his wife would adopt an African American child and name him Chaney, after the civil-rights martyr James Chaney.
But during the mid-to-late '60s, the civil-rights movement splintered along racial lines and many white students turned their energies against the burgeoning war in Vietnam and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. By 1968, two Minnesotans--anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey--were locked in a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, fought in large part over Minnesota's influential liberal electorate.
At least one book--The 6th Ward, by David Lebedoff--and many magazine and newspaper articles have been written on the 1968 insurgency of the anti-war forces in Hennepin County, led by Opperman and his law-school classmate Howard Kaibel. Abetted by after-hours access to computers at Pillsbury, the pair organized and profiled potential voters around the UM's West Bank campus with methods 20 years ahead of their time. They followed up with door-to-door visits in the fall and winter of '67, resorting to pencils when the frigid temperatures froze the ink in their pens.
"A lot of it was Vance," says Kaibel, now an administrative law judge working with the Hennepin County public defender's office. "He was just super bright. He'd sit down and rattle off the words for a flyer. And he had a photographic memory. To this day, I call him 'The Chief.'"
Opperman's anti-war cohorts had their regional and national counterparts. On March 5, 1968, three of Minnesota's eight congressional districts supported McCarthy at the precinct caucuses, mirroring the candidate's strong showing against President Johnson in New Hampshire. On March 30, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. That summer, Opperman was elected chair of the Hennepin County DFL.
Perhaps the most accurate and prescient profile of Opperman during that period appeared in the April 1968 issue of the now-defunct monthly Twin Citian. Dressed in a suit accessorized by a paisley tie and cowboy boots, Opperman was on his second double Jim Beam with a water chaser as the interview began at 11 a.m. He had been up five days in a row, and had completed his law finals the previous day.
"Sure I've read Marcuse," he told the writer, speaking of the firebrand socialist philosopher who will forever be associated with the late '60s. "But I'm not sure about [the] new left in his sense, at all. Actually, I'm a radical. I'm committed to a revolution but strictly within the traditional party framework."
The writer, Thomas Gifford, described Opperman as "a good listener, a trait so often evident in the truly skilled exploiter... For a man of 25 he seems to have spent years in national service. No wonder those less aware of the realistic manipulation of people and power can feel in themselves a certain embryonic twinge of fear when he is in full swing. He is not a wild man and he is not--like most wild men--likely to fade away."
It was, perhaps, that understated yet persevering need for systemic influence that cost Opperman his first marriage. Friends describe the woman he married in January 1966 as "a true child of the '60s," not a hippie so much as earthy, feminist, and politically impassioned. People still chuckle when recalling the heated floor debate over Israel and the Palestinians waged between Vance and Susan Opperman at the 1984 DFL Convention, seven years after they had been divorced.
After Opperman got his law degree and went to work for a St. Paul law firm, the couple moved out to the countryside, buying 10 acres in Afton. Opperman, who is not much of an animal lover, learned to live with horses in the back yard and the occasional sick goose penned up in the kitchen. One way he coped was via a workaholic schedule, shuttling between his firm and various political campaigns. His constant absence was a source of frustration for Susan, who by 1974 was home with four children. Yet she insists that "as I look back, my lack of willingness to compromise was as much a factor as anything" in the divorce.
The couple's differences were epitomized by where they each relocated--he to Wayzata, she and the kids to a cabin near the Canadian border. Susan, who is now married to the city attorney in International Falls and teaches a course on marriage and the family at Rainy River Community College, remains good friends with her ex-husband. "This is a man who truly loves his kids," she says, "and I was moving them to a place with no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. He wasn't happy about it, but he had enough trust in our shared values to let me go."
But Opperman, too, may have grown from the experience. Friends approvingly note that he would often take the day off from work and drive up north to attend a 15-minute PTO conference at school or a high-school football game. He also regularly exercised his visitation schedule, spending every other weekend with his children. "I recall crying when my mom told me about [the separation]," says Cassandra, who was in fifth grade at the time. "But it really wasn't that traumatic because we actually saw my father more after the divorce then we did when they were married."
Not long after the breakup, Opperman co-founded his own law firm, McGovern, Opperman & Paquin, and quickly amassed an impressive roster of corporate clients. Among them was West Publishing, where his father Dwight had for 26 years climbed the corporate ladder and finally become president.
