What Makes Barbara Run

Would-be-mayor Barbara Carlson means to make Minneapolis everything she has always imagined it to be.

On the last Saturday morning of June, 30 delegates and a couple of slumming daily newspaper reporters are gathered at the Logan Community Center in Northeast Minneapolis for the Minnesota Reform Party convention. While they grapple with issues of procedure in the building's rear classroom, Barbara Duffy Carlson impatiently paces the white-tiled hallways, grousing about the humidity and obsessively adjusting her high-piled hair. "My God," she mumbles while cracking the day's second sweaty can of Diet Coke. "This is boring."

Ten minutes later Carlson is rattling the Reform Party's makeshift podium with her fist. Delivering an impromptu speech that would impress even her ex-husband, Gov. Arne Carlson, she mourns the loss of a Minneapolis that was, rages against the "Murderapolis" that is, and unofficially announces her intention to unseat Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in November. She promises to fight crime by standing behind the cops, guarantees a new professional baseball stadium, says she'll admit when she's wrong, stand up for what's right--and demand the same from her constituents. "I want people involved in the fabric of the city. Otherwise, I don't want them here," she says.

The party of Perot is perched on the edge of its folding chairs. Carlson's acute rhetoric plays well to this crowd's often vague sense of outrage. Her emotionally charged bromides about civic engagement touch a chord. Down deep, though, what really excites them is Carlson's ability to shuck and jive like a real live candidate. A former three-term member of the Minneapolis City Council who recently finished a seven-year stint hosting a morning talk show on KSTP-AM, she's not a utopian toker from the Grassroots Party or some obscure neighborhood activist. She's a boisterous, press-hungry brawler with a familiar face. And she's courting their endorsement. "Barbara is a front-runner who can help our cause," says Sheree Breedlove, the Reform Party's 58th District Chair. "We can't afford to take on a candidate who doesn't have a remote possibility of winning."

At the end of her five-minute plea, Carlson takes a yellowing page out of the campaigner's Old Testament by venturing into the crowd and retrieving her 3-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra Davis. The child is lovely in her little blue dress with the precious yellow ribbon specially tied by Grandma Baba for the occasion. Carlson pauses until the ooh's and ah's subside.

"Allie's my granddaughter. Because her parents thought it would be best for her if they moved from Minneapolis, she lives in Edina. Someday, I believe we can make Minneapolis fantastic enough that the Allie Davises of the world can live here again."

At this, all 30 delegates leap to their feet. Some of them chant Run Barbara run, run Barbara run. Carlson just grins and gives Allie a kiss.

"Aren't they funny," Carlson muses a few days later. "They're trying so hard to go against the grain, and then they follow the traditions. I think that's interesting."

In the days leading up to the Reform Party presentation--her first semiofficial campaign speech--she's agreed to let me spend time in her world. She isn't out to push her raunchy, revealing autobiography, This Broad's Life. She does not wish to revisit the circus-like publicity stunts that defined her tenure on the City Council, or reminisce about her talk-radio days. No. She wants to talk about the bread and butter, meat and potato issues that threaten to turn her adopted hometown into just another American city. "Everyone loves Sharon, including me," she insists again and again. "This isn't about personalities. It's about the future of Minneapolis."

She dreams of dancing on Daddy Duffy's coal-black wing tips at the Old Nicollet Hotel, a Cole Porter tune wafting from the bandstand. She can still smell the tender steaks and plump shrimp sizzling at Harry's restaurant and see the shiny, mahogany bar buzzing with business at Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale. She shivers at the memory of snowy afternoons at Memorial Stadium, and still smiles when she thinks of shopping for shoes at Jaffee's or buying designer dresses at Harold's. That is Barbara Carlson's Minneapolis: a vibrant, ever-budding metropolis seen as few can still see it, through the soft light of a privileged postwar upbringing. Growing up she lived in Anoka, where her father was a remarkably successful lumberman.

Minneapolis consequently became the young Barbara Duffy's playground, a place where she felt honored to join the father she adored as he sipped icy cocktails and made small talk with associates who must have seemed impossibly witty and glamorous. There was no grime then, no street crime to speak of, no gaudy, declassé strip joints. Not in her field of vision, at any rate. She couldn't wait to make that Minneapolis her home. "I loved the energy, those people--dressed up, mingling in sidewalk cafes," Carlson reminisces as she drives past Block E. "It was vital. It was young. It was magical."

When Carlson describes what the city could be, she inevitably talks of the days when neighbors ran into each other at the corner store, traded gossip, and voluntarily did good deeds for the unfortunate through the auspices of the Catholic church or a privately funded social club. There were no homeless men begging outside Dayton's, no kids making trouble at the corner bus stop, no single mothers on welfare driving in from Gary or Chicago. The city was as fresh and uncorrupted as a Norman Rockwell soda jerk. Opportunity was a state of mind.

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