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‘I’m done with partisan politics’: a Q&A with Michael Brodkorb

The former GOP operative talks about his high-profile flameout, his Star Tribune blog, and why he thinks Republicans’ critique of the media is “tiresome.”

Michael Brodkorb: "Bomb­-throwing is a part of being a party official."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

As public embarrassments go, few in recent memory have generated the level of ridicule that accompanied the saga of Michael Brodkorb, the political operative who was the creator of the semi­-legendary website, Minnesota Democrats Exposed, and the embodiment of the modern, take-­no-­prisoners conservative attack dog.

While it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have forgotten, Brodkorb’s annus horribilis (to quote Queen Elizabeth) began in December of 2011 with revelations of The Affair, with then-GOP Senate Majority leader Amy Koch. That was followed by The Lawsuit: legal action Brodkorb took against the Senate protesting his firing, a move that included threats to out similar hanky-­panky among prominent statehouse politicians. The period concluded in January 2013 with The Crash, a one-­car pile­-up in which a despondent Brodkorb was seriously hurt, and for which he later pled guilty to driving under the influence. 

In large part because of his prominence in, shall we say, “aggressively conservative” circles, Brodkorb received little in the way of public sympathy. Liberals were gleeful, while fellow Republicans couldn’t distance themselves fast enough. It was a vicious mix of schadenfreude and shunning.

But in the months since, Brodkorb has struck a different tone: chastened, apologetic, remorseful and far less partisan.

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A year ago, tacitly acknowledging that despite the farce of his undoing, the man still possesses a sharp mind for strategies as well as an impressive storehouse of Minnesota political backstories, the Star Tribune brought Brodkorb on as a regular contributor among its stable of community bloggers.

To the dismay of his former soldiers-­in-­arms on the right (few of whom openly supported him in his year of horrors), Brodkorb — in both the Strib blog and on his own website, politics.mn, has taken Republicans to task as much as Democrats for ethical shadiness and incompetence.

We met for coffee not far from his home in Eagan.

MinnPost: How did the Star Tribune gig come about?

Brodkorb: I got a wonderful phone call one day. Just out of the blue. But I’ll tell you, it made my year. But I’m just so grateful. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Not just to write about politics, because while I love politics there’s so much more to life, but also write about other things. I just really enjoy it. When I write about politics, I try to provide some context. I take it very seriously. Its a different kind of writing than I started with. But it’s much more impactful.

MP: “Impactful,” how? Because of the larger readership?

Brodkorb: Yes. But it’s also impactful for me personally, because it’s given me so much more respect for what real journalists do. It’s not like other kinds of writing. You really have to take it seriously. But for them to call, for someone to be willing to take a chance with me again, I don’t know if they’ll ever comprehend how much that meant to me. To my dignity.

MinnPost: Several years ago I had a conversation with someone who has since left the Strib editorial offices and he was saying that they were kind of at their wits end trying to find a reliable, regular conservative writer. This was toward the end of their Katherine Kersten experiment … Have they talked to you about expanding your role?

Brodkorb: No, no they haven’t.

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MinnPost: Would you be interested in it?

Brodkorb: I would. But I’m happy doing what I’m doing now. But on that point, I will say that conservatives and Republicans dealing with the media so often take this very aggressive approach, and it’s a tiresome act. I have tremendous respect for traditional journalists in the Twin Cities. I think they do a tremendous job. I really do. But you hear this continuous drumbeat from the national level all the way down, Republicans always want to go after the media, and I really don’t understand the mindset that much.

MinnPost: Really? You understand the tactic, right?

Brodkorb: Yeah. I understand the tactic. I know why they’re doing it. I just disagree with it. That’s a better way of saying it. I just disagree with it.

MinnPost: Because why? Now you see it as having become counter­productive?

Brodkorb: I think it is counterproductive. There are so many mediums and opportunities for politicians to get their points across right now. Social media is a part of the day. There are so many ways to drive your message, that what’s happened is so many candidates and politicians, particularly on the Republican side, seem to have lost the ability to sit across from a reporter and have a conversation. They’re much more comfortable throwing out a Facebook post or a tweet where they won’t be challenged. I noticed it with Scott Walker and his presidential campaign where he got into the business of whether President Obama loves America. Remember? So when he was asked about it, instead of saying something thoughtful he tried to play games with the press.

MinnPost: But he’s not talking to reporters. He’s talking to his base.

