Ciresi Does It

Mike Ciresi tops the Super Lawyers list and looks to become our next U.S. senator

Published in 2007 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2007

It’s a beautiful late-May Saturday and the 25 hardest-core DFLers at the Apple Valley Community Center are doing their best to avoid a tan. The Senate District 37 meeting features only one candidate’s table, and it belongs to Mike Ciresi. Ciresi, dressed like a senior partner on Casual Friday (open-necked dress shirt, pressed jeans, sports coat), is there to mingle with future delegates who, a year from now, will likely choose him or Al Franken to face incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman. Both DFLers have pledged to abide by the party’s pre-primary endorsement.

When Ciresi gets his two minutes in front of the assembly, he sounds like another trial-lawyer-turned-candidate: John Edwards, aka “the son of a mill worker.” Ciresi, the Robins Kaplan mastermind of the $6.6 billion tobacco settlement, introduces himself as the son of a St. Paul grocery store owner “with a seventh-grade education” who worked 72 hours a week, and “a mom who died from breast cancer when I was 12, so I know how much health care means.” The most important issue, he says, is “obviously the war, but also what’s happened to the middle class,” referencing folks with tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt. He cites global warming as a “national security issue” that if not addressed with good policy “we’ll be addressing with our troops.” Finally, Ciresi gets to the tobacco settlement, brushing past the government’s multibillion-dollar windfall. “More important, all this information came out. They were targeting our children,” he says with a dramatic pause. “They can’t do that anymore. We made a difference, and I can make a difference for you in the U.S. Senate.”

To respectful applause, Ciresi takes a back-row seat next to his wife, Ann. Then the district’s freshly minted state representative, Shelley Madore, gets up. She recounts a recent story about two congressmen trying to live on the $3 a day per person food stamps provide. With a catch in her throat, Madore condemns what she calls Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s tight-fisted budget that rejected tax hikes on the wealthy and that would have helped poorer Minnesotans. Looking over the crowd, her gaze settles on the back row: “And, Mr. Ciresi, I’m sorry, but I want to RAISE YOUR TAXES.”

Ciresi is nimble; he shouts, “Bless you!” Clasping his hands, he adds that when he talks to people in his income bracket, “they want their taxes raised too.”

The son of a grocer can’t escape being the richest guy in the room. Still, Ciresi politely sits through another half-hour of the meeting and then mingles outside with a few delegates who wander out. About five minutes after the meeting breaks up, a harried-looking Al Franken rushes in. Dressed like Paul Wellstone—regular-guy jeans, blue work shirt—Franken is a bit schlumpy, but delegates form an excited semicircle around him. He fields questions for 20 minutes, and even though the celebrity is obviously an amateur politician—he doesn’t look people in the eye, and sometimes answers before droning questioners finish—the last thing I hear as I leave are the delegates merrily serenading him with “Happy Birthday.”

Six years ago, in his first Senate run, Ciresi was the star, the man fresh off the biggest legal victory in the state’s—and possibly the nation’s—history. One of his first hires was Bill Hillsman, himself a star adman who, in the previous election, helped Jesse Ventura win the governorship eight years after performing miracles for Paul Wellstone. Ciresi ran in Wellstone’s party with Ventura’s outsider tactics: he refused to abide by the DFL’s endorsement process, and Hillsman’s ads plopped the trial lawyer on a snowmobile. (Not a reach; Ciresi’s dad owned one of the first Ski-Doos ever made).

For a while, it worked. Ciresi finished second among several candidates at the DFL convention—an impressive showing for an endorsement-bypasser—until another rich guy outmaneuvered him. In the primary, Mark Dayton—who ended up spending $12 million of his own money—crushed Ciresi 41 percent to 22 percent with an avalanche of post-convention ads targeted directly at the health care concerns of seniors—a reliable voting bloc. Ciresi dropped $5 million of his own cash on the loss.

In hindsight, he says, he tried to soft-pedal what he was—not a guy on a snowmobile, but a fighter who’d bring the snowmobile company to heel if they messed you up. Ciresi says he should have taken his pal John Edwards’ early advice and hired Bob Shrum, whose political consulting firm instead crafted Dayton’s strategy.

In 2006, Ciresi pondered a Senate run, but stepped aside for Amy Klobuchar. That January, Franken moved back to Minnesota and began crisscrossing the state, raising $1.1 million for his Midwest Values political action committee, pressing flesh and quipping wise at DFL bean feeds and coffee klatches. In contrast, Ciresi stayed behind the scenes. Kerry Greeley—a senior 2004 John Kerry staffer who managed Tim Walz’s upset 2006 victory over Gil Gutknecht and now Ciresi’s campaign manager—said Ciresi was among the biggest national fundraisers for Kerry and the biggest and earliest fundraiser for Walz. (The efforts helped neuter a charge that bedeviled Ciresi in 2000—that he wasn’t a generous enough giver to other DFL candidates and party committees. His 2004-06 work also established a donor base for the 2008 race; Ciresi has said he won’t self-finance.)

