Her Own Petard

"Invulnerable" or not, Sharon Sayles Belton may be in for a rough year

SUMMERTIME IN Minneapolis, and the thoughts of the citizenry are turning again to urban crime. The city is prepared; it has added another acronym to its policing arsenal. Buried in Sunday's Star Tribune feature about efforts to get noisome black youths to stop congregating at Lake Calhoun's Thomas Beach is a reference to "Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's Initiative on Gateway Crimes." In law enforcement newspeak, "gateway" crimes are those petty offenses that start a neighborhood down the road to hell. Crack down on them, it follows, and budding street criminals become so discouraged they light out for the territory. The notion that ticketing broken windows and jaywalkers today will prevent crack houses and armed hold-ups tomorrow is a prime example of what my logic professor would have termed the post hoc fallacy. It confuses correlation--neighborhoods in the early stages of decline undergo physical decay and a higher incidence of misdemeanor offenses--with cause. More tellingly, it offers an index of the desperation felt by city officials in Minneapolis and elsewhere to appear to be doing something about crime.

On Monday I phoned Amy Phenix in the mayor's office to learn more about the IGC. She demurred that it was really nothing new; just a continuation of what the city has also called its misdemeanor enforcement program, which targets marginal neighborhoods for zero-tolerance treatment of offenses like loitering and public drunkenness. This being an election year, we can expect much more of same--repackaged crime initiatives, and some new ones for good measure. And at the center of it all will be Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, talking tough and saying nothing.

Jawing about crime is the hallmark of the Sayles Belton administration. Not that it's all rhetoric. Under her watch the city has expanded police ranks to record levels; in her last State of the City address she bragged of the additional $14.7 million a year being spent on law enforcement in the city. Of the inevitable corollaries, such as the quiet diminution of the city's community health care resources, she understandably said nothing.

Say what you will of the mayor's soporific governance, her inattention to festering race troubles in her own police and fire departments, her office's sporadic attention to detail. The fact remains that she has done what she was elected to do: assuage white fear while flattering the self-regard of a town grown accustomed to believing it's more tolerant and forward-thinking than it really is. She has kept liberals in pocket while governing like a Republican; she has kept the contradictions off the table in a way that no other local politician could have managed. And thus, in her own way, she has earned the 69 percent approval rating cited in that recently leaked Republican poll. In short, Sayles Belton is the sort of New Democrat in whom the Clintonites take so much pride. Small wonder that, despite her meager credentials, she was on the short list for HUD secretary.

Canny and formidable as she is, though, Sayles Belton is hardly invincible. In the end, and with her own happy assent, crime has become the only abiding issue on the public radar. And everyone is convinced that things are getting worse. To the extent that this is true, there is nothing much Sayles Belton could have done about it; it's mainly a function of the political economy of American cities, and specifically of Minneapolis's relative affluence compared to other Midwestern cities. This gets to a point no one wants to discuss honestly: Of course the area is a magnet for migration. If you were a nurse or a factory worker downsized out of your job in Chicago--or, yes, part of a crack syndicate from Detroit looking to new markets--you would naturally want to go to where the money is. In the short term, there is very little to be done about this at the local level. And what could be done for the core cities involves long-range political battles about matters such as containing urban sprawl, finding ways to discourage job flight to the suburbs, and securing better metro-wide revenue sharing. Sayles Belton has instead spent an inordinate amount of her political capital on the bashing of black youth, and they haven't gone away.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans can field a credible candidate. If the fundraisers get behind Barbara Carlson, I think she'll give Sharon a race; in this, I concede, I'm in a decided minority. In any case the outline of a Republican strategy is being sketched at downtown power lunches even now. Last week International Multifoods announced it would move the remainder of its work force from Minneapolis's Multifoods Tower to the former Firstar Bank building in Wayzata. The news came on the heels of a similar announcement a month earlier regarding TCF headquarters, which is decamping to the same western suburb. On Monday, an attorney acquaintance phoned to say that the suits downtown are grumbling mightily about the two relocations and what they are said to represent: the disenchantment of business leaders with the Sayles Belton administration's failure to get a lid on crime. Given that TCF chairman Bill Cooper is the new Republican party chair, and that he has taken pains to pledge his party to a vigorous campaign for Minneapolis mayor, it's hard not to conclude that there is a serious and deliberate spin campaign in the offing. On the other hand, never underestimate Sayles Belton's ability to outflank ostensibly more conservative competition to the right. She did it to John Derus in 1993, and she just may do it again.

 
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