As always, however, Opperman was most comfortable having his cake and sharing it too: His firm was renowned around town for its hundreds of hours of pro bono work on behalf of immigrants facing deportation, or retired employees from companies reneging on pension plans. His breakthrough case came in 1980, when he and his associates secured the nation's first billion-dollar antitrust judgment, which went against the Mead Corporation and three other paper manufacturers in a Texas price-fixing case.
Friend or foe, nobody seems to deny that Opperman is a gifted attorney. "He had an ability to teach and mentor people, especially if he thought you could keep up with him," says Linda Holstein, who came to the firm as a summer associate in 1981. "Sometimes it felt like a track meet, though. He had a phenomenally detailed recounting of events, whether they were that day or a 15-year-old case, that could provide nuance into character and dissect people's motives. That is something he taught me, to embrace the sheer fun of it."
Those who know Opperman well say that by 1987, when he was in his mid-40s, most of the fun had evaporated from his life. His second marriage, to a teacher from Hopkins, had foundered. The law firm was successful, yet, 10 years down the line, could no longer provide much excitement. And while Opperman remained a potent force in the DFL, his profile had become fairly predictable. Helping Rudy Perpich and Joan Growe get re-elected to statewide office lacked the charisma of the McCarthy experience.
But then, rather quickly, Opperman regained his stride. In the process of his second divorce, he found an empathetic friend in Darin Pepper, who had worked at his law firm and was going through a breakup herself. After a deliberately cautious three years together, they were married in 1991. "Darin is perfect for Vance," Holstein says. "She's got a great bullshit meter, which is attractive to him because it gives her some independence and keeps them more in balance."
Also in 1991, Opperman was named one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America by The National Law Journal. A year after that, the NLJ dubbed him one of the nation's top litigators, while his friend Al Gore was tapped as Bill Clinton's running mate. And a year after that, in 1993, Opperman was asked by his father Dwight to chuck the law firm and come help him steer West through an exciting but perilous time in the company's long history. "He did me a favor," Dwight says now. "I put it on a family basis. I told him, 'I want you. I need you.'"
For much of its long history, West Publishing has been an enviably smooth political operator, often blurring the boundaries between courtesy and lobbying. But it wasn't until the company faced a political and legal battle royale that outsiders noticed the near-symbiotic relationship between the nation's largest legal publisher and those charged with determining its fate.
In 1995, the Star Tribune reported that seven U.S. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges had accepted West-paid trips to expensive hotels and resorts as part of their service on a committee to determine who among their peers should win West's annual Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award. One judge racked up more than $7,700 in expenses during a three-day period. West also routinely flatters prominent judges by providing custom-made, elegantly bound copies of their individual opinions; other clients receive everything from free law books and legal seminars to calendars and appointment books.
To this day, Opperman and others at West bristle at the suggestion that any of this could raise ethical questions--even if, as is almost inevitable, some of the company's copyright litigation ends up before judges it has previously wined and dined. But not everyone is convinced the perks were given innocently. "Vance Opperman is a guy who thinks he can buy influence," says Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, "and he has bought plenty of it in his day."
Lavish retirement dinners are another way West combines good manners and good politics. Local GOP consultant Sarah Janecek attended an event Opperman helped orchestrate in honor of outgoing Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. "There was more power in that room than I've seen in the last five years," Janecek says. "All the justices were there, plus the key senators and representatives. It was quite a night." Opperman himself talks fondly about the roast West hosted for outgoing Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
Of course, there's nothing illegal about a major corporation sponsoring social events; nor, for that matter, does anyone suggest that specific quid-pro-quo agreements occur at these affairs. But in a clubby, hierarchical town like Washington, ideology may not be as effective in getting a politician's ear as having previously shared a joke or a glass of wine.
And by the time Vance Opperman became president, West needed all the help it could get. The explosion of online technology and commerce had intensified global economic pressures on the "information creation and content" industry. The result was a concentration of mergers and buyouts that figured to swallow even relatively large companies such as West.
"I think the competition in the information-creation business, particularly in the markets we were in, was the most brutal and cutthroat you could find in any segment of the American economy," Opperman says. "It was a situation where you either run out of resources or you acquire other resources. I acquired nine companies during the time I was at West."
