What Makes Barbara Run

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

It's this apparent quality--larger than life, reflexively candid, and entirely unaffected--that helped Carlson win a City Council seat, sold her radio show, and won her a book deal. And it makes her a potentially formidable candidate. She is a politician who runs against type in an age when most people despise typical politicians; and, like Ronald Reagan, she is an affecting yarn-spinner in part because she believes unabashedly in fairy tales herself.

One of our last stops is at Mary Jo Copeland's privately run shelter and food shelf in downtown Minneapolis. Carlson volunteered here in the early '90s, and points to the organization as an example of goodwill without bureaucratic meddling or government support. "I just think she (Copeland) is doing the work of the Lord," Carlson says. "Yes, she has an incredible ego. And yes, you have to be a titch off to do that kind of work. But there's no one like Mary Jo Copeland. And I think the people running City Hall have a lot of trouble when something works and helps people, and it's not in their control."

Sitting in a vacant office at "Mary's Place," Carlson meets with Solomon and Marsha, a Native American couple from Wyoming who have six kids and no place to stay. After reconstructing the last two years of their lives on pieces of scrap paper, which she promptly misplaces, Carlson starts to check their stories with the housing authority and Solomon's temporary employment agency. Then she administers a quiz, making a show of what she thinks can be done at a grassroots level to ensure responsibility: "Do you love these kids?" she asks. "Do you have a record, Solomon?" "Marsha, do the two of you drink alcohol?"

The questions are delivered in a stern parental tone. "They just keep having babies," Carlson says later, shaking her head in disbelief.

Outside, Carlson continues her pilgrimage by chatting up a woman living in one of the shelters. Carlson suggests she look for a job at Burger King or learn to clean houses. "Do you know how much I pay my cleaning lady an hour?" she asks. The woman stares at her blankly. "Twelve dollars an hour." A few seconds later Carlson walks away exasperated. "She's got to get a job. That's it. There's just no choice."

Back inside Mary's Place, the proprietor is saying grace over the noon meal of ham sandwiches and baked beans. When Copeland has finished, Carlson surveys the surroundings one last time and eyes the door. Her work here is done. "What do you say we blow this pop stand?" she asks.

If this sounds a little callous, one thing I've learned by now is that she'd have said exactly the same thing after a talk at the Minneapolis Club. Barbara Carlson has no time for loiterers along her road to the mayor's office. The professional politicians, the people who can't get a grip on their own bootstraps, the well-intentioned handwringers who insist that times have changed and there are no easy answers--well, she has one thing to say to them: Outta my way. Having decided to run, Carlson is now on a race against time to save Minneapolis from "those people" who don't understand how great the city was and could be again.

Later, over a blue plate special in Northeast, Carlson muses about the religious overtones at Sharing & Caring Hands. "I was educated in Catholic schools, and I think a strong spiritual base is very important. And a lot of children aren't getting that, including my own. It's just not something I've pursued," she says. Then, after a rare moment of silence, she flashes a knowing smile.

"I know I need a spiritual home, which is why I've always wanted to be Jewish. Then you can jump right over Jesus and get to God."

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