Over at his North Side office
a few days later, I ask Ellison to describe how he made the sale to the
Kaplans back in the spring of ’06-back when the Republican opposition
machine was shrieking "Louis Farrakhan-lovin’ Muslim" at 150 decibels.
Worse still, plenty of mainstream Democrats were thinking this time the
Republican echo chamber might be onto something.
really no selling," replies Ellison. "I’m no good at trying to sell
stuff." Ellison has a fairly high cock-of-the-walk factor, so it’s not
surprising he won’t cop to his need to tie up with the state’s most
prominent political brokers."Here’s the deal," he says, tilting back in
his chair. "The way I see it, Sam and Sylvia are people who have a
strong sense of the common good and what has to be done to achieve it.
Did I want their endorsement and support? Of course. Not only do they
have resources, they have contacts to people who have resources. They
are what I think of as practical idealists. Once we finally had a
chance to talk, what I wanted to make clear was that I thought we
shared the desire to see more inclusive government. If that’s making a
sale, well, OK. But we just had a very good conversation. We just sat
at a table down at the convention in Rochester and kicked it for
In truth, that seemingly impromptu conversation in
Rochester had been coordinated by attorney Andy Lugar and urged upon
the Kaplans by prominent DFL activist and state representative, Frank
Hornstein, who had already made his philosophic peace with Ellison."The
Kaplans really are guided by a deep-seated sense of values which I had
also seen in Keith," says Hornstein. "So in my mind they needed to get
together." The affection between the Kaplans and Ellison seems real,
even allowing for the usual swoony talk between politician and patron.
Individually, all three echo the same issues and positions. Sam and
Sylvia, together and separately, gush over Ellison’s commitment, his
Wellstone-like energy for both campaigning and working his district,
and the discipline he’s shown in his first year in D.C. (probably due
in no small part to the Kaplans’ having connected him with former
Wellstone chief of staff Kari Moe).
Sylvia," says Ellison, "you can feel her decisions are motivated by her
heart, while Sam is more nuanced. You can see him rolling all the
factors around in his head. I think that’s what makes them a good team,
and they are very much a team-a big-time team. And they really respect
I asked Ellison, as I did everyone for this story,
if they could think of a conservative counterpart to the Kaplans. Is,
for example, Bill Cooper, former Republican Party chair and
chairman/CEO of TCF Financial, equally effective in terms of providing
a reliable conduit to influence, in terms of getting pieces moved on
the political chess board?
"Cooper’s thing is fear-based," says
Ellison. "With Sam and Sylvia you never get this feeling that ‘our good
fortune depends on your demise.’ I don’t know what you’ve seen, but Sam
seems like a pretty happy guy to me. He’s not some cranky
seventy-year-old, and he is certainly not an arrogant dude. "
Sam’s office in the Wells Fargo Center is not at all the daunting, pin-striped, baronial sanctum sanctorum
one might imagine. There is no sinister John Grisham quality to it.
Instead of slabs of lacquered mahogany and oil portraits of jowly
robber barons, the green-walled space is a tasteful riot of art,
artifacts, and furniture that he and Sylvia have collected on their
travels. Getting Sam to thoroughly deconstruct the specific qualities
and techniques of his success is not easy. While he acknowledges the
prominence of his firm and the picture of the law-school golden boy
Durenberger paints, he isn’t particularly comfortable with the term
"kingmaker," I gather because of its insinuation of crass, ham-fisted
power. He prefers instead to guide the conversation, with a seasoned
attorney’s skill, toward a more refined topic-such as the vital need
for respectful interaction between business and political adversaries.
Sam is proud that many of his biggest clients are Republicans. But he
is quick to clarify: "I have no Republican friends or clients-none-who
believe that the most important issue is being anti-gay marriage or
anti-abortion. Republicans that I know, the people that I know and
understand, want to reduce the amount of government regulation, reduce
the amount of government taxation. They want to take government more
out of your life. Those are the kinds of issues that I understand. I
don’t agree with them, but I can understand them. That’s why we come
together. They have a point of view I can respect."
Democrats who aren’t in sync with the Kaplans, and who don’t see an
upside to going on record with disparaging comments, seem most
irritated by the couple’s big footprint of influence, and as a few
mentioned, Sam’s representation of people like UnitedHealth Group
tycoon Bill McGuire and mega-car dealer Denny Hecker. In Sam’s office,
I bring up the Bill Cooper-as-counterpart example and Sam reminds me
that he represented Cooper in TCF’s $35 million negotiations for naming
rights to the Gophers’ football stadium, and that he sought Cooper’s
advice eight years ago when he considered selling Bank Windsor.
encouraged me to sell, and he was absolutely right. He is a banker par
excellence, and he has tremendous understanding of the industry and
But, I point out, the political style of the legendarily
prickly Cooper bears little resemblance to the Kaplan touch. Sam smiles
at the comparison. "I believe [Bill] has a tone that is much harsher
than his real makeup. Bill," he adds diplomatically, "can be impatient
The take-away point is that in business and
politics, ambitious, successful people gravitate to good judgment.
Moreover, the contacts sustained via good judgment are fragile, and
those who exert influence engage in destructive, exclusionary
activities at their reputation’s peril.
"Because I believe in a
negotiating process that is congenial and convivial, where people sit
down and reason together," says Sam, "people don’t believe that I might
be a partisan political person. They should. The truth of the matter is
that I believe passionately in partisan politics. The notion of
candidates sort of smoothing over what their positions are is not
attractive to me at all. We should be who we are. Once elected it’s
quite a different matter. People should come together and look for ways
to find common ground. I just want to be sure we have our point of view
at the table."
That said, he agrees these are times that call
for his side, liberals and Democrats, to play a tougher game than they
have. The stench from tactics like the Swift Boaters vs. John Kerry
appalls the fair-minded. But there is no denying that it helped turn an
election. The bare-knuckle style of Rahm Emanuel, the current head of
the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "is not my style,"
says Sam. "But it is effective. He won, didn’t he? And yes, I think we
need to be tougher."
While Sylvia and Sam, along with Mike and
Ann Ciresi, Vance and Darin Opperman, and Walter and Joan Mondale,
co-chaired the Minnesota committee for John Kerry in ’04, their
enthusiasm waned when it became clear Kerry wasn’t tough enough.
According to Sam, "he had a lot of people pushing him around. He was
paying attention to people who had never won an election."
They’re jazzed about Barack Obama because they believe they see someone who fully mirrors their values.
have gone to a lot of Barack Obama events," says Sam. "We have had
dinner with him, quietly and privately. We’ve seen the people there."
The Kaplans appear to have made an art of studying those whom the
ambitious call their friends.
"First of all, they are so
gracious. His is a Midwest campaign. But this is a tough guy. Sylvia
will tell you this is the first candidate she’s ever met whom she
didn’t want to tell what he should say." Sam smiles at that one.