The other threat to West was more specific. For more than a century, the company's core business has been the publishing of legal opinions as the standard reference material for judges and lawyers. After selecting the most legally relevant and noteworthy decisions for publication, West does little more than edit the text for grammar and spelling errors. But it has been organizing the material so effectively for so long that its document-numbering system has essentially become the only way to research and cite cases in the legal system. By copyrighting its page numbers and codes, the company has been able to levy fees of up to hundreds of dollars per hour for use of its database, generating hundreds of millions in revenue each year.
The proliferation of information-gathering technology had the potential to loosen West's control over this lucrative market. Many firms began putting together their own legal databases, prompting lawsuits from West, which claimed they were pirating its system. The competitors, joined by the Ralph Nader-affiliated Taxpayer Assets Project, in turn charged that West was claiming ownership to the law of the land.
In the face of mounting technological and legal challenges, West sought to get its dominant position codified by Congress. In February 1995, a seemingly banal 96-word provision appeared in a bill reauthorizing the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. Inserted late in the legislative process, the language would have radically altered copyright law, giving West and other large companies much more control over data created at public expense. The provision was discovered at the last minute by Nader's people, who got it deleted by launching a blizzard of online mail to Congress.
Once the measure, which one committee chair called "the West provision," had been exposed, no legislator on either side of the aisle would take responsibility for inserting it. But a counsel for the Republican majority told the Capitol newspaper The Hill that the suggested wording was brought to him by two former Minnesota members of Congress turned powerful lobbyists--Democrat Gerry Sikorski and Republican Vin Weber. Weber denied this, and Sikorski could not be reached for comment.
"Understandably there are many conflicting accounts of what actually happened," wrote The Hill. "But the one point on which everybody agrees is that the saga of the subsection 3518(f) of the Paperwork Reduction Act is the biggest political and public-policy fiasco of the 104th Congress."
Lobbying Congress and the courts could only get West so far, however. It was the executive branch of government, specifically the Justice Department, that was behind the most direct threat to the firm's market supremacy. And that is where company president Vance Opperman, with his long-running Clinton/Gore connections, figured to be most helpful.
In September 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that the Justice Department would explore creating free, public databases of federal and state court opinions. At the same time, Reno's antitrust division began to investigate allegations that West was engaging in uncompetitive business practices by bestowing free or special materials to certain clients, and by threatening to bankrupt smaller firms through its lawsuits.
Minnesota's congressional delegation--led by Rep. Jim Ramstad, the 6th District Republican who had received campaign contributions of $8,500 from Dwight Opperman and West's political action committee--quickly denounced Reno's public-domain concept. Opperman himself took the opportunity to speak with President Clinton at a Democratic fundraiser in the fall of 1994. An article in Time quoted "Democratic officials" as saying that Opperman asked Clinton straight out, "Can you get the Justice Department off my back?" Opperman categorically denies this.
But he apparently did express enough concern that Clinton instructed his former chief of staff, Mack McLarty, to meet with Opperman and see what was wrong. According to Time, McLarty and White House lawyer Steven Neuwirth backed off as soon as they learned the Justice Department's antitrust division was looking into monopolistic activity in the online industry.
A few months later, in February 1995, the Justice Department formally abandoned the idea of a public-domain database, citing the high cost and complexity of such an undertaking. Not long after that, West signed a $14.2 million contract to provide the department with its own database. The antitrust investigation eventually ceased without a report about what it had learned.
Opperman says he never asked Clinton for favors relating to his company's troubles with Justice. He does acknowledge that he asked for Gore's support in gaining a seat on the U.S. Advisory Council of the National Information Infrastructure in 1993. Opperman says the experience gave him and West a valuable perspective on the coming wave of consolidation in the industry.
But, as Time noted, one of the council's duties was reviewing a government report recommending broad copyright protections for legal publishers like West. As it happened that report--and subsequent efforts by the Clinton administration to get the copyright terms worked into international treaties--enhanced the value of West right at the time it was being eyed for purchase by a number of multinational behemoths.
