Stadium Could be Lawmaker's Legacy
Retiring state lawmaker Morrie Lanning insists that his controversial and successful campaign to help finance a $975 million Minnesota Vikings stadium did not drive him from a 39-year-career in public service. But his reputation as a diplomatic leader was never more tested.
The Moorhead Republican representative was threatened by e-mails and phone calls, chastised on blogs and snubbed by members of both parties. In the end, it took an 11th-hour deal after Lanning delivered news to the Vikings that they needed to pony up more money or the largest state project in Minnesota history was off.
"A majority of the people didn't think it was going to happen because there was a lot of opposition," said Lanning, the chief House sponsor of the stadium bill. "I never gave up hope. But even up until the very last night I was realistic to know it could fall apart."
The plan calls for the state to pay $348 million from tax revenue that's projected to come from an expansion of low-stakes gambling on pull-tabs and bingo. The city of Minneapolis is putting up $150 for construction. The Vikings are responsible for $477 million, which would include other sources like naming rights and a contribution from the NFL.
Lanning told the Vikings near the end of the session that lawmakers wanted the organization to up its original ante by $50 million. Team officials didn't take it well, he said.
Lanning said his final words to team officials were: If you walk away, it's on your shoulders.
"I thought I had blown the deal," he said.
Instead, the Vikings agreed and the bill survived what Lanning called probably the most difficult political environment in his 40 years of politics - not only in Minnesota but the country.
It makes the outcome even more remarkable, he said.
"It's not the reason I'm leaving. It's just the reality of the current political situation," Lanning said. "I could have kept plugging away."
Lanning, 67, a former vice president and dean at Concordia College who served as Moorhead mayor for 22 years, has been known as a politician who can manage various viewpoints inside and outside his party. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat, said Lanning builds partnerships across party boundaries and is able to put his ego aside to get things done. House Speaker Kurt Zellers, a Republican, calls him a "true statesman."
Lanning's flexibility could perhaps be traced back to his early youth, when his family moved from town to town while his dad installed steel siding on grain elevators. He attended 36 different schools, mostly as an elementary student. In first grade alone he enrolled in nine schools in nine communities.
"It required a lot of adjustment," Lanning said.
When his family first started traversing the countryside, they lived in a 23-foot-long trailer home with a bathtub under the bed. They eventually upgraded to a 35-foot-long, 8-foot-wide trailer that seemed like the Taj Mahal, a smiling Lanning said. The family eventually settled down in Moorhead when Lanning's dad went from being a laborer to owning the company.
Lanning was president of the Moorhead High School Student Body and co-captain of his high school football team. He went on to play nose guard with Concordia College, where one of his teammates was Gary Larsen, who was named to the all-time Minnesota Vikings team.
Yet Lanning doesn't consider himself a die-hard fan, which for some makes it even more peculiar that the lawmaker who took the lead on the Vikings stadium lives four hours from the Twin Cities. But he said the fight had to be won from the outside.
"All you have to do is look at the way the Minneapolis legislators voted. They were overwhelmingly opposed," Lanning said. "A lot of people wonder how that can be. Minneapolis politics are unusual politics."
Rybak, the Minneapolis mayor, jokes that the soft-spoken, low-key Lanning was so excited by the stadium bill, "I believe he may have actually smiled."
Next up for Lanning, besides spending time with his six grandchildren, could be a spot on the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which will oversee construction of the stadium. Rybak and Dayton will name the five members.
"I haven't been approached. Nothing is pre-arranged. But I've indicated would be willing to consider that. I would like to hear more about what would be expected," Lanning said. "Stay tuned, I guess."
When Lanning announced his retirement last week, his press release included a rundown of accomplishments in the Legislature. The stadium issue was last on the list. Lanning said it wasn't on purpose but seemed appropriate, considering that he's spent the most time in his political career working on water issues and flood control.
"I've spent more time working on poverty-related issues than I have on the stadium," Lanning said. "I wish that those issues would get the kind of attention the stadium has gotten, but they don't."
In some circles Lanning will be forever known as the man who saved the Vikings. He's fine with that, too.
"If that's part of my legacy, so be it," he said.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)