This time around, Hillsman is nowhere to be found and Ciresi has decided to abide by the DFL endorsement. That lowers his initial costs and enhances party unity should he win. Ciresi says he was heartened by his 2000 experience. “I got up and told the delegates I wouldn’t abide,” yet on the next-to-last ballot he trailed eventual endorsee Jerry Janezich just 39 percent to 30 percent. (Former U.S. attorney David Lillehaug, now of Fredrikson & Byron, also had 30 percent, and threw his support to Janezich; there is no love lost between the two lawyers.) Late in the game, Ciresi’s brain trust even considered switching gears and having the candidate announce that he would abide. Bob Decheine, then Ciresi’s campaign manager recalls, “I was 70-30 or 60-40 for it”—but Ciresi stuck with Plan A.

In the 2008 race, Ciresi’s delegate schmoozing really only began this spring; experienced DFL strategists peg Franken as a marginal favorite based on his 16-month head start, early fundraising and initial excitement.

But Ciresi is not without advantages. One is his wealth. He reports a net worth of $26.7 million; Franken between $4.3 million and $9.9 million. An ironic one is his lower profile this time around. The record shows that the two principals in the smoking case—Skip Humphrey and Mike Ciresi—went a combined oh-for-two in post-settlement statewide elections. However, time has only burnished the tobacco settlement. After all, a conservative Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, signed a statewide smoking ban—and, Ciresi adds sourly, emptied $1.1 billion from the settlement’s “tobacco prevention trust fund” to help balance Minnesota’s 2003 budget deficit.

Some settlement skeptics may forgive, but others have apparently forgotten. In a Minnesota Public Radio poll this May, fully 35 percent of Minnesotans didn’t recognize Ciresi’s name. (Twenty-one percent were Franken know-nothings, and 3 percent were clueless about Coleman.) At the Apple Valley event, the DFL district chair somewhat sheepishly asked Ciresi, “Are you the anti-smoking dude?”

The good news is that among the trio of well-funded candidates, Ciresi has the MPR poll’s lowest negatives: 13 percent, compared to 32 percent for Franken and Coleman’s 25 percent. In essence, Ciresi is the cash-rich candidate with the cleanest slate to create a victorious impression. “I learned last time that you have to define yourself early, consistently and repetitively,” Ciresi notes. Last time he was defined as a rich trial lawyer. This time he is pushing his image as a man who triumphs over injustice, and is, not incidentally, a generous benefactor to scores of Twin Cities causes. (Robins is the only firm in the nation with a public foundation, which Ciresi chairs; between 1999 and 2005, its grants totaled $7.2 million. The biggest beneficiaries are the St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools—listening, teacher’s unions?—and the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a potential selling point among swing Catholic voters. The firm’s more traditional private foundation has donated $19 million more, and Ciresi’s personal donations account for millions on top of that.)

Franken’s camp says their guy’s negatives will drop as people realize he’s a thoughtful, serious candidate, but one DFL old hand I spoke to cautioned, “It costs a lot of money to overcome high negatives. If you’re looking at a general election, you need to look at that.”

Another noted, “If you’re trying to beat an incumbent, the race has to be about the incumbent.” Franken’s notoriety and partisan flame-throwing heightens the chances that the general election could revolve around him, whereas Ciresi—in a sense, yesterday’s news—is better positioned to keep the spotlight on Coleman. (Still, Robins’ $571 million fee—negotiated with and paid by tobacco and insurance companies, not taxpayers—will undoubtedly get prominent play.)

Of course, Ciresi is quick to observe, his advantage is not merely not being Franken, but being Ciresi at this particular juncture in history. Last time, both Ciresi and Dayton agree, Dayton had a huge advantage in the primary because he’d run statewide three times and people knew him; Ciresi’s title as the nation’s best cross-examiner didn’t matter as much. But circumstances are different this time. When Ciresi ran in 2000, Clinton, not Bush, was in the White House. Among the indignities DFLers have endured was the wimpy or (in Joe Biden’s case) wind-baggy questioning of two right-wing Supreme Court nominees and Bush spear-carriers like Alberto Gonzales. Ciresi says DFLers’ eyes light up when he asks them to picture him—the lead lawyer who trounced Big Tobacco, Big Chemical (the Bhopal chemical explosion) and Big Pharma (the Copper-7 IUD product liability case)—grilling the next Alito or Gonzales. The sale-closer: if he can destroy Corporate Crime’s high-priced legal talent when billions are at stake, imagine him cross-examining Norm Coleman.

Right now, Ciresi does not consistently make his case. His “elevator speeches”—two- and three-minute spiels like the one in Apple Valley—demonstrate little of the magic that has won over juries. (One ex-Robins partner says Ciresi’s strength is intense preparation and evisceration of an opponent’s case, not his closing argument.)

