Millions for Park Board work
That political involvement has translated into government work. Rice’s largest mark is perhaps on the city Park Board, where he has worked since the mid-1980s and is so immersed in the agency that it pays his firm, Rice Michels & Walther, without using a formal contract. The firm has received $3 million from the Park Board since 2008, and last year alone took in $529,339 in legal fees and $77,869 for lobbying.
Commissioners vote to appoint him as board attorney every year, and approve separate contracts for him to lobby the Legislature. Earlier this year, the board added a contract for about $6,000 for Rice’s firm to lobby the federal government, too.
Park Board President John Erwin said Rice’s hourly fee has remained the same $125 for more than a decade and that it is far lower than what other firms would charge. Asked whether the board had similar no-contract arrangements with other entities, he said no, but that if Rice ever increased his fees it would prompt the board to re-evaluate his services.
If the board hired new lawyers, “I think we commissioners have concern about the loss of institutional memory or history that we have with this firm,” Erwin said.
And he and Rice noted that the Park Board receives significant returns on his lobbying efforts, bringing in $174 million from the State Capitol since he began.
Rice has also contributed thousands to park commissioners’ campaigns, but less so in this election cycle. He did give $300 to Erwin, and said that when people ask him for contributions he’ll contribute.
Pension battle still roils
But it’s his legal and lobbying work on behalf of police and firefighter pension funds that has attracted the most attention in the Minneapolis mayoral race. Hodges has repeatedly slammed him in public as a “middleman” who fought City Hall’s efforts to reform the pension system.
The city sued the closed funds in 2006, claiming they had improperly padded pensions to retirees and their survivors and seeking to retrieve $52 million. The dispute ended in 2011, when an agreement was reached entailing legislative approval to merge those funds with a statewide fund.
Rice disputed charges by Hodges and Rybak that he had obstructed pension reform, saying he had actually worked with the city and Legislature on the final compromise.
“My job is to represent my clients … in the end we found a solution that was good for everyone,” said Rice.
Tension remains high about the state takeover of the pension fund and who played what role. In a Facebook conversation this weekend, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, rose to Rice’s defense, suggesting that everyone “look carefully” at how the bills were passed. “It doesn’t result from people unwilling to compromise and grandstand. It happens because of a willingness to compromise,” he wrote.
In recent years, Rice has worked on the campaigns of state Reps. Phyllis Kahn and Kari Dziedzic, in addition to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
It was on Dziedzic’s campaign in a 2012 special election when he met Warsame, who was campaigning for Dziedzic’s opponent, another Somali-American named Mohamud Noor. Noor lost the primary, but Rice was impressed by the turnout of East African immigrants his campaign had produced.
He later sat down with Warsame and suggested he advocate for a ward with more East Africans in it during the city redistricting process, when ward boundaries are redrawn to account for population changes. Warsame and his allies succeeded, and Rice was one of the few non-East Africans in the room by the end of the Sixth Ward council convention in which Warsame won the DFL nomination in April.
“He picks winners,” said Warsame, as he stressed that the main work of mobilizing East African voters has been his own.