In February 1996, the company announced it was being sold to Thomson Corp. of Canada for $3.4 billion. If approved by the Justice Department--whose antitrust division must review mergers of such magnitude--the sale would end the company's worries about competing in a global information marketplace (one reason why the respected publication American Lawyer suggested it was a bad deal for consumers). It would also make its chief executives, Dwight and Vance Opperman, very rich: Today, Forbes lists Dwight Opperman as the 173rd richest man in America.
Nearly a year later, when Congress and the press began to probe the "soft money" and other campaign funds raised by the president and Republicans during the '96 election, a secret ledger kept by Clinton-Gore loyalist Harold Ickes in 1996 was discovered at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. On the page dated June 4, the ledger listed $155,000 in contributions Vance Opperman was going to give to eight different state Democratic parties later that summer and fall. Some of the money was scheduled to be handed over as late as the week before the November elections, making it impossible for voters to learn of them until well past the balloting.
"The pattern of contributions, with the large amounts of activity and the timing of it--that takes coordination and planning," says Kent Cooper, executive director of the campaign-finance watchdog Center for Responsible Politics. "You could say it is a scheme designed to move money throughout the country. It is one of the most blatant examples we have run across."
Two weeks after that entry was made, Justice approved the West/Thomson deal--a fact which, when the ledger was finally uncovered, set off considerable speculation in the national media. CNN, in a story for its online service, put the question most bluntly: "Was the timing deliberate? Was the decision 'wired'?"
Reminding Opperman of the controversy occasions a remarkable performance, midway between a thespian's soliloquy and a trial lawyer's closing statement. In a taut mixture of summoned emotion and rigorous logic, he lays out a morality play about a man wronged and the harm done, not to the man, who is above it, but to the republic.
"I was angered by the stories because they were hopelessly, totally false," Opperman begins. "I understand that one avoids libel law by using innuendo. But I was also saddened, because I know that a lot of the things you read are the result of people working hard under short deadlines, and they are not particularly accurate.
"I was very sad to see an article, I guess it was in Time, that was just a laughingstock. The guy who called me, that I made the mistake of talking to, I said, 'Gee, I gave money to the state [Democratic Party] of Texas.' Well, that was apparently nefarious. It was never explained to me why that was nefarious. And I never explained that my good friend Bill White, the statewide chair in Texas, that we've been good friends since we tried the Corrugated case together in the late '70s. And he asked me for a contribution. Real nefarious.
"CNN had the goofiest darn thing I have ever seen," Opperman continues. "It was prepackaged [by advocacy groups]; even some of their video was prepackaged, just to be sensationalistic. I am sorry to see that, and I will tell you why. Obviously it doesn't affect me; I don't lose any sleep over that kind of stuff. And obviously I have never been involved in anything illegal or improper in any way."
Opperman's voice rises, yet remains carefully calibrated. "And I might add, if anyone ever said that I was, I would sue them. I have better respect for the First Amendment and a higher tolerance for innuendo than most people who are the subject of it, but there is a limit. I didn't do anything illegal or improper--didn't then, haven't now, and won't do it in the future.
"And if anyone says otherwise"--now the tone is clearly that of a man who doesn't make idle threats--"they have an invitation to meet me at the courthouse."
Then Opperman suddenly softens. "But I feel sad for another reason," he says. "When I was growing up, service in public office was a high honor. And people said, 'I am giving up something of my life to give to the community. I have chosen this as a public service.' And they meant it when they said that, and I think other people believed it.
"Now, you have to be crazy to run for office, and if you do, most of your neighbors immediately assume you are a crook. And that should make all of us a little bit sad."
Since the West sale, Opperman and his father have used Key Investments to build a burgeoning media empire--or, as Opperman would call it, an "information creation and content business" conglomerate. Their acquisitions have included online-graphics and custom-publishing ventures, as well as the Twin Cities Business Journal, Minnesota Law & Politics, Mpls./St.Paul, and the online service Channel 4000. Opperman has also been rumored as a buyer of both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"He is the hottest commodity out there, and is pretty well-known nationally as well," says Rick Krueger, president of the Minnesota High Technology Council. "He has become a player, and is running in the same circles as the guys at Microsoft, or Eisner at Disney." And while that may be the hyperbole of a hometown-industry booster, even potential competitors evince similar respect: "What Vance wants to do is take things to a higher level of interactive communication," says Stanley Hubbard, owner of KSTP-TV parent Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc. "And I wouldn't bet against him."