Brodkorb: Yeah, right. That’s what’s frustrating to see. I think what Walker does in a situation like that is play into the narrative that most voters have about Republicans.

MinnPost: Do you advise Republicans that this sort of thing only marginalizes them among general voters.

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Brodkorb: Not directly. But I’ve said as much in comments I’ve made. The thing they don’t understand is that all this stuff, everything they say, is on the record. It’s permanent. You saw some of the effects in the last election cycle in the race for governor. Republicans have a much more difficult time in this state navigating through the endorsement process to the general election. They have to race around talking to the Tea Party groups, where they have to say things that drag them to the right. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have never been a coalition party. Consequently, they don’t do [coalitions] very well. What you end up with is the fringe of the fringe having the loudest voice, and I think that’s bad for the party.

MinnPost: The “fringe of the fringe” of course is great fodder for the media. Do you have any advice for how the media should cover these people. Every experienced reporter knows they’re fringe people saying fringe things.

Brodkorb: Yes. But a lot the things being quoted are coming from people with titles. People who have some significance. They’re not just random Republicans. And I get that there’s some value, in the carnival­-like atmosphere of politics to have partisan bomb­throwers on each side. It just seems to me that the bomb­-throwers on the conservative side are getting the most juice out of it.

MinnPost: Well, the obvious irony is that for a lot of people around here they look at you and see the guy who kind of invented the partisan bomb-­thrower game with Minnesota Democrats Exposed. Which is kind of to the point in talking to you, to see how your thinking has evolved since those early days. 

Brodkorb: It was a blog that was hyper­partisan. Would I do it the same way today? No. But like a lot of things in life, it is what makes me who I am today. Having been so hyper­partisan, and having had that search and destroy mentality, I find that it helps me now in recognizing where not go with some things I see. I’m not into exposing anyone or the “gotcha” stuff. When I was writing Minnesota Democrats Exposed, it was all about search and destroy, writing sensational headlines, driving traffic and making mountains out of molehills. It was something I got out of my system and it’s benefitting me now because it is absolutely somewhere I do not want to go.

MinnPost: Is the difference more tonal than substantive?

Brodkorb: I think the difference is both substantive and tonal. When you’re writing Minnesota Democrats Exposed you’re waking up every day and looking for a target. Even though that kind of thing drives traffic, it’s not a very fulfilling way to write. And as I say, having gone through it, I find it helps center me today.

MinnPost: But the tone and traffic you generated with Minnesota Democrats Exposed certainly helped to some extent in establishing your bona fides within the party and achieving the post you held with the Senate [as the caucus’ communications director].

Brodkorb: Folks love someone who throws fire and serves up red meat. It was a great way to ascend in the party. But ultimately what I learned is that that kind of approach creates a lot of blockades and a firewall that prevents you from having any thoughtful seat at the table.

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MinnPost: Well, I hear you on the “mountains out of molehills” thing. But the argument I made is that there is value in someone doing that kind of thing for, or against, each party. No one should get a free ride and a little hyperbolic agitation is a good thing. Blowing the whistle is a good thing. How exactly you do it is a whole other discussion.

Brodkorb: Well, that’s the thing. I think there’s a way to blow the whistle and fact-­check that invites participation from the other side.

MinnPost: Once you moved on from Minnesota Democrats Exposed and took your position with the party, did you find your reputation was an asset in what they wanted you to do?

Brodkorb: Well, I was deputy chairman for two terms, [2009-­2011], and I didn’t face much criticism for the approach I was taking and left on good terms. In retrospect, I would have done some things differently. But bomb­-throwing is a part of being a party official. In fact, if you watch the gamesmanship of politics right now in Minnesota, that’s a facet I think the Republicans are missing out on. Ken Martin, [chairman of the DFL], is a very smart tactician who is not afraid to walk into a press conference and throw some bombs. I think Republicans are largely missing that.

MinnPost: I gather from some of your Strib posts that you’re not impressed with the way Keith Downey is handling his job with the GOP.

Brodkorb: Well look, I’m still a Republican. I’m also a Vikings fan, and how many Sundays are good for them lately? Not too many. But where I think the party, and Downey in particular are struggling is with any kind of thoughtful analysis. He generally kind of pushes it away, and that’s fine. That’s his prerogative as chairman. But in the end the party is quickly becoming less and less relevant in the state. For two reasons: The stances the party has taken on some significant issues and the rise of influence, financial, of outside groups. But any critique of Downey is largely based on … .

