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‘Lucky to be alive,’ Brodkorb campaigns against drunken driving

An alcohol-related, single-car accident in January 2013 left the former GOP firestarter so badly injured that he had to relearn things — “a lot of things,” including the colors of the rainbow.

Michael Brodkorb in his home office in Eagan, admiring the drawings his twin daughters did for him last year to aid in his recovery from accident injuries, including brain trauma.
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams

Michael Brodkorb’s office walls once boasted a gallery of political fame — photos of Brodkorb with a former president, Brodkorb with a senator, Brodkorb with a governor. They’re gone now, filed away somewhere, and have been replaced by two simple drawings his twin daughters did while their dad was in the hospital last year: one of a mathematics table, and the other of stenciled letters of the alphabet.

“These two pictures — they mean the world to me,” said the former GOP firestarter, whose alcohol-related, single-car accident in January 2013 left him so badly injured that he had to relearn things — “a lot of things,” including the colors of the rainbow.

The accident capped a chain-reaction series of personal and political disasters that marked the former Minnesota Republican Party leader and Senate communications director’s fall from political grace, starting with revelations of an affair with his boss, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.

He’s picking up the pieces, still healing from his wounds, working from home, attending political science classes at the University of Minnesota, and blogging (in studiously measured tones) at and for the Star Tribune. But the greater purpose in his life right now he says is as a volunteer speaker for Minnesotans for Safe Driving, an organization founded by Jon Cummings, whose son Phillip was killed by a drunken driver in 1994.

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“I used to travel the state on behalf of candidates, throwing partisan bombs and talking about why this person was good and this person was bad,” Brodkorb said in an interview Thursday. “And now I travel and speak to groups about how lucky I feel to be alive.”

He lives in Eagan with his wife, Sarah, and three young children, toward whom he expresses nothing but gratitude. He spoke to MinnPost about the social anxiety that fueled the fateful night of drinking, his “rewired” relationship with politics, and his ongoing healing process. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

MinnPost: What do you remember about the night of the accident?

Michael Brodkorb: Since the media focus and since I left the Senate, it’s been very difficult for me to feel comfortable going out in public. I went from feeling comfortable speaking in front of thousands and thousands of people to feeling not comfortable going outside my house. I had some issues with anxiety going out there and just interacting with the public and being seen in public.

Because the public was not kind. … I remember going to a movie by myself, and leaving the movie theater and just getting reamed out by someone. Someone threw the head of an animal into the front yard of my house. I had a lot of tough experiences … [there was] a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of people coming up and confronting me. So it was not, a lot of times, a very safe environment.

I know that I bear a great responsibility for that. This isn’t a situation where I don’t bear responsibility. But it’s just the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter is that it was difficult for me to socially interact with people.

That particular week, I knew there was going to be another round of media stories that were going to come out about my case. I was out in public, and I was drinking [at Moose Country in Mendota Heights]. I had never had a problem with alcohol before. In growing up, no one in my family had any problems with alcohol. My parents were not drinkers, and I was never someone who had a lot of alcohol. But there’s no question that during the time when I began going through this legal issue, I had problems with anxiety. And alcohol was a way I could take the edge off.

I was out in public, meeting and talking with people. And I drank too much. I should not have been drinking. My blood-alcohol level was .10. So a combination of alcohol and poor decisions led to me waking up 15 hours later in a hospital in St. Paul with a breathing tube down my throat and my entire family around me.

They relayed to me that I had been in an accident related to alcohol. And I remember asking if I had hurt anyone. And they said, no, it was just me. There was a tremendous sense of relief.

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MP: What was your condition when you regained consciousness? And what has the recovery been like?

MB: I suffered a traumatic brain injury. I separated my shoulder. I had severe trauma to my right leg. I can walk [with a brace], but I suffered nerve damage to the front of my leg, and so I don’t feel my full leg when I step down. Physically, it’s been a struggle. But I’m doing a lot better than I was a year ago.

I spent the next few months in recovery. I had to learn to do things all over again — a lot of things all over again. There are portions of 2013 that are just gone [from my memory] and will always be gone.

The accident was more physically damaging to me than most people are aware. Without a doubt, I’m lucky to be alive. Statistically, I should be dead: I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. I hit the bridge wall [on I-35E], bounced off and hit the other side of the median. … In the weeks and months after my accident, I became very aware of how lucky I was to be alive.

