The Kaplans have been married
thirty-three years. It’s the second marriage for both. Neither comes
from money. Sam’s roots are in middle-class St. Paul, and Sylvia was a
suburban homemaker and firebrand activist when she met him in the ’70s.
They first crossed paths when both were serving as chairs of local
human rights commissions, Sylvia in Golden Valley and Sam in Edina.
Sam’s law firm at the time, Maslon Kaplan Edelman Joseph & Borman, also represented Sylvia in her divorce from restaurateur Ron Chessen.
some find Sylvia abrasive, there’s a comical, borderline-endearing
quality to the provocateur’s pride she takes in her stories. There are
the Tom Wolfe-ish
tales of dragging home f-bombing, Afro-sporting, radical brothers from
the ‘hood for strategy sessions, to the stunned disbelief of her
then-husband. Others date back to her days as an ankle-biting reporter
for (then editor of) the Golden Valley Sun-yarns
about annoying the local cops with accusations of racial profiling and
such, which prove her bold and direct nature predates her reign as
one-half of a prominent power couple. For years she also ran the
legendary New French Café, a must-be-seen-at watering hole for the Twin
Cities literary and artistic cognoscenti; her current ownership of Bar Abilene
in Uptown is just one among a sprawling list of activities, which
includes so many board memberships and activist groups that recounting
them takes up three minutes on the audio recorder.
Sam, meanwhile, has built one of the Twin Cities’ preeminent law firms, Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan, together with his college classmate and partner Ralph Strangis.
Strangis, it should be noted, is the Republican half of the pairing.
The effect of this combination is pretty much unrivaled one-stop
shopping for anyone looking to get political and legislative ducks in a
row. Specializing in corporate law and transactions-the kind requiring
cultivated relationships and diplomacy-Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan has
played key roles in countless major hot-button issues and public
projects, despite being only one-thirtieth the size of a giant like Faegre & Benson. The Hennepin County garbage burner was one of theirs. Calvin Griffith looking to sell his team. The new Twins ballpark. A little Denny Hecker. A little Bill McGuire. And the list goes on and on.
Former Sen. Dave Durenberger has known Sam Kaplan since their law school days at the University of Minnesota.
In his downtown St. Thomas office, Durenberger has a laugh recalling
how Sam Kaplan and Ralph Strangis were practically anointed Big Men on
Campus as first-year law students, and never thereafter took their feet
off the accelerator. "You could see it right away," says Durenberger.
"Sam in particular just had this glow. They were predictable successes
in law school. It is no surprise at all that they enjoy the kind of
influence they do." But we’ve all known the smartest guys in the room.
More to the point, we also know that some of these smart guys, guys who
have made big money and achieved high social standing, are good only
for a few hits before they create more enemies than friends. What’s the
trick to sustaining influence as a player in every big game for decades
on end? How do you offer advice and counsel to mover-shaker clients
without pissing off other influential players and creating a scrum of
"If you’re both good and honest at what you
do, you don’t create those kinds of enemies," says Durenberger. "Sam
and Ralph are always out front about what they think. Their biggest
clients, and in Sam’s case politicians, seek Sam and Ralph out for
their judgment. In politics you quickly learn to rely on people whose
judgment has been right, consistently.
"And also with those two,
I have never felt an ounce-not one ounce-of self-serving in their
advice and thinking. And God," Durenberger laughs, "have I been around
a lot of self-serving people in the political realm."
The physical center of the Kaplans’
influence is their ten-thousand-square-foot home just off the West
River Parkway near Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. While liberals
dreaming of public office first seek approval in Sam’s office on the
fifty-fifth floor of the Wells Fargo tower, high above downtown, it is
not until both Kaplans consent to hosting a fund-raiser at their home
that their blessing-with all its access to money, staff resources, and
the chattering classes-is actually bestowed.
The Kaplan manse was
specifically designed to accommodate hundreds of milling, mingling
opinion-shapers. Along with two living rooms, two dining areas, two
porches, a large well-lit hallway, a sprawling kitchen-where Sylvia
personally prepares the food for every event-there are two sets of
steps leading to different areas of the home. It is on the steps
leading to a large atrium that politicians from Keith Ellison and Paul Wellstone to Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have spoken.
have been a handful of watershed decisions in the Kaplans’
blessing-and-bestowal process. The most legendary was their decision to
commit to Wellstone, that wild-haired, fist-pumping, lectern-banging
Carleton professor, back in 1990. There was also the moment in 2002
when they decided R. T. Rybak wanted the mayor’s office in Minneapolis more than Sharon Sayles Belton,
who they had previously supported. And more recently, in 2006, there
was Keith Ellison, laden with what, from a distance, looked and smelled
like some seriously problematic anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic,
An event for Ellison at the Kaplans’ last summer, on a
blazingly hot afternoon that maxed out the air conditioning, drew
pretty much every local Democrat with either a title or a checkbook-or
both-and a lot of people who only knew someone with one of those. In
the crowd were Walter Mondale, Mike Ciresi, Al Franken, Bob Olson, Chris Coleman, Amy Klobuchar, R.T. Rybak, Rebecca Yanisch, and Mark Ritchie, among those who didn’t need nametags.
is a protocol to these events. For the first hour or so, Sam circulates
near the front door, personally welcoming every guest. As greeters go,
he’s the gold standard. He shakes your hand, makes a gracious personal
inquiry into your work, your family, or something said the last time he
spoke with you, offers a glass of wine: Red or white? He usually
fetches it himself and then steers you to someone he thinks you need to
Sylvia, meanwhile, is in constant motion, ferrying huge
platters of food to buffet tables, brusquely telling everyone who
greets her, and thus interrupts her, "Hi. Hi. Have some of this. Eat!
Once everyone has arrived, schmoozed, and knocked back a
glass or two, Sam ascends the steps to a raised dining area and asks
for everyone’s attention. The crowd knows to shut up, because this part
is always good. By way of introduction, he spins a tale applying
context and value to the event’s star attraction or organization,
managing also to draw on Jewish tradition, Mayan lore, Borscht Belt
comics, McCarthy-Humphrey ’68, and God knows what else, never failing
to nail his landing within that delicate window-not too brief, not too
long-that reminds the audience he is merely the presenter, the feature
event is yet to come.
Watching him do this a few times,
listening to him discuss the importance of getting something done for
the common good (as opposed to engaging in poison-tipped politics for
the sake of power), you start thinking, "Damn, that is smooth." When he
waves you over to share some first-rate Scotch brought by Art
Himmelman, you think, "This act should play in D.C."
Himmelman, the consultant and long-time liberal activist (and the man
who hooked up Wellstone and the Kaplans), who distills the essence of
the Kaplans’ enduring influence: "It is a genuine intellectual
maturity," he says-a form of high emotional intelligence that others
seem to sense instinctively.
On this particular day, Ellison
follows Sam up the steps and makes an impassioned call to action on a
slate of liberal causes: immigration, cronyism in D.C., the war in
Iraq, predatory lending. Toward the end, he strikes a modest note of
fealty, thanking Sam and Sylvia "for holding an event for me, right
here in this house at exactly the moment I needed it most." He is
referring to his moment of bestowal a year earlier.