With his extensive political and media connections and his penchant for using his enormous wealth to position himself as a man of the people, Opperman has quite a bit in common with the protagonist of Orson Welles's classic film, Citizen Kane. If he isn't throwing a fundraiser or buying a company, he's donating $1 million to the UM law school, or starting a scholarship program for African American public-school students (his own school-age children go to Breck).
And not unlike Kane, Opperman plays the power game as a means of convincing himself, and others, that he is above it. During one recent interview, he glanced at his watch and noted that he had another appointment; still, it was nearly 30 minutes before we wrapped up our conversation. Leaving the office, I noticed his secretary ushering in Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. That Opperman could, and would, keep them waiting while discussing the fine points of his biography was at once arrogant and charming.
Try to segment the political spectrum into Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and a figure like Opperman makes no sense. But divide it into players, critics, and dropouts, and suddenly the elements fall into place.
It was his player's mentality that led Opperman to defend Twins owner Carl Pohlad during last fall's stadium wars, even as he threw his financial credibility behind Clark Griffith's bid to buy the team. It is the player's mentality that makes the lifelong Democrat lobby alongside Republicans for a lower state capital-gains tax. It is the player who warns that "there are some elements of the Democratic party that do not like successful people."
Those who impede the player's right of way are not easily forgiven. They include Jamie Love, who as the head of Nader groups such as the Taxpayer Assets Project and the Consumer Project on Technology has long been a thorn in Opperman's side. When he asked West's Washington lobbyists for a meeting with Opperman, Love says they told him that "it wouldn't be in either of our interests for that to happen, that Opperman was so emotionally wound up about me that he wouldn't perform well. Here's this guy born into the lap of luxury, who is constantly name-dropping when he comes to town--he's told people he wrote parts of Gore's acceptance speech--and I guess he can't handle a meeting with me."
By the same token, Opperman is prepared to embrace anybody who does not cross him--to rejoice in their triumphs, feel their pain--with an enthusiasm that is utterly convincing. "Liberals love him and the most radical feminists and splinter groups also seem to love this man," says Linda Holstein, Opperman's former law partner and herself a DFL contributor. "Not just for the money, but because they think he can understand what they are saying; that he has a heart that is actually beating, that has not sold out."
Opperman's attentions are equally captivating, says Holstein, when they're directed at the more powerful. "The many cynical folks who rightly see politicians as egomaniacs, they don't see the insecurities. Vance has time for these politicians. He is known as a talker, but he can also listen.
"The cynics look at his connections here and in Washington and figure he has bought influence and access. And in some ways of course that is true. But what they don't see is that the spokes also go the other way; politicians can go to him and they don't have to go any further."
But what could be more influential than that?
In 1972, as a member of the DFL rules committee, Opperman helped rewrite the state constitution in a manner that, as a colleague put it, "opened up the party to more voices and took the decision-making out of the back room." In 1998, he offers this caricature of his critics' worldview: "The model image is of a group of people meeting in a boardroom somewhere. They are all white men, I suppose, and they all have Gucci leather shoes and are smoking big cigars and drinking brandy out of snifters. Then one of them says"--and here Opperman adopts a comical, Foghorn Leghorn voice-"'We gotta go see Senator Snodgrass and take him a big bag of money so we can sell nuts and bolts under a certain kind of government.'
"Well, I have never seen that happen and I'm not sure it ever has happened. People wouldn't like it because they know their competitors could do the same thing the next day. The real world doesn't work that way."
But the real world is also not as noble as Opperman likes to portray it. Players and politicians get their hands dirty, whether they admit it to themselves or not. As state Sen. John Marty, Minnesota's self-appointed conscience on matters of campaign finance, puts it: "I am not accusing Vance of being corrupt, but he knows money talks. He's got a lot of money, and it really talks."
Confronted with that argument, Opperman ingenuously harkens back to his activist roots. "Many people in Minnesota have expressed outrage at efforts to have government regulation of speech and political activities. We have done that before in our country and I think it has been disastrous. Senator Eugene McCarthy testified earlier [last year], pointing out the kinds of silly reforms you get when you put government in charge of electing the government.