MinnPost: Well, you strongly imply his actions [like with the much-­ridiculed $150,000 “Give It Back” ad] are self­ serving.

Brodkorb: I don’t think there’s any question he’s interested in running for governor. I could pretty quickly point out flaws in messaging and how they were largely to do with him moving into the race rather than other factors.

MinnPost: Do you know where the $150,000 came from?

Brodkorb: I don’t know. But the party raised the money quickly. Downey has said the ad cost $150,000. They didn’t put $150,000 on TV. They used other social media. But it was literally wasted money. I would argue they would have been better doing nothing than to waste it away like that. Because what they did was create a division between legislative Republicans and the party. As much as chairman Downey would like us not to think it was about him running for governor, it defies logic that it was about anything other than that.

MinnPost: Is the party chair a job you’d be interested in?

Brodkorb: I’m done with partisan politics.

MinnPost: Really? Never say never.

Brodkorb: Yeah, “never say never.” But my interest in party politics today is from the stands. From the bleachers. I was on the field of play for a long time. I took a lot of hits, and I really enjoy watching now. That level of partisanship is not something I’m interested in.

MinnPost: Did you feel supported at any time by party leadership?

Brodkorb: Who do you mean by “leadership”?

MinnPost: Well, I guess people like [Sen.] Dave Senjem ….

Brodkorb: No. Obviously, I sued them. So that tells you something. But let me say, the decision to sue was not an easy one. Regardless of how people felt about me personally, I was an employee, and I felt I deserved to be treated in a certain manner. I wish it hadn’t happened. But people file lawsuits because they feel there’s no other option. And in my cases I felt there wasn’t a responsible person on the other side of the table.

MinnPost: Knowing the nature of politics, did it surprise you that you’d be abandoned as fast as you were?

Brodkorb: It was surprising, yeah. Imagine you’re sitting at a table much like this [Brodkorb’s firing was handed down at a restaurant] and you suddenly realize that the world as you knew it has changed, very quickly. It was really tough. But, you know, when you hit bottom that’s a great foundation for building up, and every experience I’ve gone through has brought me to the place I am today. And as much as I wish I had gotten to the place I am today without some of the hurdles along the way, I’m really happy with where I am.

MinnPost: Everyone has suffered embarrassments in their life, although few come with the kind of public factor yours did. I remember thinking how I’d be in some kind of fetal tuck and immobilized if it were happening to me. What did you tell yourself to get through it? What advice do you have for anyone else in a similar situation?

Brodkorb: When you go through something like that, where you’re literally afraid to go outside your house, to where I am today, where, you know, everything is out there. I go through the day with quite a bit of calmness and peace, a calm a few years ago I couldn’t imagine myself having.

MinnPost: But where does that come from?

Brodkorb: It comes from starting over. It comes from being in a situation where one minute you’re sitting having a beer with a friend you knew from junior high and worked with to the next minute knowing your life as you knew it is over with. The best piece of advice I got was from a friend who said, “Tomorrow will come.” “It’s going to get better.”

MinnPost: Yeah, but you have to make it better. You have to make conscious choices. Do you compartmentalize this stuff and tuck it away where it doesn’t infect the rest of your life?

Brodkorb: I’ll tell you the firing wasn’t the worst day. It was the car accident. That’s where I really hit rock bottom. As much as I’m dealing better with it now and I’m 180 degrees from where I was a couple years ago, I don’t know if I didn’t have the opportunity, and I see it that way, of the car crash, I don’t know if I’d be here today. People ask and I tell them there were a lot of times when I wondered if it’d get better. It was hard. I went from being able to speak in front of thousands and thousands of people to not being comfortable going to a movie. That’s a huge shock to the system. It took a lot of time to re­-assimilate back into society. So the car crash, it wasn’t an accident it was a car crash, was an opportunity to re­set. It was a life-­changing experience.

MinnPost: Are we talking a Charles Colson-­like religious conversion?

Brodkorb: No. My faith is the same as it was before the accident. But the hand of providence works in ways you don’t always understand. What I’m saying is it was a very tough time. The accident was obviously a consequence of what I was going through at the time. It was hard to get up. I felt a tremendous amount of shame and embarrassment toward my family. Particularly my immediate family, my wife and my kids. I’m very thankful my kids couldn’t read the papers at that time. It was a sense of total shame and embarrassment. But through it all, I never felt the desire to move out of the state or change my name.

