In the Spotlight

News & Features
Senate Candidate Profile: Mike Ciresi
By Laura McCallum
August 14, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

The lawyer who led Minnesota's successful lawsuit against big tobacco is tackling what some may see as an even bigger challenge, Minnesota's U.S. Senate race. Mike Ciresihopes to win a competitive four-way DFL Senate primary and go on to beat Republican incumbent Rod Grams. Ciresi has money, a creative ad campaign, a good grasp of the issues and some big-name support. Ciresi, however, has never run for office before and must convince DFL primary voters that he's the best Democrat to take on Grams.
Mike Ciresi listens while participating in a debate on Minnesota Public Radio on August 11th.
(MPR Photo/Michael Wells)

WHEN MIKE CIRESI works the crowd at a parade there's little sign of the high-powered lawyer who sparred with tobacco company executives and earned millions in Minnesota's landmark trial. Wearing a red t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, he comes off as the St. Paul native that he is, a guy who grew up in the Como Park neighborhood and whose father owned a liquor store.

Some parade watchers comment on Ciresi's clever TV ads, produced by the ad man who ran media campaigns for Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone. Others note Ciresi's personal style.

"I liked him," one man said. "He looked me square in the eye and he had a good handshake. I like that."

Ciresi, however, can't possibly shake the hands of all the potential DFL primary voters and he's got an uphill battle to increase his name recognition and distinguish himself in the crowded Senate field. He lagged behind his primary opponents in the most recent MPR/Pioneer Press/KARE 11 poll. Ciresi says if he can get Minnesotans to look seriously at his experience and background, he thinks they'll pick him.

"I believe if the voters look at my record against all the other Democratic candidates, they'll find that I have the best record and would be the best advocate for them in the United State Senate," he says.

Ciresi's legal career spans three decades. He successfully sued over defective birth-control devices and represented the government of India after the Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal. Attorney Roberta Walburn worked with Ciresi on the Bhopal, Copper 7 IUD and tobacco cases. She says in the case of the IUD litigation, Ciresi was determined to win damages for the women who were made infertile.

"It's clear working with him day in and day out, that the women really fueled his drive to do right by them, that it was not just an academic exercise, that he was fighting for their causes and he gets personally involved with the people he's representing," Walburn said.

Ciresi is usually described as intensely focused. Walburn says during the tobacco trial, the entire legal team holed up in a hotel near the courthouse for four months instead of heading home each day, often working 'round the clock.

"Working with Mike, he brings such a high energy level and spirit of enthusiasm into these battles, that in a perverse way, is fun. Because it's non-stop action, you know you're doing the right thing and there's no alternative but winning," Walburn said. "I've pulled more all-nighters with Mike over the course of us working together than I care to remember."

Ciresi has taken the same approach to his Senate bid, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Although he jokes that it's not quite as grueling as the tobacco trial.

"It's a little less intense because the trial was 19 hours a day, so here I'm picking up another hour of sleep a night," Ciresi says. "So it's, sort of a cake walk."

Ciresi says the learning curve of a campaign is similar to a trial. He's been boning up on the issues, traveling the state and talking to people. He calls himself a "progressive moderate," and thinks the nation should take advantage of the current budget surplus to invest in a range of priorities. Including education, health care, affordable housing, revitalizing rural America, paying down the national debt and shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

Ciresi says he'd also like to see legislation to help the middle class, something he's tentatively dubbed the Family Security Act.

"It's clear working with him day in and day out, that the women really fueled his drive to do right by them, that it was not just an academic exercise, that he was fighting for their causes and he gets personally involved with the people he's representing."

- Roberta Walburn, Attorney
"Maybe we ought to take a look and say there ought to be some tax breaks for people in the middle, where they can take and put away money, tax free, and they can use it for a whole host of things."

Ciresi's views have earned him the support of the Minnesota Nurses Association, the Sierra Club as well as DFL heavy hitters Skip Humphrey, Vance Opperman and George Latimer. He was the only Senate candidate to submit more than 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot, instead of paying the $400 filing fee. It's not that Ciresi couldn't afford it - he's put more than $2.5 million of his own money into the race so far - but he says he wanted to show that he has grassroots support.

As of late his personal wealth has become somewhat of a sore subject.

"If the media stopped using my first name as 'wealthy trial lawyer' I'd be a lot better," he says. "It's a fact, I'm a trial lawyer, I'm proud to have been a trial lawyer, trial lawyers have done tremendous things for working men and women in this country and for businesses in this country. And it's a fact that I'm wealthy, but that doesn't define who I am."

One of Ciresi's long-time business partners and friends, attorney Tom Kayser, says Ciresi's wealth shouldn't be used against him.

"He wasn't born into family money," Kayser says. "Mike went out and earned it and he earned it through extraordinary hard work. Sometimes people think it's a little trite, but Mike is the living embodiment of the American dream."

Ciresi's biggest criticism comes from the way he earned most of his money, from the tobacco trial. Ciresi's firm received a total of $566 million for representing the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross-Blue Shield in the suit, which the state settled for $6 billion. Former Hamline Law School Dean Steve Young says the legal fees are unethical. Young ran for the Senate in 1996, losing the Republican primary.

Surrounded by stacks of legal documents, Young says he's frustrated that he can't get the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board or the courts to address the matter.

"I think a really serious thing has been swept under the rug and Mike's response has been to pooh-pooh the whole thing by saying, 'It's politics,'" Young says. "Who's the politician now?"

Ciresi points out that his firm took the case on a contingency basis back in 1994, when tobacco companies had never lost in court. The contract originally signed by the state would have granted the Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi firm 25 percent of whatever the state received, but Ciresi later negotiated his fees with tobacco companies.

Young says Ciresi's firm admitted in court documents that the billable time its lawyers spent on the case amounted to $27 million. So, he questions how the firm can justify getting $566 million.

"I am prepared to give Mike Ciresi is his $27 million, that's time out of pocket, that's fair. Secondly, I'm prepared to give him some additional amount of money. A case can be made for $27 million plus some additional amount to recognizing that he was fighting something of an uphill battle, but how much?

Ciresi says the legal fees were appropriate for a case that former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called one of the most significant public health achievements of the second half of the 20th century.

"It was, in my judgment, a spectacular result, and, yes, we got a spectacular fee for it. I'm not ashamed of that one bit. I'm rather proud of the fact that we tore up the contract with the state and didn't charge them one penny."

Ciresi says he realizes that running for the Senate is, in many ways, a world apart from litigating in a courtroom. He knows there's no guarantee he can convince Minnesota voters in the way he's often been able to convince a jury. He says the goal is still the same, to win.