Odd couple team up to land Vikings for underdog

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2011 - 12:53 PM

When the Minnesota Vikings set out looking for bipartisan support to build a stadium, they probably didn't know they would find staunch allies in the guise of East Side Tony and West Side Rafael, two guys from the blue-collar parts of town on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett grew up on St. Paul's East Side. He went to the University of Minnesota, then the University of St. Thomas, where he studied business management. Then he became a cop, patrolling tough-guy Rice Street for 26 years. Bennett also took up politics, serving as a Republican in the Legislature from 1970-1974 and again from 1982-1990, before being appointed U.S. marshal for the state.

Ortega grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side and attended Fordham University before coming to Minnesota to get his masters in social work. Ortega, a self-described liberal, worked for St. Paul nonprofits, often giving aid and advice to the mentally ill, and many of the same kinds of people Bennett arrested.

As commissioners, Ortega boasts of "protecting Ramsey County's most vulnerable residents," while Bennett has prided himself on watching the bottom line.

"We're very much an odd couple," said Ortega. "We're opposite in almost every way. I like to drink, he likes to eat. He's big, I'm small. I was a social worker, he was a cop. My brother is a cop, and their world view is a certain way. He's aggressive, but I can handle him. I can give it back."

In fact, the two have been "partners in crime" (as one observer put it) many times over their 16 years together on the board. They shared opinions on the need for public transportation in Ramsey County, and voted to buy land from the Postal Service in downtown St. Paul for a regional hub. When Bennett reluctantly voted for the expenditure, he said the county needed to look past immediate costs and have a "vision" for the future.

It's a term both use a lot, including their descriptions of the Vikings deal.

Bennett and Ortega have worked together on riverfront development, and attempted to bend politicians' ears to consider expanding light rail to a loop around the cities. But they've also disagreed on many major issues, including immigration and spending on mental health.

"We have a good relationship because I am more tolerant," Ortega quipped. "I take the time to argue and convince. I can say things to him and they will roll off his back because there's trust. If there wasn't, he'd hate me."

Ortega teases Bennett that he "missed his calling as an engineer" because the East Sider likes the nuts and bolts of deals. "He likes to be in the weeds," Ortega said.

Bennett agrees.

"We're a lot alike. I'm Sicilian, he's Puerto Rican," said Bennett. "We banter back and forth; you should see it sometimes. But we work it out. That's what the Legislature used to be like. You sat by members from the other party and you got to know them and their kids and you got things done. That's been lost."

Susan Kimberly, former deputy mayor and Chamber of Commerce head, said: "Tony is always working on an idea," while "Rafael is a pretty serious guy who thinks very big picture."

The two have been working on the Vikings plan for nearly two years, they said.

"Rafael and I had a conversation about this 18 months ago and he asked me not to say anything," said Kimberly. "Their style has been to keep doing the work and keeping it quiet. I wasn't optimistic these guys would be successful because Minneapolis wins everything. They have a long way to go, but this is a very major piece of work."

The Vikings deal is by no means certain. I'm skeptical that the Wilfs won't play Lucy and pull the football away from yet another sad sack, Charlie-Brown suburb. Or that the Legislature won't defer to the weight of public opinion that has been squarely opposed to public financing of the deal.

If the team does build its new stadium at the former Arden Hills munitions plant, however, they will give sports writers endless puns for describing the Vikings offense, and gain praise or notoriety to the East-side, West-side dynamic duo of Bennett and Ortega.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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