TCS Daily

Trial Lawyers Want Senate Seats

By James W. Peppe - June 26, 2000 12:00 AM

Mike Ciresi, as the lead trial attorney for your firm, you've just won a landmark lawsuit for Minnesota against Big Tobacco, earned $440 million for your firm, and made yourself a multimillionaire without giving even one final answer. What are you going to do now?

He's not going to Disneyland, but Mike Ciresi might as well be Snow White in his bid for Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat currently held by Rod Grams (R). By pledging to spend generous portions of his new tobacco wealth, Ciresi will dwarf competitors lined up to oppose him for the Democratic nomination.

Ciresi represents a new breed of trial lawyer - hugely wealthy after extracting money from smokers, and no longer content with simply contributing to Democratic politicians. Now these guys want their own Senate seats, just like North Carolina Senator John Edwards (D), a former personal injury lawyer.

What's the downside for tech investors and consumers? Well, let's put it this way: do you think that high tech companies will face more or fewer lawsuits if trial lawyers take control of the Senate Judiciary Committee? We'll give you a hint: this is the committee that writes the rules for Federal court cases and approves Federal judges. And it's where legal reform bills have to stop on their way to the Senate floor.

While he has no previous elective experience, Ciresi is no stranger to power politics. At the epicenter of Minnesota's tobacco trial, he's spent years in the public spotlight, first promoting the effort initiated by former Minnesota AG Hubert Humphrey III and then defending himself and his firm against charges of gluttony. Ciresi succeeded on both offense and defense. And like many a trial lawyer, he talks a great game in the media.

Here's the likely outcome of this race: In the Democratic primary, Ciresi will raise $5 million. Of course, $4.9 million of it will come from his own pocket, allowing him to claim that he is beholden to no one, except the people who vote for him. Among Minnesota political reporters, for whom campaign finance reform has become a kind of secular religion, this will generate wild applause.

Meanwhile, department store heir Mark Dayton will spend his time jumping up and down, waving fists full of cash and yelling, "Me too, me too!" But since Dayton inherited his money, instead of suing it out of a corporate villain, he just won't have the same appeal. Wealthy developer Rebecca Yanisch is beaming at the thought of being the only woman in the race for female-friendly Democrat votes, but Ciresi will undercut her by touting the suit he won for 500 women harmed by the Dalkon Shield birth-control device. Finally, Jerry Janezich, the Democrats' endorsee from its Iron Range mining region base, will appear to be a perfect clone of Senator Paul Wellstone. One is enough.

So come September, Minnesota primary voters will go to the polls thinking of Mike Ciresi as the David who stood up to Big Tobacco for all the poor people who were duped into thinking that cigarettes might not be so bad for them. Furthermore, they'll appreciate his use of the very money he earned from his altruistic battle to continue the crusade on behalf of victims everywhere.

Upon vanquishing his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Ciresi will turn his sights on Rod Grams and find an incumbent hamstrung by a war chest of political IOUs and a stable of tired lawyer jokes. Republicans will talk about trial attorneys who file lawsuits at the drop of a hat, create class-action litigation out of whole cloth, enrich themselves off human misery, blah, blah, blah.

They'll talk about the diminution of freedom at the hands of liberals like Ciresi, who would punish the providers of a legal product like tobacco and trample over the Constitution as they ramp up toward the next big cash settlement with Big Guns, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, 200 pounds of snowsuit and 100 pounds of Ciresi (in his first TV ad the lawyer-candidate looks like Ralphy's little brother in A Christmas Story) will continue to crank out the paid advertising and bask in the glow of a free and friendly media spotlight.

You might think of this guy as an ambulance chaser, but to a lot of voters he looks like a tribune of the people. That could be bad news for Rod Grams, and bad news for anyone hoping to slow down the litigation express.

James W. Peppe is CEO of Campaign Marketing, Inc., a Minnesota political consultancy. To talk back to Jim Peppe, click here.

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