A COMEUPPANCE FOR City Hall's fiercest political operative, or the birth of a more distinctive two-party system in Minneapolis? It all depends on whose spin you believe in the wake of Jim Niland's quick exit as the Minneapolis City Council's DFL majority leader.
The job, arguably the second-most powerful on the DFL-dominated council, has belonged to Niland since he helped engineer the victories of many DFL freshmen in 1993. In 1996, Niland's council antagonists say he could not muster the six votes necessary to keep the job; instead of unifying the caucus, they say, Niland was too divisive in loudly opposing issues such as the Target Center bailout and hammering fellow DFLers in the so-called Fiscal Moderate caucus. Joan Campbell will succeed Niland.
Niland's view? "I made a New Year's resolution to cut back," says the City Council's best political organizer. "I want to represent my ward and help Paul Wellstone get re-elected. I had seven votes to stay if I'd wanted to." Niland notes that he will move to a seat on the Executive Committee, which negotiates contracts with unions, long his power base. But with most city union deals (except police and fire) hammered out for the next three years, opponents say this is merely a face-saving gesture.
City Hall scuttlebutt says Niland will organize as many as three intra-party challenges to DFL Fiscal Moderates in '97: McDonald, whom he engaged in bitter name-calling and then apologized to during 1995's budget battle; Scott, who may not run in 1997; and Dziedzic. Niland is cryptic, saying only that "I tend to be quite partisan in political races, and [leaving the majority leader's post] frees me up more to work on campaigns."
Observers have long wondered if Republi-cans will ever re-emerge to take on the DFL, but Niland's battle may produce something like two parties under the umbrella of the predominant DFL. His vehicle, the progressive New Party, recently received court approval to cross-endorse candidates on Minnesota ballots. As a result, 1997 DFL primaries may feature both "DFLers" and "New Party/DFLers," giving voters a clearer, better-labeled choice between the council's zero-increase taxophobes and those more willing to fund various city social and spending programs.