In the 15 years it took to get the new Minnesota Vikings stadium built, Lester Bagley was the guy out front, trying to complete a complicated project under intense pressure from team owners and emotional hometown scrutiny.
The effort sometimes became a grim slog, and he personally felt the public animosity when he got angry calls at his home. But Bagley methodically trudged along, through three governors, scores of state legislators and on behalf of two different out-of-state ownership groups.
The strategy, the Vikings executive vice president of public affairs and stadium development said, was simple: perseverance. “We went to the Capitol and built momentum,” Bagley said in a recent interview. “We had no choice but to follow through.”
In August 2016, the $1.1 billion stadium’s giant glass doors will pivot open for the NFL season, bringing fans into the seats of the largest public-private partnership in state history. Taxpayers are covering about half the cost and there remain daily backroom battles with contractors, the stadium authority and the Vikings over upgrades, additions and costs. Bagley still puts in the same long days he did lobbying for the project. When an event or meeting involves the team’s interests, Bagley’s there.
His unflagging advocacy for Mark and Zygi Wilf’s interests has made him the convenient punchline for those who want to take cracks at his more elusive billionaire bosses.
“He’s been forced to take on the good and the bad,” said Duane Benson, Bagley’s former boss at the Minnesota Business Partnership, who until next month is on the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.
Bagley’s controlled and guarded work persona has given rise to criticism that he is a light weight. Even some supporters said they initially wondered whether he had the temperament and bargaining skills to muscle through such a complex project.
Former state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Louis Park, credits stadium passage to the power of a popular sports franchise, firm backing from Gov. Mark Dayton and a fleet of highly paid lobbyists — not Bagley. “He was always pleasant to deal with and had the sense to be respectful to legislators because everything went his way,” Winkler said. “I have no idea how he would have dealt with a more challenging legislative project.”
Bagley said the deal the Vikings have is a fair one for the public and he’s personally “learned to deal” with the sharp jabs. “The intensity and the stakes were so high,” Bagley said.
Bagley was the third of three children from a modest, middle-class family in Barron, Wis. His dad started a farm implement business and mom worked for the Farmers Home Administration. Bagley was a Green Bay Packers fan who recalls wide receiver Boyd Dowler visiting his school when he was 9. Bagley started college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities but transferred to UCLA to study political science.
His first foray into politics came as a college intern on Barry Goldwater Jr.’s failed U.S. Senate bid in California. A staff member then recommended Bagley for an internship in President Reagan’s White House. From there it was back to California for another losing U.S. Senate campaign. He said he was fascinated by the work, the process of preparing a candidate and he went back to D.C. where he landed a public affairs job. He trained campaign managers in grass roots organizing, which led to working at a firm representing the oil and auto companies.
After five years, he’d had enough of D.C. and went to work for the state Senate Republican caucus in Oregon.
But he didn’t see his family or friends much, and he felt the pull of the Midwest. By way of work in Chicago and Madison, Bagley landed interviews for the No. 2 job at the Minnesota Business Partnership, the high-profile coalition of CEOs from the state’s largest corporations. After about five interviews, he got the gig.
He spent five years at the partnership before launching his own public affairs firm. One of his first clients was Red McCombs, then-owner of the Vikings, who put Bagley in charge of getting the team a new stadium. In September 2004, McCombs dropped his stadium bid and reportedly cut Bagley loose in preparation for selling the team.
Bagley said that behind the scenes, McCombs had sent him to work with Zygi Wilf, who would buy the team about eight months later. After the Wilfs closed the deal, Bagley closed his firm and moved to the team’s Winter Park executive offices.
In person, Bagley is friendly, gentle and mischievously funny. He appears more imposing in formal settings. He said he’s been told to tone down what comes across on television as the “snark factor.”
Bill Lester, who ran the Metrodome, said initially “everyone involved in the stadium issues thought he was terribly overmatched” but “in the end the Vikings, with him in the lead, prevailed.”
Kathleen Lamb, a lawyer and lobbyist, helped draft the stadium legislation. She’s known Bagley professionally for years. “He represents his client very tenaciously,” she said. “There wasn’t a meeting where he wasn’t there, and he led his team quite well.”
Benson was effusive in praising Bagley, saying he didn’t need guidance on how to do his job and was never one to push others aside for credit. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously; he takes what he does seriously,” Benson said.
Team owner Mark Wilf, in a written statement, said he and his brother were comfortable with Bagley all along.
“Our families have spent a significant amount of time together and have grown close over the years,” he said. “Lester’s work ethic is outstanding, and he plays a big role within our leadership team at the Vikings — a leadership team we are proud to say has remained intact over the 10 years of owning this franchise.”
Mark Oyaas, a Minneapolis-based public affairs consultant, said he called Bagley for help several years ago when a player on the Southwest High School football team lost all of his gear in a fire at his home. Oyaas said he was surprised when Bagley called right back and within three days a box of new gear — including size 18 cleats — arrived at the high school in Minneapolis.
“There was no way for them to get PR out of that other than me blabbing around about it,” Oyaas said.
On Friday, Bagley was back from a family trip to a morning packed with big meetings. He also had to finish up a media photo shoot. Before getting into his truck, he smiled and said, “I’ll be glad when this is over.”