What Makes Barbara Run

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

Today, however, Carlson says she's more conservative than she was on the Council, and plans to run as an Independent while seeking endorsements from both the Reform and Republican parties. "Now more then ever, I believe it's wrong to just throw money at a problem," she says. "We need to encourage our schools, our churches, and the families in our community to teach responsibility and respect. That's the only way we can make Minneapolis great again."

Rip Rapson, who served as deputy mayor to Don Fraser and is now a senior fellow at the UM's Design Center for American Urban Landscape, says he has always respected Carlson's motives, if not her judgments. "When she talks about the great city that was, is she talking about an inclusive community or an exclusive club?" Rapson asks. "That's not clear. If she becomes mayor she'll find herself coming into contact with people who have different opinions and experiences than her traditional circle of friends. To survive she'll not only have to form new alliances, but find translators and guides. Watching her choose those alliances, translators, and guides may make her campaign interesting."

It is as close to a ritual as she gets. Each day Barbara Carlson gets up early to consume the Strib, Pioneer Press, and New York Times, all the while engaged in a stream-of-consciousness critique of what she's reading. She slams a Diet Coke and a pair of Prozac capsules and changes from her dressing gown to one of at least two dozen black outfits. Then she begins her assault on the day--making phone calls, taking phone calls, applying makeup, fixing her hair, checking voice-messages, donning a strand of pearls. This morning she's running late, so she offers me a stack of newspapers and a "fancy water" before dispatching me to the family room, which is framed by bookshelves packed with best-selling titles and a puzzling but tasteful array of knickknacks. If I had asked for Prozac, she no doubt would have obliged. Carlson is the consummate host. Old school.

Before applying her lipstick, Carlson calls a friend and former colleague who worked for her when she served on the City Council. Sixty seconds into their conversation, it's clear the day's busy schedule will have to wait. She slams the door to her bedroom and takes her cordless phone back into the master bathroom, home of the fabled hot tub. The ceramic tile does little in the way of soundproofing. "Look, you arrogant son of a bitch," she yells. "She [Sayles Belton] is a horseshit leader and I want to get together and talk to you about this campaign."

Listening to her shake the walls conjures a fleeting image of Sayles Belton and Carlson face to face in a televised debate; it flashes through my mind like the trailer to an action flick.

Several more oaths and a brief lecture later, Carlson slams down the phone and comes to find me. "Oh, I don't know if I have the constitution to be mayor," she sighs with a feigned exasperation that's betrayed by her fox-like grin. "I wanted to get together and talk to him, and he didn't want to because he said I couldn't listen. So I called him a little prick.

"Bureaucrats are the bane of society. Write that down," she demands. I do. Then she throws me the keys to her black, four-door Chrysler.

"You drive while I finish putting on my makeup," she instructs in a clipped, military cadence. "You are traveling with Barbara Carlson."

Our mission is to meet with as many friends, enemies, former colleagues, and potential supporters as humanly possible in the next three days. Carlson wants to "talk about the issues" with people in the know, conservative and liberal. Her purpose is threefold: Take the city's pulse, find issues around which to frame her campaign, and convince a skeptical reporter to take her seriously.

Our first visit is with Curt Johnson, the chair of the Metropolitan Council. A former colleague of Gov. Carlson's, the smooth, measured policymaker is a walking, talking antithesis to his shoot-from-the-hip visitor. They spend several minutes talking past each other. Or so it seems.

Carlson say she's worried that "they"--in this case, welfare cheats--are coming into Minneapolis by the carload. Johnson talks about putting affordable housing into traditionally affluent neighborhoods. Carlson questions Sayles Belton's ability to articulate a vision. Johnson says city issues must be approached on three levels: local, regional, international. Carlson tests a sound bite: "There's hope, Curt. There's hope. And that's why I'm sitting here. Last summer I could walk the streets of New York when I was on my book tour. This summer I can't walk the streets of Minneapolis. All you have to do is go to Phillips and look at how many children have been shot there."

"In the role of mayor, you have to ask questions and give answers," Johnson replies. It's unclear whether the statement is meant to inspire or to admonish, but Barbara goes with the flow.

"I know people are just going to have a fit when I say this, Curt, but I want to license parents." She cocks the eyebrow. "I want you to prove you have the tools to raise your child. And if you don't, you'll have to learn. And if you aren't willing to learn, then I want your kid."

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