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Will the state that elected Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor send Mike “The Mouth” Ciresi to the U.S. Senate this fall? The leader of Minneapolis’s Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi doesn’t wear feather boas, but he projects Ventura-like bluntness in his inaugural bid for public office. “I don’t bullshit people — I lay it out,” says Ciresi, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s unreconstructed version of the Democratic Party. “My message is clear, but it’s very threatening to the entrenched image in the DFL. I’m saying, enough class war nonsense, let’s broaden the base.” Ciresi has good reason to oppose class war. His tax return would put him on the wrong side of the DFL’s traditional blue-collar and middle-class base. According to his U.S. Senate fiscal disclosure form, Ciresi earned at least $14 million in 1999. That year his firm received one-third of a half-billion-dollar fee for representing the state in a $6.3 billion tobacco settlement. Thanks to this fee, Robins, Kaplan’s average profits per partner have placed it near the top of that Am Law 100 chart. Like former Wall Street macher Jon Corzine, who spent untold millions to win a New Jersey Senate primary, Ciresi is willing to invest in himself to get elected. He’s even willing to help fund an expensive campaign to return the state legislature to the DFL. In a party that fancies itself the champion of the little guy, Ciresi’s wealth is big news. “The only issue in the DFL debates so far is Mike Ciresi,” says Robert Meek, a Minneapolis media consultant. “[Democratic opponents] are trying to portray him as too arrogant and too rich. … [Republicans] are asking where the [public's] $500 million went to.” So far, Ciresi has overcome the disadvantages of affluence. He finished second in a nine-candidate field at the party’s nominating convention in June. In Minnesota, that’s an especially strong showing for a candidate who told the convention that he’d force a September primary if he did not get the party endorsement. What’s more, Minnesota’s nominating conventions rarely pick the eventual primary winner. Ciresi will clearly outspend the nominee, little-known state senator Jerry Janezich. On the campaign trail, Ciresi has tried to leverage his biggest legal wins into a populist platform. He touts the $6.3 billion tobacco settlement as a major advance for public health, while a 1989 product liability triumph over IUD maker G.D. Searle & Co. was a victory for women. The Senate seat is currently held by Republican Rod Grams. Republicans — mindful that Ventura openly despised lawyers during the 1998 campaign — paint Ciresi as a slick money merchant. This winter, they ran statewide radio ads attacking Ciresi for the size of Robins, Kaplan’s tobacco fees. “I don’t think being a trial lawyer is a positive in this race,” says Minnesota GOP executive director Tony Sutton. “If you’ve got a grassroots guy like Grams against a rich trial lawyer like Ciresi, it cuts a nice populist contrast.” Ciresi, a small man, and Ventura have more differences than just their body types. Ventura won on a quasi-libertarian platform pledging to refund the state’s budget surplus to taxpayers. Ciresi relentlessly invokes “investment,” the Clintonian mantra for spending the federal surplus on education, expanded health care, and other social niceties. Yet Ciresi criticizes more liberal spending plans of fellow DFLers, such as public subsidies for parental leave. “We pay for [leaves] at our firm, but that’s a voluntary choice by the employer,” Ciresi says. “Why should that be imposed on employers by government?” Ciresi and Ventura do share a key strategist: idiosyncratic ad man Bill Hillsman. Two years ago, Hillsman cemented Ventura’s unconventional appeal with a late-campaign TV spot featuring a business-suit-clad soldier doll — the “Jesse Ventura action figure” — battling another toy, the “evil special interest man.” Hillsman lightened Ciresi’s gravitas in his first commercial this winter by bundling him in a bulky snowmobile suit. In the ad, Ciresi schlepped between ice-fishing shacks, urging frigid Minnesotans to vote in precinct caucuses. Isn’t Ciresi himself a special interest? Hillsman says that internal campaign research shows little backlash against his wealth. “We looked real hard, and the only time people were really mad about rich people is if they didn’t earn the money,” Hillsman says. “That’s hard to argue when you beat the big tobacco companies and earned the state billions.” Although it may only be arguing about the throw weight of his bankroll, Ciresi has aggressively battled speculation about his wealth. When a Minnesota business magazine estimated his net worth at $280 million, Ciresi released his fiscal disclosure form pegging his wealth at $11- $28 million. A knowledgeable source says that ultimately Ciresi will earn “no more than 10 percent” of Robins, Kaplan’s $558 million tobacco take. That’s more than enough to finance a race expected to cost between $5-$10 million.

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