MinnPost: Was that a fighter’s combative instinct?

Brodkorb: It might have been. But after the crash, I didn’t want there to be a place on the map I had to stay away from. I didn’t want my family to go through that. I felt a responsibility to clean the mess up. Would it have been easier to put Minnesota behind us? Maybe. But I think it would have just postponed issues. I’m lucky. Really lucky. So my advice is, ‘Tomorrow will come. The day will get better.”

MinnPost: Is that necessarily true?

Brodkorb: Tomorrow will come.

MinnPost: Yeah, but will it be better? That’s what people worry about.

Brodkorb: It will get better. But I did a horrible job of talking about how tough it was. I had such a sense of shame and guilt over what I had done, I felt like a leech, like I was sucking energy out of people by sitting down and talking about it. And at a time when people are at their lowest is the time they need to reach out to other people. And there’s a responsibility on others to be receptive to that. I didn’t do a good job of that. And it created a situation where you drink too much. Where you get behind the wheel of a car and you’re lucky to walk away alive.

MinnPost: I’m always amazed how receptive the public is to an apology. I mean, there’s so much [bleep] going on, who can keep track of any of it for very long? But … 

Brodkorb: But it has to be sincere.

MinnPost: Oh yeah. And the public will gauge. But I’m struck by how rarely you hear a sincere apology in politics.

Brodkorb: There are a lot of qualified apologies. “I’m sorry if you felt that way.” “I’m sorry if I offended you, that wasn’t the way I meant it.” Those kinds of apologies don’t actually heal people, or let them move past the moment.

MinnPost: I don’t want to go all Diane Sawyer on you, but how’s the family life?

Brodkorb: My family life is wonderful. I wouldn’t be here today without the support of my family. My immediate family, my sisters and my parents. They’ve all been wonderful and I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to them all. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate every day of my life with them, with my wife Sarah and my kids. [Chokes up]. It’s sometimes tough to talk about. But I’m very lucky.

MinnPost: Someone who had been abandoned by everyone would be in a much tougher place.

Brodkorb: Oh yeah. And I get it. I get the game. What I did was … was .. an epic … epic …

MinnPost: Faceplant.

Brodkorb: [Laughs]. Yeah, “faceplant.” Rivaling only Icarus. So where I get emotional these days is talking about family. But I understand why it happened. I understand why the senators did what they did. I disagree with it. But I understand their position. When you take a step back and look at it that way, you personalize it less and are able to move past it.

MinnPost: One of my theories about your case is that elected officials make a distinction between themselves, people who have been through the meat­grinder of running for office, and someone like you who has risen to a position of prominence and influence without exposing yourself to that ordeal. And that were you an elected official like them they would have shown much more solidarity on your behalf.

Brodkorb: I think that’s absolutely true. You don’t have to be Karl Rove to get elected to some of these seats. I have great respect for the institution of the Senate and the House. But these people are human. So, yes, you are absolutely correct in how you framed that. Of course they would have shown more solidarity toward a fellow elected official. Of course they would have.

MinnPost: Who do you read for political news or commentary here in town, especially on the conservative side?

Brodkorb: I don’t really read a lot of conservative blogs. And I’ll tell you why. I read [PowerLine] occasionally. But there’s a mindset that comes with the pace of blogs. There’s this immediate intensity, where everything is a crisis. Everything’s a crisis in the blogosphere and there’s no sense of rhythm, or anything. It creates a loss of perspective.

MinnPost: A couple weeks ago I took a tour of the new Star Tribune offices. Very nice. But on street level they have this large, pleasant atrium, with your Au Bon Pains and people moving through the skyways. It’d be the ideal modern agora. A great place to have a kind of regular debate forum, where two people on different sides of an issue could go at it in front of a live audience that could throw out questions or heckle or whatever they wanted to do.

Brodkorb: That’d be great. I’d love to see something like that. Someplace where you could have a thoughtful debate.

MinnPost: But the rub, it always seems to me, is that something like that isn’t civil or proper enough, certainly not controllable enough for the established media. I mean, look at the debates of the last election cycle. Appalling snoozes. In my experience, the institutional media is very reluctant to get into anything that throws off sparks.

Brodkorb: But … sparks are a part of life.