The fall of Michael Brodkorb

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 11:57 AM

He battled and blogged his way to the top of state GOP - and then crashed amid party turmoil.

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Michael Brodkorb had a unique dual role at the Legislature, both as a paid Senate staffer and a deputy chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party. He insists he will “rise up again.”

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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It's the sort of story that superblogger Michael Brodkorb would have topped with one of his blood-red headlines:

SENATE LEADER AND POWERFUL AIDE FALL IN SCANDAL.

But in stark contrast to the days when his blogging inflicted so much damage on his political opponents, now it's Brodkorb taking the fall. He was ousted last week from his powerful role as communications director of the Senate majority and then quit as adviser to a congressional campaign, all in the immediate aftermath of Sen. Amy Koch's resignation as majority leader amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with an unnamed staffer.

It's not entirely clear if he is the staffer in question, or what the nature of the relationship was. No one is talking. But it is clear that Brodkorb, who made his name as a Democrat-slaying muckraker and became a Republican leader feared by foes as well as some friends, has had a sudden crash.

His enemies see a karmic comeuppance. But even they admit there is no one in state politics quite like Brodkorb -- fiercely driven and committed, gifted at both sifting through an opponent's garbage and designing his own team's message, a fearless warrior and in-fighter who has a courtly way of addressing people as "mister" and "sir.''

"He's somebody you'd always love to have on your side,'' said Ron Carey, a former state party chairman. "He is a very passionate and hard-charging person.''

Ken Martin, chair of the DFL Party, said, "When you practice the type of politics they practice, very divisive and personal, destructive politics. ... When you find yourself in trouble and look around for supporters and help, there's no one there."

Brodkorb, who turns 38 Friday, was never the candidate out front, but always the aide in the background. Friends recall him as a young man from Forest Lake and the University of Minnesota Duluth who couldn't get enough of conservative politics. He moved through positions in campaigns, the Legislature and the party before he found his true calling: those screaming scarlet headlines.

"Another Bad Press Day for Keith Ellison ... Worries About Franken Meltdown ... Matt Entenza Caught in Another Lie." These were posts from "Minnesota Democrats Exposed,'' Brodkorb's online blog. Al Franken's messy business affairs during his 2008 U.S. Senate campaign, Matt Entenza's use of a private investigator against a fellow Democrat during Entenza's 2006 race for attorney general, Ellison's driving records during his 2006 Congressional campaign -- each merited lots of red ink.

Brodkorb blogged anonymously at first, then was "outed" during an unsuccessful lawsuit against him. His stream of scooplets brought praise from the New York Times and other publications. Colleagues and rivals say he has a natural gift for what is known variously "opposition research" or "digging up dirt."

"He's got a vision for the way pieces fit together -- he sees things before other people do,'' said Chris Tiedeman, a longtime friend and fellow Republican activist. "He's aggressive, he's passionate. Once he knows something's there, he digs in.''

Brodkorb sometimes turned his passion on his own. Andy Aplikowski, a fellow Republican and conservative blogger, said he received screaming calls from Brodkorb when they differed.

"It got to the point where I couldn't take his calls at work,'' Aplikowski said. He recalls Brodkorb as someone who would "throw sharp elbows within his own party.''

Pushing the limits

In 2009, Brodkorb was elected deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, and combined that role with a communications job at the Senate Republican caucus. Working closely with Koch last year, he helped engineer the first Republican takeover of the Senate in nearly four decades. He remained at her side during the tumultuous shutdown session this year as the caucus' $90,070-per-year communications director.

Standing near Koch and Senate leaders, in a dark suit and a buzz cut, Brodkorb's thumbs were often moving across his handheld device. He smoothly segued from blogging to Twitter, and he and other staffers were known to tweet real-time takes on friends and foes as meetings, hearings and floor sessions were unfolding.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he objected to Koch about staffers' tweeting activity, particularly when the attacks resulted in a member, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-St. Louis Park, receiving death threats. "I went to Amy's office with Terri and said Brodkorb's got to cool his jets,'' Bakk said.

This dual role was unique in the Legislature, where there is supposed to be a line between outright politicking and paid government work. "He was clearly up there to raise the partisan temperature,'' said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

Among his admirers, he was regarded as a good strategist, particularly in crafting a message to changing events. His mentor at the Republican Party, former chairman Tony Sutton, once said he carried the party's message "whatever the personal costs to himself.'' He carried it even into the lion's den, such as when he strolled through the DFL state convention in Duluth last year to give his take to reporters.

Brodkorb could also be hard on members of his own team, and his eruptions could leave fear in his wake. Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, faced intense caucus pressure when he discussed tax reform with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. A source said Brodkorb bitterly attacked Howe in front of leadership, and that the party got activists to complain to Howe's constituents. Howe would not comment.

In June, Eagan police were called to Brodkorb's home. According to the police report, his wife called 911 during an argument. Police said his wife said that they were having "marital issues" and that Brodkorb's anger frightened her. Officers determined that no one was physically abused, and no arrests were made. Their three young children were present at the time.

'I will rise up again'

Brodkorb has not spoken publicly about the scandal and said he will not discuss his relationship with Koch or any personal matters. In an e-mail to the Star Tribune on Thursday, he discussed complaints about his abrasive methods. He said he regards politics as a "combat sport. My team was the GOP and I was always loyal to the cause." Paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt, he said he "never wanted to be one of those timid souls that knew neither victory nor defeat.'' 

And he said he will be back in the game.

"I've had offers from campaigns and PR firms about work,'' he wrote. "But my goal right now is my family and health, but like the mythical Phoenix, I will rise up again, but it won't be from any ashes.''

Sutton resigned from the party earlier this month, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Brodkorb has left his party job, his Senate job and his position helping Sen. Mike Parry's congressional campaign. He fired a parting shot this month, saying Tom Emmer, the party's 2010 gubernatorial candidate, was "the one Republican who couldn't win'' in a great Republican year.

"Minnesota Democrats Exposed,'' Brodkorb's old blog, did not cover the Senate developments. The Minnesota Progressive Project did so, not with red ink, but with a screaming headline: "MINNESOTA DEMAGOGUES EXPOSED: WOULD MICHAEL BRODKORB FACE JAIL TIME?"

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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