I was charged and I pled guilty to fourth-degree DWI and not wearing my seat belt. I was sentenced to go to an alcohol assessment, my license was suspended, and I was required to attend a Victim Impact Panel.

After the assessment, I was not required to go to treatment. But I did go to the Victim Impact Panel, and that’s where I met Jon Cummings. I was just floored by the experience. I was surprised by the number of people in the room, a crowd of 50-60 people [from] every socioeconomic class in Minnesota. The vast majority were required to be there.

Jon spoke, and told the story of his son. It was very, very difficult to listen to. It was the culmination of the entire experience: waking up in the hospital, feeling lucky to be alive, relieved that I hadn’t killed or hurt anyone; having the ability to walk and function after the trauma I had suffered; and then coming to a meeting like that, and seeing people whose lives had been just so damaged by drinking and driving.

If Jon and his group were willing to have me, I just felt that I had a responsibility to talk about this. I first spoke on this issue in April of last year, and have spoken ever since once a month on average to groups through Minnesotans for Safe Driving.

MP: What are some of your key messages to audiences?

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MB: I tell them that I’m not required to be there, that I’m a volunteer. And I let them know that I’m not there to preach or lecture them in any way. I talk about how lucky I feel every day to be alive. … I talk about the opportunity that’s in front of them to be advocates and to be open about what they’ve experienced.

I tell them that everyone in the room has someone who would miss them if they were gone. And everyone has a sphere of influence, someone who listens to them, someone they have an opportunity to touch by talking about their story. I encourage them to be comfortable talking to people about what happened to them and to use whatever tools they have … social media, whatever … to talk about the dangers of drinking and driving and what everyone can do to make the roads safer.

MP: You’ve had some pretty strong words about Michelle MacDonald, the GOP-endorsed candidate for state Supreme Court who is facing trial in September on charges of drunken driving, refusing sobriety tests and resisting arrest. Have you spoken with her?

MB: I have spoken with her about her case, and I am going to write more about it. It’s difficult for me to write about the DWI aspect because of feelings I have about matters related to drinking and driving. …

I understand the party process, so I understand … how someone like Ms. MacDonald, who has had run-ins with law enforcement in court proceedings (what some would call “legal disobedience”), can be seen as an appealing asset by those who feel they have been wronged by the system.

I don’t feel that the system has wronged me. I went back to the hospital and thanked the medical staff who helped me that night [of the accident]. I called the ambulance staff and thanked them for what they did that night. I called the State Patrol officer who was listed on the report and thanked him for what he did. … He explained to me how grave it was when he arrived. Law enforcement helped save my life that night.

I don’t think that what happened to [MacDonald] when she was stopped is any kind of asset in a campaign ad. … But the decision on that will be up to the voters of the state. I communicated to her that I felt that what she did on the side of the road that night could give people a blueprint on how to circumvent what is current law in the state on drinking and driving. And that could lead to folks who shouldn’t be behind the wheel getting out of tickets when they should be lawfully ticketed for drinking and driving.

MP: There are some who, because of the “partisan bombs” to which you referred, might not have an empathic response to you or your situation. Do you find that you have changed your thinking about the nature of partisan politics or that you view politics any differently?

MB: I still enjoy politics. But now … I like viewing it from the bleachers and not being on the field of play. I like to talk to people about politics, but I like to talk about [both] Democrats and Republicans.

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I recently was invited to speak at an event called Drinking Liberally [a social group of self-identified liberals]. One of the conditions I gave in accepting the invitation was to be able to talk about drinking and driving. And they were gracious and very kind. Would I have gone and spoke before [the accident]? No, I would not have gone.

In terms of the partisan, combative piece of [politics], I was hard-wired to be that way. And I’m just not anymore. I’d like to seek out opportunities where two sides can come together and do things. If I were to get involved in politics again, it would be candidate-specific and not necessarily party driven — towards a particular individual, somebody I felt was worth supporting. Who knows if that candidate will ever come along.

Where I struggle today in terms of politics is trying to find a way to be thoughtful in an arena that is sometimes not very thoughtful. There are good people on both sides of the aisle.

If there’s anything I can ever do to help advance the cause of Jon and his group, I would like to do that. Jon has been a very important teacher to me in the last year. He taught me about grace, forgiveness, perseverance and dedication. And he’s taught me how to be a better person. I’m sad about the experiences that brought us together. … But I’m so thankful for meeting Jon. This has been a life-changing experience for me.