What Makes Barbara Run

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

Johnson chuckles. Changes the topic to urban renewal. The two of them talk about transit issues, sports stadiums, and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman's qualities as a salesperson. Barbara gets lost in a revery of her Minneapolis of the 1940s and '50s. The two reminisce briefly about Arne, then end the meeting.

After lunch we are off to see Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. In less time than it takes Carlson to grab a bowl of mints from the conference table and place it in front of her, she is off and running. The main themes raised by Johnson in their morning meeting are now part of her spiel. Suddenly mass transit is central to her campaign. She quizzes Grabarski about whether the council is interested in creating pocket parks in and around downtown. She muses about marbling prime downtown real estate with low-income housing. The city, she confides to Grabarski, can only move forward if its leadership has a local, regional, and international awareness.

Grabarski says his organization is mainly interested in five things--transit, crime and safety, property-tax reform, the convention center, and a ballpark. Then he jokes about the three questions he's asked most frequently when making public appearances. Are there plans to build a grocery store downtown? What's wrong with the IDS Crystal Court? And the perennial: What about parking? Carlson nods knowingly. She has studied the issue firsthand. "When I go to Nordstrom's at the Mall of America, and then I have to go downtown and pay for a day of parking, I'm a very, very unhappy person," she says gravely.

Before leaving, just to get a reaction, Carlson says she wants to talk about licensing parents. Grabarski just shakes his head. "There's a public perception of you and a private perception," he tells Carlson. "People on the City Council remember you as more eccentric than your constituents. On the radio, though, politicians say you were very effective, while the public perceived you as outrageous."

The meaning of Grabarski's parting analysis, if it has any, is lost on Carlson. She just seems pleased people are already talking about her candidacy. She thanks Grabarski for his time, grabs a few more mints, and heads for the door.

When we meet Rapson at the Espresso Royale Caffe in Dinkytown to trade off-the-record gossip about Sayles Belton, Fraser, and landlord activist Charlie Disney, Carlson insists on buying us all creamy coffee drinks and "something sugary." ("I'm going to eat my way through Minneapolis during this campaign," she tells me later.) Before we can say no, she's at the cash register with her oversized black plastic purse, mingling with fresh-faced university students who have no idea who she is.

"Iced coffee. Now is that too sweet or just right?" she asks a grad student working the counter. "Oh my, look at those croissants. Don't they just look yummy, yummy, yummy?"

While the coffee beans grind, Carlson paces noisily in front of the dessert case, pointing at the cookies and wondering out loud at the prices on the chalkboard. All around the cafe, solitary students studying for summer classes look up from their books with curious smiles. An old radical sipping tea in the corner just chuckles and shakes his head knowingly. Later, as we leave, a young woman--tattooed and pierced--pulls me aside to register her vote: "She seems like a fun woman. I'd love to hang out with her."

"I'm going to excite young people in this campaign," Carlson says, pleased to hear about her newest fan. "They'll know I'm not a fuddy-duddy. They'll know I'm alive."

Every meeting plays out the same. With each new encounter, Carlson assimilates what she has heard previously with the ease of an old pro playing catch-up. She filters what she doesn't want to hear--Johnson's assertion that most poor families make good tenants, Grabarski's contention that downtown is safer now than it was 10 years ago--but demonstrates a surprising deftness and flexibility. Despite her bull-in-a-china-shop image, Carlson is a very good reader of situations.

"Every week for eight years, I had a breakfast with my constituents," she says. "I'd like to do that in all the neighborhoods in Minneapolis. I'm going to be out there listening to them and hearing them. And let me tell you, if you want to have a productive meeting, you'll learn there's a difference between just listening and really hearing."

After having a few greasy lunches in Northeast (at restaurants recommended by the 1st Ward's own lame duck alderman, Walt Dziedzic), Carlson finally agrees to let me attend her first official campaign meeting. Scheduled just two weeks before she's to announce her candidacy for mayor, the gathering is billed as part strategy session, part logistics seminar. Giddy to be in on a ritual traditionally off-limits to the press, I imagine cigars and cognac, hastily drawn policy papers, and scrambling efforts to pull together preliminary polling data. Upon arrival at the secret summit, I'm handed a plate of cold pasta. Carlson gives the same talk she delivered at the Reform Party convention. To put it mildly, I'm disappointed.

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