How influential is attorney and lobbyist Brian Rice?
That’s a question that looms large on the campaign trail these days.
Rice, a supporter of Mark Andrew’s mayoral campaign, was recently singled out by Mayor R.T. Rybak in an interview with the Journal as someone who deserves extra scrutiny from the media and voters before Election Day.
Rice’s law firm serves as legal counsel for the Park Board and he also represented the police and fire funds when city leaders were negotiating a deal to reform the pension system to reduce an enormous burden on taxpayers.
“Make sure Mark Andrew can turn around and say no to [Rice], which is perfectly legitimate. Maybe he can, but make that be proven,” Rybak said. “When unions endorse people that’s a sign of support from people who do work for the city, but it’s also a sign the candidate is going to have to turn around and say no to them.”
City Council Member and mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges has also been critical of people who represented the pensioners during negotiations to reform the pension system — saying she had to “fight tooth and nail” against them to reform a system that was “bleeding taxpayers dry.”
Rice said the issue of how much influence he wields on Andrew’s campaign is a “fair question.”
“There are many people involved in Mark’s campaign and I can think of 20 people who have had a much bigger say in the campaign and who have a greater influence on Mark should he be elected,” he said. “I’ve had Mark Andrew tell me ‘no’ plenty of times in my life. I can take no for an answer.”
He said he has no specific agenda he plans to push at City Hall when the next mayor is elected.
As for pension reform, he said comments about the work are often oversimplified. He said several people besides Hodges, including state lawmakers and other City Council members, were involved in negotiations to come up with a solution for the pensioners.
“The pension problem in Minneapolis was 100 years in the making and 30 years in the solution,” he said.
As for his role, he said he was doing his job as a lawyer to make sure retired police officers and firefighters received what they were promised by prior City Council members, mayors and legislators.
Andrew also issued a statement after Rybak singled out his association with Rice.
“My career of bringing people together to get things done for our community speaks directly against any idea that I am beholden to any particular person or interest,” he said. “Take a look at my campaign — it’s a broad coalition of people, many of whom disagree on this or that issue, but do agree that I’m a proven progressive leader who collaborates and gets results.”
Rice said he’s not part of the group Coalition for Better Minneapolis, which will be supporting Andrew’s campaign through independent expenditures. The group can spend an unlimited amount to promote his mayoral bid as long as they act independently of the candidate.
Rice, a Golden Valley resident, has donated $500 to Andrew, as did his law firm Rice, Michels & Walther, according to Andrew’s campaign finance report filed with Hennepin County on Sept. 3.
Rice represents a number of public employee groups, including the Minneapolis Police Fraternal Association, Minnesota Professional Firefighters and Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, among others, according to lobbyist data from the state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
Before Rice knew Andrew planned to jump into the mayor’s race, he said he approached state Sen. Scott Dibble and urged him to run. Rice said Dibble told him he was flattered but not interested. Dibble is Hodges’ campaign co-chair.
Dibble confirmed that Rice urged him to run for mayor, as did many other people. "I had to focus on defeating the amendment, then passing the marriage and transportation bills — and Betsy was considering her bid and she's amazing," he said.
Later Andrew called him and Rice agreed to support his campaign, even though he wasn’t initially on his radar as a potential candidate because he had been out of the public spotlight for a while. He said he’s known Andrew since 1982.
He praised him for his work at Hennepin County and said Andrew championed many progressive causes before they were politically popular and pushed for changes to give the county a “bigger footprint” and a greater role in economic development.
“Mark is a very social guy at his core. He is the type of person people like to be around,” he said, adding he’s open to ideas and one of the politest people he knows.
As for his take on the highly competitive mayoral race, which includes a record 35 candidates, he said there are “a lot of good candidates to choose from.”
He said he helped put up lawn signs and hand out literature for Dan Cohen when he ran for mayor of Minneapolis in 1969. He was 12 at the time and his dad was supporting Cohen in that election.
"The biggest thing about a mayor is not the what, it's the who," he said. "It's a person who occupies that job and that bully pulpit. I think the voters of the city have got to say, 'who do I want to see in the paper or on TV speaking for the city of Minneapolis and speaking for them.'"
(Editor's note: The Southwest Journal did an extensive profile on Brian Rice in 2002, which looked at his campaign contributions to Park Board members.)