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Those in attendance are mostly white, middle class, middle-aged Minneapolitans with close ties to Carlson's Kenwood neighborhood, the governor's mansion, or the old Independent Republican party. In the words of marketing man Jim Bernstein, they're here to sell "one commodity, and one commodity only": Barbara Carlson. And like most salespeople, the bulk of the crowd, from Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce VP John Bergford to Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, is dead-set on coming up with a slogan:
"Sharon ran on the schools, and she's getting an F."
"Minneapolis, not Money-apolis."
"Whether you're from Wayzata or Gary, Indiana, you need to contribute to this city."
Peter Bell, one of two people of color in Carlson's core camp, is running the meeting. A founding member of the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative Minneapolis think tank, he is slated to be one of several co-chairs of Carlson's campaign committee. Earnestly scribbling notes and nodding his head, he encourages attendees to help Carlson articulate people's "hopes, fears, and dreams."
"I think Barbara is a secular, cultural conservative," Bell tells me later. "I think socially she's somewhat tolerant. But at the same time there are some clear values and standards we must adhere to. And I think that's where many Minneapolitans are at. It's how you navigate that thicket that gets interesting. You allow for lifestyle differences, but then establish some cultural, familial, and social truths. Two parents raising a child is better than one. Valuing education is good. Hard work is good. Loyalty and perseverance are good things. A lack of civility in our community is bad. I don't think she's afraid to say those things."
No. Carlson has enough one-liners to restock Bartlett's. What she desperately needs is a plan. And she knows it. It's one thing to criticize Sayles Belton for being reactive instead of taking the initiative, Carlson admits. It's another to offer a palpable alternative. "I don't want to raise money and I don't want to run a campaign. I just want to get out there and create a discussion about the issues that I can use," Carlson told me the first time we met. Just a week later, her resolve is visibly weakening.
"This is the most dangerous city I've been to in the world," one woman at Carlson's strategy meeting says. No one blinks. Carlson starts spinning: "We look like pantywaists. We look like we can't get our act together. I don't see any strong leadership. I see a let's-stick-our-finger-up-in-the-air mentality. I think Sharon Sayles Belton puts together seven votes before she takes a stand on anything. Leadership should be a discussion, a vision, not another boring report from the planning commission. When is my granddaughter going to move back to Minneapolis?!"
The room lights up. This is their Barbara: an attack dog with Limbaugh-like gusto and a flair for the memorable phrase. "People don't care about the details," Michael Zipko, a public relations executive, enthuses from the back of Barbara's living room. "People want strong personalities." If he's right, Carlson is good to go. If he's wrong, her "inner circle" will never help her find her way out of the woods.
"I like Barbara," Walt Dziedzic says. "But I always told her she was easy to debate, because she didn't care about the details of day-to-day government. If something would get her on the TV or in the paper, boy, she would be all over that issue, whether she was on top of it or not. And that kind of publicity worked sometimes, but it backfired too. People knew who she was, but they weren't sure if she was really representing the people of Minneapolis."
It remains to be seen whether the establishment will take Carlson's candidacy seriously. Her son Tucker, worried that the media will have his mother for lunch, has urged her repeatedly not to run. Husband Pete is conspicuously absent whenever the topic comes up. And even Barbara knows that her greatest initial strength, name recognition, is also her greatest liability. One on one, though, Carlson is undeniably infectious. The quintessential candidate, she lets people in, makes them feel at ease, remembers details from their lives, and finds a way to empathize with their trials and triumphs. In bars, parking lots, and restaurants throughout the city, she approaches the public with an unaffected ease, and they return the favor. When she's talking to you she'll often touch your arm or put a hand on your shoulder. When talking about herself she manages a becoming modesty, peppered with admirable self-confidence. When talking about others she drops her voice an octave, giving whatever she says a flatteringly conspiratorial air.
When we discuss her support of gay rights, for instance, she slaps the table with a smirk. "Oh, please," she says dramatically. "I can see the headline now. Carlson Supported Gay Congressman Steve Gunderson, Believes in Gay Marriage, Seeks Republican Nomination. You guys. Don't do that to me. Give me a fighting chance." But she knows I'll print what she's saying, and that's the way she wants it. Just like she wants people to see her marching in the Gay Pride Parade that weekend.