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For Humphrey, Outcome Marks a Personal Victory

May 09, 1998|HENRY WEINSTEIN and MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The $6.6-billion settlement of Minnesota's big anti-tobacco case represents a huge personal triumph for state Atty. Gen. Hubert H. Humphrey III, whose contrarian, hard-line assault on Big Tobacco belied his image as a steady, honest, but unremarkable, public servant stuck in the shadow of his famous father.

In forcing cigarette makers to settle rather than risk the wrath of jurors, Humphrey extracted a windfall 50% higher than his state would have received under the giant tobacco peace accord proposed last June--which is now a dead letter thanks, in part, to Humphrey's opposition.

And by dragging tobacco companies through a punishing, 3 1/2-month trial before settling at the eleventh hour, Humphrey assured that the industry got a public thrashing and that millions of previously secret documents came to light.

"By insisting on going to trial, and obtaining the industry's most incriminating documents, Atty. Gen. Humphrey has done a great service," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told The Times on Friday.

While vindicating Humphrey's stance, the outcome also is sure to enshrine the balding, 55-year-old lawyer as a leading hero of the anti-smoking cause. And it can only raise his popularity heading into the September gubernatorial primary, where his Democratic opponents include two other Minnesota political scions: Ted Mondale, son of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, and Michael Freeman, son of former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, also a former governor. (Pundits have dubbed the race "My Three Sons.")

Suit Prompts Reappraisal of Career

Even before Friday's announcement, Humphrey's dogged pursuit of Big Tobacco was prompting reappraisal of his career. Although widely respected as principled and hard-working, he lacked the color and fire of his dad, Hubert H. Humphrey Jr., known as "the Happy Warrior" and the most famous politician in state history.

"This is a man who has been trying to carve out his own identity for some time," said Eric Johnson, the younger Humphrey's administrative assistant.

Political associates say Humphrey seemed to grow more aggressive after his disapointing loss to GOP Sen. David Durenberger in 1988, when he tried to win the seat his father had held.

Soon after, said Ruth Stannoch, a veteran activist of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, she noticed a sharp change in Humphrey, who became more focused, more intense and more willing to take risks.

"It was like a burden had been lifted from him about the expectations of becoming a senator," Stannoch said. "He was listening to his own internal drums rather than someone else's."

By summer 1994, Humphrey was ready to make a truly bold move. He sued the nation's cigarette makers, alleging that they had engaged in a 40-year "conspiracy of fraud and deception designed to peddle an addictive, killer product to the American public."

He was only the second of 40 state attorneys general to sue the industry to recover smoking-related health-care costs. At the time, blistering anti-tobacco rhetoric already was politically correct, particularly in the anti-smoking bastion of Minnesota. But mounting a novel, seemingly quixotic legal attack on an industry that in 40 years had never lost or settled a case was something else.

"The day he filed that case, his political opponents were cheering the demise of Skip Humphrey," said Joe Loveland, Humphrey's former press secretary. "Everyone said . . . this is an industry that never forgets and pounds its political foes into the ground. You couldn't have said he was doing this for political advantage."

Refused to Go Along With Pact

But in a bolder move yet, Humphrey was a holdout last June when other attorneys general and industry negotiators proclaimed a $368.5-billion agreement that, with congressional approval, would resolve all the major tobacco lawsuits. A few attorneys general voiced misgivings, but Humphrey was the only one to actively campaign against the deal, blasting it as a bailout for a rogue industry.

Among other things, he contended that cigarette makers should not get legal protections and that all of their internal documents must be made public before any serious talk of a settlement.

While Humphrey's trenchant rhetoric earned plaudits from anti-smoking leaders, it angered tobacco officials and some fellow attorneys general.

For assailing the deal and insisting on taking his case to trial, he was criticized by former allies--such as Mississippi Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, lead negotiator of the tobacco truce--and by Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson.

Humphrey "never seemed to want to work together," Moore complained.

Humphrey acknowledged having lonely moments as the holdout, especially during the annual meeting last summer of attorneys general in Jackson Hole, Wyo., days after Moore had triumphantly announced the deal.

"I remember looking out at the Grand Tetons," Humphrey recalled recently. "They were standing there alone, and so was I."

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