"I agree with Chief Justice Warren Burger; the analogy he used was, 'Would anybody think it was constitutionally appropriate if Congress passed a law saying you could only give a thousand dollars and no more to the church of your choice? It would be a limitation on the freedom of religion.' Well, we are talking about the same amendment. I think limitations on contributions to political parties will trample others' constitutional rights."
But isn't money influencing politics to a dangerous degree?
"I don't think it is influencing politics any more than it ever has," Opperman replies. "There are many ways that organized interests find their way into politics. And I think that is appropriate; otherwise society gets out of whack. I know there are candidates who like to be anointed by the public and then never have to beg for dough or be accountable to unions and school groups and employer groups. That's bad for democracy. I want those people out there making sales. I want them getting support from a variety of different communities."
But under that scenario, who are the lobbyists or salesmen for the poor?
"Well I don't know that the poor is an interest group," Opperman replies. "There are people who have banners they hold up for the benefit of others. I am always suspicious of those Elmer Gantrys of the world." Unhappy with this first line of response, he slides to another tack. "There are certainly legitimate interests for those who are not financially well off. I would hope that most of the people that I have supported are compassionate individuals, people who have had experiences in life where they have been knocked around a bit, to be frank.
"I probably share a bias, as a number of Minnesotans do, against people who have inherited great wealth. Certainly they are qualified to run for office, but you wonder if they have had the same experiences the rest of us have had."
In Welles's film, a drunken friend says to Charles Foster Kane, "As long as I can remember, you've talked about giving the people their rights. As if you could make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered. 'Friend of the working man.'
"But you're not going to like it one little bit when you find out that the working man expects something as his right, not your little gift... You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms: something to be played your way, according to your own rules."
There is always the possibility, of course, that instead of being a passionate believer in free speech and fairness, Opperman is so deviously cynical that even die-hard pols are afraid to countenance the thought. No doubt his critics would like to think of that cynicism as Opperman's future Rosebud, the karmic retribution that torments the twilight of his life.
Right now, however, there's no sign of that happening. On the contrary, says his wife, Opperman seems to finally be "relaxing more into his life." The shift may have come partly thanks to Darin herself, a down-to-earth woman who on the day we speak relates easily to a cadre of men laying new carpet in her home. "I've been with the Clintons once," she says matter-of-factly. "I see no need to have to go and see them again." She says she has also told her husband that "he may not be able to top the West deal. Because that was pretty big."
Both Darin and Opperman's first wife Susan say that one of the most difficult things during his time as a lawyer was having his first four children grow up without him. His daughters eventually came down from the north woods to live with him during their high-school years. Now his sons from that first marriage are living in Minnetonka along with him, Darin, and the couple's 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
At night, Vance tells his younger children stories, making them up from two or three reference points they provide. In his bedroom, the two things that most catch the eye could be polestars of his current life: At the foot of the bed is a huge Sony television. And over the headboard are pictures of his two youngest children.
The dividends from this balancing of home and work are obvious. Over the course of three interviews and more than six hours of conversation, Opperman became most animated, and most joyful, when asked if at age 55, he can honestly say he feels like an adult yet.
"Hah! You know what? I don't know! My wife would be certain to tell you that I am an adolescent. We'll be in the shower or she'll be coming out of the shower and I'll grab her rear end and she thinks that's an adolescent thing to do. Well," he says, pausing a second for meaningful eye contact, "she doesn't always think that.
"I believe there has got to be a sense of wonder and awe about life," he says later. "Otherwise the only thing left to focus on is growing older, and the older you get, the more you see people reach their end, and it is never very reassuring," he says.
As banal as it may sound, Opperman seems to be happier now than he has ever been. And why shouldn't he be? He has the kind of wealth that is difficult to lose even if you try. He has the ear of the White House, and the respect of the corporate bigwigs who are his peers. And, Washington naysayers notwithstanding, he is nigh-on revered in the state that claims a near-monopoly on good, clean, liberal government.
More power to Vance Opperman. That's not a sentiment. It is a statement of fact.
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.
- Black Lives Matter marches on the Fair with heavy police escort, few hecklers
Sat., Sep. 19, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 19, 7:00pm
Sun., Sep. 20, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 26, 2:30pm
- Vester Lee Flanagan could have just as easily bought a gun in Minnesota
- A terrible Minneapolis park deal just got $2 million worse