Political operative Brian Rice is an influential but divisive Mpls. power broker.
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.”
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.
Rice also met with Andrew at Elsie’s bowling alley in northeast Minneapolis when he first decided he would run for mayor, helping him draft a list of the influential people whose support he should seek out. While Rice has helped with fundraisers and been a supporter, he insists there are at least 15 other people more important than him on the Andrew team.
His reported influence, however, recently caught the attention of underdog mayoral candidate Cam Winton, who at a debate last week urged people to look into whether Rice was organizing “independent expenditures” on behalf of a candidate who he later clarified was Andrew.
Not true, said Rice.
“If I did one-eighth of what everybody says I do,” he said, “I’m really an amazing human being.”