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Minnesota bar owners look to <br></br>former cop to represent them

ST. PAUL -- Here's one you may not have heard. Frank Ball walks into a bar. He doesn't get a chance to say anything to the bartender. A man walks up to him and says, "Are you the cop?" "Are you the drug dealer?" Ball shoots back. "No, I'm the bar...

Bar Owners
Frank Ball, left, head of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, meets with Dan O'Gara, right, at O'Gara's Bar and Grill, Friday, August 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Pioneer Press, Jean Pieri)

ST. PAUL -- Here's one you may not have heard.

Frank Ball walks into a bar. He doesn't get a chance to say anything to the bartender.

A man walks up to him and says, "Are you the cop?"

"Are you the drug dealer?" Ball shoots back.

"No, I'm the bar owner."

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"Well, good -- I work for you. Nice to meet ya," Ball says, sticking out his hand.

It's kind of funny, if you think about it. For years, Ball levied thousands of dollars worth of fines against bar and liquor store owners across the state. As former director of liquor and gambling enforcement for the state, he was the industry's top cop.

And now, here he is traveling to a bar on the insular Iron Range, working for the most skeptical of tavern keepers and liquor store owners. The smoking ban, 0.08 blood-alcohol limits, gambling restrictions -- you name it, it's hurt business, they tell him -- and you better fight additional regulation with all your might.

No problem, Ball says: "I've got the Minnesota work ethic. I've got a big respect for whoever signs my paycheck. ... And they really are a great bunch of businessmen. I consider them my close personal friends."

Years ago, Ball had butted heads and yelled -- up close and personal -- with the very man who had invited him to come to the Twin Cities one day in January for an interview.

The head of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association had stepped down, and bar and liquor store owners had to figure out who their new advocate at the state Capitol would be. "I hear you're doing nothing but spreading manure up there," Bruce Nolan, a former association president who owns Blaine-based North Gate Liquors, said to Ball when Ball picked up his phone at the St. Mathias barn he converted into a home.

Ball had just finished spreading 800 tons of turkey manure at a friend's farm in Brainerd -- something he often did to unwind. After 15 months in a high-ranking, high-risk position in Afghanistan -- commanding 1,500 United States law enforcement personnel and eventually training tens of thousands of Afghan policemen -- he needed to unwind.

The following week, Ball, 60, sat in a room before a panel of seven people -- liquor industry leaders he was used to haggling with.

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One wanted to know where he stood on gambling -- something he used to enforce.

"As long as it's lawful, I'll lobby my best for you. ... But if there's illegal forms, you'll be reported," Ball replied.

The answer was met with a moment of silence. The interview ended, and the panel assembled in another room.

"Why? ... Why the heck should we hire a cop?" one asked.

St. Paul bar owner and association president Dan O'Gara remembers the response that eventually won out: "Why wouldn't we?"

Ball, known as a straight shooter at the Capitol, came with instant credibility. He knew the industry inside and out -- he may have argued, but he'd always been fair, O'Gara said.

"He wasn't heavy handed ... but if you chose to do things the wrong way, look out," O'Gara said.

Ball got the job. But the debate didn't end. From a Las Vegas convention to an evening meeting on the Iron Range, Ball has to repeatedly reaffirm his loyalty.

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"Some people were a little reluctant. Some people are still a little reluctant," said Dick Kari, president of the beverage association's 7th District, which includes the Iron Range. Kari, who also owns Powerhouse Bar in Proctor, said Ball eventually won him over by coming across as "the ordinary guy that would sit down. He'd be straight up with you."

Some debates had literally taken place over heavy drinking. Years ago, Ball brought a pair of Breathalyzers up to the Iron Range to prove that a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 was too dangerous for driving.

The old debate exposes one of the most salient clashes between Ball's old job and new responsibilities. While the beverage association lobbied hard against a 0.08 limit -- with a past director writing multiple opinion pieces against it -- Ball lobbied for it as a police officer.

"Did 0.08 hurt (the bar business)? It certainly did. Am I upset about it (passing the Legislature)? No, I'm not. ... It's been proven that lives will be saved," Ball still says, though he adds: "It comes down to individual responsibility. Moderation. That's what it really comes down to. ... People try to demonize it."

Some of his former fellow officers now rib him for "going over to the dark side," Ball acknowledged.

But Michael Campion, who as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety supervised Ball when he served as director of liquor and gambling enforcement from 1999 to 2004, said: "I haven't heard anything but positive feedback from Frank being there. I've heard nothing negative at all. ... When I heard about it, I thought it would be a good fit."

Still, Campion added, "he's not the run-of-the-mill law enforcement chief executive."

In the past, Ball hasn't shied from controversy. When the movie "Fargo" came out, he was police chief of Brainerd and received plenty of overseas phone calls from journalists, wondering whether the story was true.

Even on the road to Afghanistan, Ball found, "Fargo" is famous.

After leaving public safety in 2004, Ball was contacted by a friend who was contracting for the U.S. State Department. There was a hairy, high-profile position opening up in the last place Ball thought to look for work.

The federal government needed someone to head a police training program in Afghanistan. About 1,500 U.S. law enforcement personnel would serve as trainers under that leader.

Ball, who had served in the U.S. Air Force, flew to Washington to talk.

It helped to have a good ice breaker.

"When we started talking about the movie 'Fargo,' that's basically all we talked about," he said.

Starting in early 2005, Ball served for 15 months as contingent commander of the Afghanistan national police training program.

At a central base the size of a football field -- a hole in the ground, surrounded by razor wire -- Ball oversaw nine training centers, in which he eventually trained 82,000 Afghan civilian policemen.

Looking back, Ball calls the country "so fragmented, and so frustrating" but still talked of hope.

The gravity of his position, while overwhelming, somehow kept him upright.

"You come from Pumpkin Hollow USA and get thrown onto the pointy end of the spear where the whole world's watching. But what an audience that is -- that's what kept me through those 16, 18 hour days."

In summer 2006, Ball returned home, looked up a high school buddy and began working on his 1,500 acres of corn to unwind.

"You need to decompress? Go to a farm and drive a tractor," Ball said.

Now, working with bar and liquor store owners, Ball has come off the farm once more. He now calls his time in Afghanistan a "nice, quiet break."

"He got thrown into the fire this year with taxes on alcohol, budget issues," said former association president Nolan. "If you can deal with Gen. Petraeus and the Afghan army, you've got some qualities I can deal with."

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