ST. PAUL, MINN.
Commuters on Highway 94 in St. Paul may notice a billboard at the side of the road proclaiming Jason Lewis "Minnesota's Mr. Right," but they probably don't know he was born and raised in Waterloo.
"Waterloo was a wonderful place to grow up," Lewis said. "As a kid I can remember going down to the old Black's department store downtown. I remember the old movie theaters, the Paramount, the Strand … Crazy Days downtown."
That was the late 1960s. These days Lewis, 44, plays to a growing chunk of conservative Twin Cities radio listeners as they drive home from 5 to 8 p.m. every week day.
His show, which he frequently calls Radio Free Minnesota, is a fierce blend of factual conservative ferocity and quirky humor. About 100,000 listeners, most of them 25- to 54-year-old men, listen to Lewis on KSTP-AM 1500.
His bedrock philosophy: Leave us alone, lower our taxes and allow the marketplace to solve financial and social problems.
Minnesota is prime picking grounds for Lewis' brand of broadcasting. Democratic U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, considered to be the most liberal member of the Senate, provides plenty of material to keep Lewis busy.
Of course, local figureheads often find themselves in Mr. Right's crosshairs
He frequently refers to Gov. Jesse Ventura as "governor backpedal," and routinely jousts with the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council. He calls the council's plan to build a light rail system throwing money down a "rat hole," the same description he applies to the state's use of a $6 billion settlement from big tobacco.
It's a straightforward formula. Government is always too big and liberals are always too stupid to understand the truth.
Lewis' first serious encounter with big government came in 1986 when the Iowa Department of Transportation condemned Lewis Motor Supply Inc., the family business founded by his grandfather in 1929.
The business, formerly located in the 1700 block of Washington Street opposite Mama Nick's Circle Pizzeria, was a wholesale outlet for after-market motor parts.
When his father, James, had a heart attack in 1980, Lewis returned to Waterloo to help run the family business.
"When they built (Interstate) 380, they basically said we were gone," Lewis said. "It was a situation where they came in and said, 'here's what we're going to give you, take it or leave it.' So we took it."
Lewis is quick to note closing the business didn't affect him or his siblings much.
His brothers, James, John, Jerome and Jay, and sisters, Julia and Jennifer, have long since moved away.
"The real tragedy was Waterloo lost 35 jobs," Lewis said.
Local publications like the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Law & Politics have speculated on whether it was this experience in Waterloo that put a chip on Lewis' shoulder and drives his ferocious on-air personality.
"I think that the problems we had with Lewis Motor Supply just reaffirmed my previous convictions," Lewis said. "I was a winger from day one. I've always been a conservative."
"A lot of liberals like to write that because they think, this lunatic, something had to happen to him. … That's another liberal fantasy," Lewis said.
Sipping a beer in a St. Paul bar after his show, Lewis said if there is one thing he really misses about Waterloo, it was working alongside his father.
Thinking back on the days spent running the family store, Lewis identified one piece of advice that has shaped his career.
"My dad told me something that is still true today: When you're running a company, you don't have to be the best at one thing, but you have to be second best at everything," Lewis said.
You can see that basic philosophy at work in Lewis' kitchen every morning.
A proud news junkie, Mr. Right devours three newspapers every morning, meticulously clipping articles for use on his show. He might not know everything there is to know about any given subject, but you can bet he knows enough to conduct business on the air.
It has been more than a decade since Lewis lived in Waterloo. After graduating from now defunct Central High School in 1973, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in education and business from the University of Northern Iowa. He admits education was never his passion.
"Frankly, I had no business going to college when I graduated from high school, because I was a poor student, but I wanted to play baseball at UNI," Lewis said. "When I was a kid baseball was my life, and now it seems as though I spend half of my time on the radio railing against subsidies for baseball stadiums."
In high school he was a star of coach Roger Hoel, consistently batting .400. Hoel now coaches West High School's varsity squad.
After Lewis Motor Supply closed its doors in 1987, Lewis attended the University of Colorado-Denver, eventually earning a master of arts degree in political science. He worked as a financial consultant and on several Republican campaigns. He ran for Congress as a Republican from Colorado's second district.
Though he lost the race, his political career quickly mutated into a job hosting a weekend call-in talk show on KOA radio in Denver.
From there he made his way to WBT radio in Charlotte, N.C., turning up at KSTP in St. Paul in 1994. Since then KSTP has syndicated his show in Duluth, Rochester, Bemidji and St. Peter.
Lewis also co-hosts a weekly public affairs program called "Face to Face," broadcast on statewide Minnesota Public Television.
Since he has been at KSTP, Lewis has begun to extend his reach beyond Minnesota's borders.
An avid Elvis fan, Lewis broadcast his show live from Graceland in 1997, the 20th anniversary of the King's death. During the 1999 House impeachment hearings, Lewis and producer Joe Hansen broadcast daily from the basement of the Capitol. This year he and Hansen also covered both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Lewis' political ambitions are a topic of much discussion in the Twin Cities.
Callers frequently offer him their vote "when you run for governor." Lewis admits he has thought about reentering the political arena, but not just yet. He just renegotiated a three-year contract with KSTP-AM.
It's obvious Lewis has fun doing what he's doing.
Glancing through the double-paned Plexiglas window that separates Lewis' broadcasting booth from the control room, Hansen agreed Mr. Right just loves to get under the skin of liberals and challenge conservatives at the same time.
Hansen runs the switchboard for Lewis, managing the station's five call-in lines. Some callers wait 50 minutes for a chance to get on the air.
"Me, I wouldn't wait two seconds to talk to anybody on the radio," Hansen said.
Like most KSTP employees, Hansen does a perfect imitation of Gov. Jesse Ventura. Before he became governor, Ventura had a radio show on KSTP, so both Lewis and Hansen know him well.
After he was elected, Ventura attacked Lewis at a press conference for calling himself Mr. Right. Hansen got a tape of Ventura's speech and clipped out the Mr. Right sound bite. Now he plays it at the beginning of every show just to get under Jesse's skin.
"The first time we played it he (Ventura) heard it on his way home and called on his cell phone," Hansen said.
For six years Hansen has arrived early to help Lewis sift through the day's news to gather enough ammo for a three-hour show.
"There's no doubt about it, I've got to work to keep up with Jason," Hansen said.
In seven years of broadcasting, Lewis has learned who his listeners are and what topics will light up the phone lines.
On Wednesday evening he threw out a lure that was sure to get his audience boiling.
With a look like a fisherman testing his favorite jig, Lewis called for President-elect George W. Bush to pardon President Clinton for perjuring himself because it would be "good for the country."
Three hours later Hansen was still reeling in callers who wanted to sound off on why Lewis would ask for anything that could benefit Slick Willy.
He knows now is the time to ride the crest of Minneapolis air waves.
"In this business you enjoy it while you're there, because you never know …" Lewis said.