The Life of Brian Herron

Brian Herron has battled racism, hatred, and self-doubt. But none of that prepared him for the Minneapolis city council.

Three-fourths of a turkey sandwich is staring up at Brian Herron from a clear plastic pod. He keeps eyeing the food, reaching toward it, and then pulling his hands back to the edge of the table.

The morning's meeting still knots his brow. It was standing room only in City Council chambers as dozens of angry citizens--many of them constituents or longtime friends of his--spoke in protest of a revision of the city's civil rights ordinance.

It's moments like that, Herron says, that make him dislike elected office. If he votes the way the mayor and a number of his colleagues want him to, he'll help punch holes in a 15-year-old rule that requires companies doing business with Minneapolis to file an affirmative action plan, clearing the way for Dayton Hudson Corp.'s new downtown Target store. If he votes the way the angry citizens want him to, he'll incur the wrath of politicians who hold de facto veto power over projects he has meticulously pieced together for his economically depressed ward: "Maybe I don't need Target," he says. "But I need things done on Lake Street."

Today, Herron has not been forced to cast a vote; the council has agreed to take up the matter another day, perhaps with less public scrutiny. But an hour after the meeting, the tension still has a lock on his craw. "I don't blame people for being skeptical," he says. "It's a dangerous political climate. I don't blame them for thinking that this change in the civil rights ordinance is the first step and the first change of many to come."

He picks up his sandwich, gets it halfway to his mouth, exhales before putting it back down untouched. "I'm not naive. In my heart, I know what's going on here."

Another day, a later hour, and the council member is listening to a different assortment of friends, neighbors, and constituents. His workday is nearly 14 hours old, yet miraculously his dry-cleaner-crisp suit has failed to collect a single speck of lint. The gold cross he often wears in place of a tie still hangs at the center of his chest, precisely the same distance from each lapel. He's 43 and looks a decade younger. He is taking meticulous notes.

But under the table, his right leg is jiggling manically. He's tired and hungry and has doubtless reminded himself that the complaints parading before him are all too real to the people who air them. At the moment, about a dozen residents of the 10 blocks stretching south from Lake Street between Nicollet and I-35W are venting about what the city has and hasn't done for them lately. Arrayed around the tables are bureaucrats from several state and city agencies whom Herron cajoled into attending.

A woman from the Department of Solid Waste and Recycling has just finished a Twin Peaks-ian spiel on the karmic value of organizing litter brigades, and Herron is trying gently to guide the meeting to its close. A retiree in the audience says she has one more topic. She's the archetype of the well-meaning neighborhood busybody, and Herron is trying not to giggle.

There's a single mother on her block getting evicted for complaining that her kids are being eaten by fleas, the woman says. The landlord doesn't want to pay to fumigate or to haul away a roll of rotting carpet recently torn out of the duplex, so it's sitting in back of the house.

"Oh, God," says Herron, repeating the address. "Can we get someone out there tomorrow?" The garbage lady asks where exactly the carpet has been dumped. If it's inside the fence, it's a job for the city's Department of Inspections. Conscious of the embarrassment creeping across the face of an inspector at the table, Herron doesn't remonstrate, but simply presses the man to fit a visit into his morning schedule.

The meeting is identical in theme and tone to the gatherings with block clubs and neighborhood associations Herron attends several nights a week throughout his ward, a chunk of the city that runs from Lake Street to the Richfield city line, and from I-35W roughly to 11th Avenue. Its northern neighborhoods are among the poorest in the city; crime and housing are persistent problems. The southern portions are mostly well-off and have concerns centering on transit and airport noise. In 1990--the most recent year for which census data were available--about half of Herron's 29,000 constituents were white; more than 10,000 were black, more than 2,000 were Asian, and nearly 1,400 were Native American. (Hispanics were not counted separately.)

As the lone person of color on the City Council, Herron might be a major media presence, perhaps even a political rising star like his predecessor, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. In fact, the bulk of the ink he has earned in nearly six years in office has been the result of an ongoing murmuring campaign on the part of a few anonymous cops who seem to want to paint him as some kind of Midwestern Marion Barry. The image is laughable in contrast to the mild-mannered man Herron's friends and colleagues describe; if anything, some concede privately, he may not be confrontational enough for the cutthroat environment at City Hall.

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