The secret can now be told. The coffee cakes that Ron Jerich used to cart into the Capitol from Hans’ Bakery in Anoka were a day old.
“I didn’t tell them,” admits Jerich, a key Minnesota lobbyist since at least the days of Gov. Al Quie. “They were half-price!”
This, of course, happened before the 1994 gift ban put a stop to such favors. And to Jerich, that’s too bad. He insists he wasn’t trying to buy anyone’s favor by dropping off pastries and takeout food — something he did so often that, according to a 1995 StarTribune story, a legislative intern mistook him for a caterer.
“A lot of these secretaries, they’ve got children that they’ve got to drop off at school,” he says. “They don’t get a chance to eat or what have you. So it doesn’t hurt to be nice to people.” In fact, if such niceties helped develop rapport and thereby lasting relationships that simply was a positive side effect any lobbyist would love.
There is a twist to this story. Mike Martin, executive director of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association and one of Jerich’s oldest lobbying clients, recalls that it was Gov. Rudy Perpich who put a stop to Jerich’s pastries deliveries — well before any formal gift ban was in place.
“The governor sent out a memo saying, ‘No more of these coffee cakes,’” Martin recalls. “‘We are all gaining weight.’”
Jerich, 73, is a living monument to the buddy-buddy lobbying of a bygone age. A lot of people, in fact, assumed he was washed up when that legislative gift ban passed. Others thought he career was over when Sen. Doug Johnson, Jerich’s close friend and a Tax Committee chair for a generation, retired. That canceled Jerich’s front-row seat before one of the state’s most powerful political stages.
They were wrong. Through his frequent political fundraisers, Jerich remains an important cash source of candidates. His roster of 21 registered lobbying clients includes some of the biggest names in Minnesota business — Delta Air Lines, CenturyLink and Krause-Anderson Construction among them. Another client, RAI Services Inc., is a subsidiary of tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc., formerly R.J. Reynolds.
As recently as 2010, the alternative newssheet City Pages put Jerich on its top 10 list of most influential Minnesota lobbyists.
“There aren’t too many of us old-timers that are still around,” says Andy Kozak, principle at North State Advisers & Associates. “The fact that he has survived and prevailed is quite a testament to him. Ron adapts. He just has a way of making friends.”
And keeping them. Kozak — arguably as much a Minnesota lobbying institution as Jerich — remained friends with Jerich even when their clients were at loggerheads.
Jerich & Associates represented the political forces backing “racino,” a proposal to put state-run slot machines in Minnesota’s horseracing establishments. Kozak represented the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which wanted nothing of the kind.
“Even when you are on the opposite side, he is still a pretty good friend,” Kozak says.
Kozak pauses a moment, then modifies the thought slightly. “I guess the way to sum it up is, he is great when you are on the same side. And he is a pain in the neck when you are not.”
First class yarn
A conversation with Ron Jerich is likely to be a rambling discourse on disjointed memories accumulated over a lifetime of friendships with the likes of Rudy Perpich, Hubert Humphrey and Nick Coleman, the state Senate majority leader.
There is the story, for instance, about former Gov. Perpich appointing Jerich to the Minnesota Airports Commission. Turns out Perpich recently had been on a flight from Washington, D.C., sweating it out at the back of the plane’s smoking section. Up in first class, Jerich says, sat the late MAC chairman Ray Glumack and several of his commissioners.
“By the time Rudy got off the plane he was infuriated because they were in first class wasting government money,” Jerich recalls. That’s when Perpich phoned to inform Jerich that he had a new job — MAC commissioner.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got to stop first class travel,’” Jerich recalls. “I said, ‘OK, governor, if that’s what you want. But I don’t want to be on the MAC, or anything else.’ Later I got to really like it, and got to do a lot of things.”
One of the things he did was rile Glumack by refusing to fly to a conference first class, insisting instead on booking an $89 round-trip ticket on the now defunct People Express Airlines.
“[Glumack] said, ‘You can’t go unless you go first class.’ And I said, ‘I guess I’m not going, because I didn’t want to sit first class. The governor doesn’t want me to.’”
Realizing he wasn’t accomplishing his mandated task, Jerich did something else he was occasionally known for — he fed the story to the press. Before long, the first-class flights stopped, he says.
With that, Jerich launches into a brusque, politically incorrect diatribe against government commissions, University regents and corporate boards. To protect both the guilty and innocent, we’ll skip most of it, but it wraps up like this: “I think a lot of these commissions are kind of phony. They only put people on who are yes people. I wasn’t a yes person.”
