Brian Rice: Behind the scenes in Minneapolis politics, but widespread influence

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 30, 2013 - 5:38 PM

Political operative Brian Rice is an influential but divisive Mpls. power broker.

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Attorney Brian Rice, in his office, is considered a vital person by many considering a run for office in Minneapolis.

Photo: JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribune.com,

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As Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew’s campaign workers prepared to put out lawn signs, longtime political operative Brian Rice sent out an e-mail this summer to rally the staff.

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen and Airwomen of the Mark Andrew Expeditionary Forces,” he wrote, lifting from General Dwight Eisenhower’s message to Allied soldiers before the 1944 invasion of Normandy. “You are about to embark on the Great Crusade … Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened having walked out of at least one convention. They will fight savagely.”

Well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened are all words that could have described Rice himself, a veteran of political campaigns since he was in elementary school who is playing a part in some of the city’s most closely watched campaigns.

The 56-year-old attorney has helped raise money for Andrew and is a strategist behind the campaign of Abdi Warsame, who could be the first Somali-American to win a seat on the City Council in the sixth ward.

Council Member Betsy Hodges, another mayoral candidate, has repeatedly criticized Rice on the campaign trail — and in effect, Andrew — as an obstacle in her efforts toward the 2011 reform of the city pension system that saved millions of dollars, a barb echoed by Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rice represents the city’s police and fire unions, in addition to his lucrative work as a lawyer and lobbyist for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and Hennepin County.

Rice “probably has more direct interests with what happens in City Hall than any other individual,” Rybak said last week. “Brian doesn’t operate in the sunlight, but those of us who know how things work certainly see his hand guiding a lot of the hardball politics that sometimes try to resist change.”

While Rice said he sent the e-mail as a tongue-in-cheek gesture, rather than in an effort to compare his opponents to Nazis, he acknowledged that his passion for military history informs his political thinking.

He expounded on the Battle of Gettysburg to fellow DFLer supporters of Mark Dayton’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010, suggesting they rerun an earlier ad critical of Republican candidate Tom Emmer in the final days of the race. Up until Gettysburg, he said, the Union Army had suffered repeated defeats by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but on the last day of the battle their positions reversed, giving them a chance to inflict the same damage to the Confederates that had been done to them.

Likewise, Republicans had for years run hard-hitting ads against DFL candidates, who had not captured the governor’s seat in 24 years. Rice called for them to “go with the best weapon we have”: running a TV commercial from early in the race in which a client of his whose son was killed by a drunken driver spoke about how Emmer, who had several DWIs, sponsored legislation to reduce penalties for drunken driving.

The year after winning the election, Dayton appointed Rice to the Civil War Commemoration Task Force.

An early start

Rice grew up seeped in politics as the son of state Rep. Jim Rice, a DFLer who represented Minneapolis’ North Side.

“Some people read the baseball almanac scores,” said Brian Rice. “I read the blue books for election results.”

He peddled political literature for former Mayor Al Hofstede and former council President Louis DeMars. By his junior year at DeLaSalle High School, he worked as a City Hall aide to Minneapolis Alderman Dick Miller, addressing complaints about bad landlords and neighbors not mowing the lawn.

Rice was only 14 when he helped John Derus win his first election in 1971, to the City Council. Derus was faring poorly against his opponent and Rice, who knew Derus through his father, told him he would lose because a number of people in the ward were Scandinavian and he was Irish.

Derus was skeptical, but Rice suggested he call up former Gov. Karl Rolvaag, who was of Norwegian descent, to door-knock with him in Scandinavian areas. Rolvaag agreed, and Rice would sit in the living room, poring over numbers and making suggestions about who to talk to based on what block they controlled. Derus wound up winning those precincts and the ward altogether.

“You could tell right away this kid was going to be somebody … He’s just a whiz at the mathematics of politics,” said Derus. “He’s seldom wrong, and he’s sought out by people running.”

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