A Changing of the Guard?

Retiring pols and a shifting could change the of politics on Minneapolis's long-entrenched north side.

           The red, white and blue signs are all over. "John Derus for state Senate," they say, poking out of lawns from Broadway to the city limits. In a quarter-century, Derus has lost only two races--the time voters unceremoniously kicked him off the county board, and the 1993 race in which Sharon Sayles Belton beat him to gain the mayor's office. Now the man once called the most powerful politician in town is back, for what might well be a last hurrah.

           But this time, things are tough. After years of working the north side's time-tested combination of tough talk, blue-collar economics, and machine electioneering, Derus is facing a primary opponent who's got all the things that used to be his: the DFL endorsement; the help of officeholders and party honchos; and the backing of a political machine--this one drawing on the trinity of feminists, gays and lesbians, and neighborhood/nonprofit types.

           And Derus's is not the only race hinting at the end of a political era. Eighteen candidates are elbowing their way toward the September 10 primary for an unprecedented three open legislative seats and one on the county board.

           The geography is basic. Senate District 58, where Derus is running, is bounded on the city limits to the north and west, the Mississippi River to the east, and Hennepin Avenue to the south. Carl Kroening had been its senator for 16 years when he announced his retirement in March. The northern half of the district, House District 58A, has been held for the last 26 years by Rep. Jim Rice, who is likewise stepping down. And just across the river lies House District 59A, which for 24 years elected Rep. John Sarna--another retiree.

           Between them, those three were a formidable crew at the Legislature. With seniority rivaled only by some of their Iron Range colleagues, they brought home the bacon, carried labor's standard, and took a hard line on things like gambling, crime, and property taxes.

           But although they were re-elected time after time, the neighborhood was changing. People like Linda Higgins were moving into the houses vacated by World War II vets, attracted by bargain prices and real woodwork. "When I came here 20 years ago," she says, "almost everyone in north Minneapolis had been born and raised in north Minneapolis. That isn't so anymore. A lot of people came to do the sweat equity thing. You met your neighbors because you needed the extension ladder. And politics got to be organized in a different way--along neighborhoods more than unions and political units." She is Derus's chief opponent in the Senate race.

           On the issues, Derus and Higgins aren't that far apart. In their literature, both list crime prevention as a top priority, followed by job creation and education--bread-and-butter issues with extra resonance in one of the state's poorest districts. Sure, Derus still loves to talk about his political passions, which include light rail, ethanol, and affordable health care; Higgins, for her part, makes sure voters know she's prochoice.

           But the real differences lie in where the two candidates come from--whom, and what, they represent in a shifting political landscape. Higgins, a freelance editor and publisher until she became City Council member Joe Biernat's aide three years ago, is considered one of the leading members of the "new northside mafia"--boomer-age, liberal, often white-collar activists, many of them women demanding an in to the boys' club. City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes is the most visible exponent of this group; she's supporting Higgins. So are abortion-rights advocates, who have made the race one of their top priorities in their bid to create a prochoice majority in the Senate.

           Derus, by contrast, has roots that run deep, wide, and often underground. There are a lot of people who owe him for personal or political favors; when in office, Derus was known for getting down to minute detail in constituent service. Carl Kroening and Jim Rice, both of whom command effective electoral organizations, support him. He has a lot of relatives around the area, including veteran City Council member Alice Rainville. And, perhaps most importantly, he's been endorsed by almost every major union.

           "The crucial thing to remember about this area," says Brian Rice--lawyer, political consultant, and son of Jim Rice--"goes all the way back to Floyd Olson [the left-populist governor from the 1930s, who grew up on the north side]. The north Minneapolis senator was always the senator from labor. When that senator rose and spoke, that was the voice of labor. Higgins and her friends are labor supporters. But it's not in their blood the way it is with a lot of these people here."

           At one time, none of this would have happened. For a long time in Minneapolis, elections were decided in April, when DFL conventions endorsed their candidates. Challenges to the endorsees were rare, and Republicans even rarer.

           Higgins, however, let it be known she was running against Kroening almost two years ago, when there was still no hint of his retirement. By the time Kroening broke the news to old allies like Derus this spring, it was almost too late: Higgins had worked the caucuses and lined up a majority of delegates. Even so, it took her five ballots to get endorsed. "I had been campaigning for about 10 days at that point," Derus crows, "with delegates that were largely her people. I thought we did really well."

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