It’s hard to imagine Minnesota politics without Pat Kessler. While the 67-year-old news hound insists he’ll still contribute special reports to WCCO and appear on KFAN radio, he officially slips into retirement after this election cycle.
“It’s been a great run,” Kessler said by phone last week. “I’ve loved every minute of it. I tell people that I can count the fingers on one hand the number of times I didn’t want to go in to work. That just doesn’t happen.”
What made the reporter’s 36-year run at the CBS affiliate WCCO even more remarkable is how he managed to maintain a tone of civility in the most heated circumstances. His signature segment, “Reality Check,” kept politicians on their toes without stomping on them in glee or anger.
“Besides his kindness, I love how funny he is, how he can stand up for himself in the classiest ways and really cared about telling the truth,” said former WCCO anchor Jamie Yuccas, currently a Los Angeles-based correspondent and anchor for CBS News. “I remember overhearing in the newsroom once that he was receiving death threats online and I thought, ‘Who on Earth could be that hateful to one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in the business?’ I’m glad I had a mentor like Pat who always took the high road and didn’t engage, but instead became curious about people who were angry with him.”
While he’ll be best remembered for covering major state and national races, he also managed to explain mundane issues to viewers without making them feel like he was selling them broccoli.
“There’s a lot of boring stuff that goes on politics, but he would break it down in a way that showed how it would affect you,” said former WCCO sports anchor Mark Rosen. “He was always engaged. You can’t go to school for that.”
Kessler, who grew up in Hawley, Minn., and attended Macalester College, said that while he always had an interest in politics, he didn’t consider making it a full-time gig until he started covering Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1984.
“The door opened and I stuck my foot in before they could close it,” he said.
As he prepared for a potentially wild election night, Kessler looked back on some of the most memorable figures and moments from his stellar career.
Jesse Ventura (governor, 1999-2003)
“We had a love-hate relationship. I loved him; he hated me. If he didn’t like you, you couldn’t come to press conferences unless you wore a ‘jackal’ badge, which was a lanyard with his face on it. At one point, he refused to do an interview with me unless I provided him with the station’s written code of ethics. I photocopied him a couple of things: the Ten Commandments and the First Amendment. I did not get the interview. That being said, he was a pretty good governor. He appointed really good people and was smart enough to know what he didn’t know. He took advice.”
The Dalai Lama
“He had come to visit Jesse [in 2001]. When he exited the governor’s office, there were all these people lined up to greet this great holy man. As he walked past me, I yelled, ‘What did he tell you?’ The Dalai Lama stopped, turned around and came up to me. He took my right hand with both of his and said, ‘Make sure you watch him.’ After he left, I started walking down the hall and people started to follow me. Since I had touched the Dalai Lama, they wanted to touch my hand. I was gobsmacked by that.”
Michele Bachmann (U.S. representative, 2007-15)
“She was a very important figure in the 2000s. She had her finger on the pulse of a lot of Minnesotans who thought politics were getting too liberal and too secular. She was able to capitalize on that and take her message from the state Legislature, then Congress and then run for president. That’s no small thing. In her speeches, she threw a lot of red meat to her followers, but she was always very kind and polite to me in our personal interactions. If she didn’t care for me personally or politically, she never showed it.”
Paul Wellstone (U.S. senator, 1991-2002)
“I knew him back when he was protesting on behalf of farmers. I remember him jumping up on a table in a bank to rally everybody. The day he died [in a 2002 plane crash], that was one of those moments that shocked the entire state. That was really difficult. I knew everybody on that plane. [Campaign staffer] Mary McEvoy was a dear friend. Our children played hockey together. We went to the same church. That was personal. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that reporters accumulate a lot of pain that they don’t deal with. I’m not sure how you can, other than to hug your family a little closer.”
“I like public officials. I think most of them get into it for the right reasons. They’re the kind of people you want to have at a BBQ. But it’s the political movements that fascinate me more than anything. Like when gay marriage was legalized. I watched that issue go from public disapproval to approval. There was that moment when thousands of people came to the State Capitol, lining every floor from top to bottom, chanting their support. Those are the kinds of memories that stick out, those cultural shifts. It’s the same with racial equality this past summer. The public understanding of the issue completely changed here in a way I’ve rarely seen in my 40-year career.”
“This may be the biggest story of our careers. It’s disrupted our lives in ways I think will be long-lasting. COVID has changed the way we cover stories. Many of us are now working remotely. As reporters, we used to knock on doors. Will we ever do that again? Will we go out and cover stories where people hug you and cry? Those are things I wonder about.”