His professional résumé is critical because, at this juncture in the campaign, issues don’t really separate Ciresi and Franken. For example, both say they would’ve voted against the recent “supplemental” budget bill that funded the war into the fall—Klobuchar supported it. Neither man wants all American forces out now, and both would negotiate for troop reductions. Both would pull out of Baghdad’s civil war. Domestically, both would roll back Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Both are pro-choice and reject the recent Supreme Court decision limiting abortion procedures. Neither thinks Social Security is in crisis. (Ciresi’s solution: raise the retirement age to 70 for folks under 35 and raise the limit on taxable income from $97,000 to around $150,000.) Neither favors a liberal chestnut, “single-payer” health care, where the government supplants private insurance. Both favor “universal coverage,” where subsidies, employer plans and guaranteed-insurability rules cover the 45 million uninsured Americans and help lower crushing premiums.

Franken may be the stylistic heir to Wellstone, but he has a skeleton Ciresi doesn’t: early support for the war in Iraq. Andy Barr, Franken’s communication director, explains—somewhat wanly—that “like many Americans, Al believed Colin Powell.” Ciresi said he opposed the war from the start and has friends who will vouch for this, but so far, his campaign can’t document the position.

The non-absolutist positions on Iraq and against single-payer make it extremely likely that a “peace and justice” candidate could capture enough convention delegates to control the endorsement if Franken and Ciresi deadlock. I floated the scenario to both camps; neither found it far-fetched. Franken might better lure lefties—after all, he called out Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and George Bush when Democrats were on the canvas. Plus he’s a board member of Wellstone Action, which trains progressive candidates and campaign staff. However, it should be noted that when Wellstone’s family wanted to sue the airline companies responsible for Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s fatal flight, they picked Robins and Ciresi. The case was settled for $25 million.

The only place Ciresi really connected with a crowd was at a fundraiser held at the home of Robins partner Tom Kayser and his wife, Marlene. Less formal among legal and family friends, and freed from the need to introduce himself, Ciresi neatly framed his legal wins versus Franken’s rhetorical ones: “There’s a big difference between me and Al Franken. I like Al Franken; he’s a nice person. He talks about the same issues I do”—adding with a bit of Ciresi swagger and wink, “not as well.” When the friendly laughter died down, Ciresi turned solemn: “But he hasn’t done it. And I think voters have to look to say who’s done these things; it’s not just what you talk about doing, but what have you done. And I can get things done there, because I will stand up. I’ve said no to power many times in my life.”

After the speech, Ciresi buttonholed me to correct what he saw as a Franken misstatement in the last issue of Law & Politics. (Franken: “Mike and I have agreed that what we’re going to do in this race is talk about our vision for the future … and contrast that with Norm Coleman’s. That’s what we expect each other to do and not try to draw contrasts with each other.”)

Says Ciresi, “Al and I agreed we wouldn’t go negative on each other, but we never agreed we wouldn’t draw contrasts with each other. We have to do that.”

Ciresi, who will be 62 next year, would be the oldest first-term senator from Minnesota since the advent of popular elections in 1914. Since Hubert Humphrey won in 1948, every Minnesota freshman has been, well, fresh, in their 30s or 40s, except for 52-year-old Mark Dayton in 2000. (Franken, at 56, is no spring chicken either.)

But time appears to have landed softly on the lawyer legendary for endless strings of 18-hour workdays. Ciresi exudes crisp intensity at every campaign stop and you wouldn’t bet against the former college linebacker if the Senate race turned into a literal cage match. Still, because of Franken’s perceived lead in romancing future delegates, DFL strategists couldn’t quite believe it when Ciresi popped up in the Strib this spring as the lead lawyer for Carlson Companies. The juicy case—CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s son Curtis is suing over being dumped as her presumptive successor—exploded into the press thanks to a Robins-filed countersuit alleging the scion’s “erratic business judgment” and “self-defeating” behavior, including alcohol and painkiller addiction.

Ciresi has said it will be his last case before the election, and has pledged to give up his role as Robins board chair when his term ends in February. However, that’s just weeks before the precinct caucuses.

In his bantam rooster way, Ciresi brushes off the concerns that he isn’t fully focused on the campaign. “I work 20 hours a week on the Carlson case and 60 to 70 hours a week on the Senate race,” he says—just a half-time job to go with the full-time-plus job, no big whoop given past workloads. (As with other high-profile cases, Ciresi has built Carlson Nelson a formidable legal team that includes Roberta Walburn, who was co-counsel in his Bhopal and tobacco victories and is now of counsel at Robins.)

If nothing else, defending an industry legend like Carlson Nelson underscores his role as a defender of business, not just a knee-jerk attacker. Robins, of course, is a famously entrepreneurial firm—for corporate plaintiffs and defendants—and Ciresi is the ballsy risk-taker at the top. Ciresi says he can’t wait to contrast his business experience with the man he hopes to face a year from November: “Norm’s never been in the private sector, never made sure people had well-paying private-sector jobs with health care and pensions,” Ciresi says, glossing over Coleman’s few months as a non-practicing lawyer with Winthrop & Weinstine. “Oh, he’ll say he made a budget as mayor of St. Paul, but that was during the Clinton years, when he had lots of aid—lots of aid—from the federal government. I’m a lot different than Norm—I’ve been in the private sector and I know what it is to meet those budgets.”

The son of the grocer, son of a breast cancer victim, sits back in his chair, smiling self-confidently, spoiling for the fight.

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