‘One of a kind’
Jerich’s off-color, opinionated outbursts are an odd stock in trade for someone who has, according to most descriptions, attained near universal adoration among Minnesota’s power brokers.
“He is just a very charming guy,” says current Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “He is a straight shooter and has the respect, I think, of the legislators who work here, even if we may not be on the same side of every issue.”
Dane Smith, the former Star Tribune political reporter who now is president
of the progressive Growth and Justice think tank, calls Jerich “one of a kind.”
“He lacks guile,” Smith says. He notes that Jerich’s style of lobbying — he refuses to wear a coat and tie or sugarcoat his language — gradually has given way to a kind of attaché-case-carrying professionalism.
You’ll find no brief case in Jerich’s hand. Smith recounts a time when he scolded the lobbyist for representing “black hat” interests like tobacco and gambling. “He got all huffy,” Smith laughs. “He said, ‘You know, I won’t represent pawn shops!’”
It’s true that Jerich doesn’t draw stark moralistic lines around the clients he will or won’t represent. If a business is engaged in legal activity — whether popular or not — it deserves to make its case before policymakers. That’s his job, Jerich says.
Friends say that what matters most to Jerich are the relationships he works so hard to foster and maintain, whether with clients, policymakers, agency heads or anybody else. It is only around those relationships that Jerich draws hard and fast rules.
“I don’t take on really bad issues that are going to harm my friends,” Jerich says.
“Right,” Smith responds when that last quote is read back to him. “It’s all about personal loyalties and friends. And that is kind old school.”
An ecumenical thing
Jerich is not as mobile as he once was. He suffers from chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a degenerative neurological disease that weakens his arms and legs.
When he gets out, which is often, he moves either with a walker or, particularly at the Capitol, a motorized scooter. It has led some to ask if he is ever going to retire, which often sparks a retort from his wife. “What do you mean retire?” Valerie will ask in mock shock. “I motorized him.”
It would be wrong, not to say drastically incomplete, to tell Jerich’s story without shining a brief spotlight on Valerie, their son Mike, and their contributions to keeping Jerich & Associates running smoothly. Valerie in particular has always been a key ingredient in their firm’s durable success.
“I tell you what, without my wife, I could not do what I am doing,” Jerich says. “She is the brains of the outfit, she really is. She knows how to work the computer, she can write legislation, do different things.”
They’ve helped write plenty of legislation over the years. The Jerichs and high-powered former lobbyist Tom Kelm were key players in shepherding votes for the Minnesota Lottery in 1988. In the 1990s, the Jerichs worked on behalf of the Minnesota Corn Growers to push passage of the law requiring at least 10 percent ethanol content in gasoline sold here.
Jerich even counts as a great triumph one piece of legislation that ultimately got vetoed. Pitched for client TNT Fireworks, the law would have expanded Minnesota business’s ability to sell more powerful fireworks. It passed the Legislature in 2012. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it.
Typically, Jerich harbors no hard feelings. In fact, he is planning a Dayton fundraiser in August. He already did one for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, and several others for state DFL senators Jim Metzen, Dan Sparks and Joe Adkins.
If you think that identifies Jerich’s loyalties, think again. Jerich also is planning fundraisers for Republican representatives Bob Gunther, Tom Hackbarth and Paul Torgelson in the coming weeks.
It may seem strange in an age of unyielding party loyalty that someone would raise funds for both parties’ candidates. But to Jerich, it’s crucial for business. You’ve got to get good people elected, he says.
“I call it an ecumenical thing,” Jerich says. “But I’ll tell you what. Both sides vote. And you don’t always get the votes from one side or the other. So you’ve got to make friends.”
THE JERICH FILE
Name: Ron Jerich
Job: Principal, Jerich and Associates. Former construction company founder and CEO.
Grew up in: Northeast Minneapolis.
Lives in: Lilydale. Plans to move soon to a condo in downtown St. Paul.
Education: Minneapolis De La Salle High School; graduated from Ely Junior College and attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Family: Married 44 years to wife, Valerie; three children: son Mike, 45, is in the family lobbying business; daughters Carrie, 42, and Trina, 41.
Interest/hobbies: Formerly a fishing, hunting and bowling enthusiast, but health issues have stopped those activities. “I still travel a lot,” he says. “I’ve got a cabin in the Black Hills with my wife’s sister. And I used to go to all that NASCAR stuff with [former state Sen.] Dick Day. He is a real good friend.”