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.

"The Star Tribune wanted Thurber and I to be more like Lisa [McDonald] and Minn," he says. "More vocal, make a lot of noise." Which astounds him, given that reporters have never asked for his opinion on any issues except the police and race relations. "Not once have I been interviewed about [the redevelopment of] Sears--the mayor has," he says. "One of the first things I did when I took office was to fly to Sears headquarters [in Chicago] and ask them what they're going to do" with the shuttered department store on Lake Street.

The paper ultimately endorsed Herron with faint praise: "The soft-spoken Herron...has shown enough potential to merit a second four-year term. His priorities are good; experience should improve his performance."

Though Herron insists that the lack of attention to his work doesn't bother him, he can't quite conceal his annoyance. Given the opportunity, he'll expound at length his favorite projects--like Portland Place, a joint effort by the city and Honeywell to build 51 new housing units on two blocks adjacent to its headquarters at 26th and Portland. Honeywell executives have credited Herron's quiet persistence with making the idea reality.

But if Portland Place was Herron's biggest victory so far, it's also been the source of sharp criticism. In order to build the townhouses, Honeywell bought and razed 145 units of low-income rental housing, a commodity already in short supply throughout the Twin Cities. When tenants were first told to move, Honeywell didn't offer them relocation allowances. After the residents were gone, the company asked the city to kick in $4.2 million; since publicly funded projects require relocation benefits, Honeywell went in search of the dislocated tenants. Many, the company says, have since received the money, but some have not. Critics, including Minnesota Tenants Union head Kirk Hill, also note that while the houses were originally billed as "affordable" to families with incomes of under $20,000, the minimum family income required to buy into the development has now risen to nearly $40,000.

Herron agrees that the city desperately needs to increase its stock of low-income housing. But, he says, the Phillips neighborhood also needs middle-income housing to survive. "We tore down those houses and we have not had to do as much law enforcement," he asserts. "People should have a choice about where they want to live, and if we concentrate low-income housing in one place, we are saying, in effect, 'This is the only place you can live.'"

Chances are the remainder of Herron's second term--he was re-elected last fall by a landslide--will find him in the news a bit more often. Council President Cherryhomes has announced plans to form a committee on health and family issues and to appoint Herron as its chair. It's a role Herron declined when he was first elected; the move startled his fellow council members, who argued that to be effective a council member must jump on such opportunities. Some say privately that Herron's obvious dislike of contentious debate has hurt his stature on the council.

"I don't have a lot of time to focus on policy stuff," Herron admits. "I'm so busy focusing on the problems of individual people." Besides, he says, if he tried to become what his critics say he should be, they'd simply outvote him. Consider the case of the civil rights ordinance revision: "Am I angry, and do I think it's wrong, and does it hurt? Yes. But I can't afford to be angry. That's the problem with being an elected official of color. You can't show anger, because then it's easy for them to put you in the box of the angry black man."

The trade-off? "I don't command the kind of respect that people who are good at posturing and positioning themselves publicly do."

It's not a comfortable place to be, and Herron says he's not sure whether he'll run again when his term ends in 2001. "I'm not on a power trip, not on an ego trip," he elaborates. "I feel like I've done what I can do in my capacity and maybe it's time for me to look at what other things I can do."

If Herron decides to leave the council, it won't surprise those closest to him. "Politics is nasty," says his father. "He likes people and he doesn't understand why politicians go through all they go through. Why not just say what they mean and do what they say?" The elder Herron even has an idea what his son should do once he cedes his office: Become a minister.

Informed of his father's suggestion, Herron nods. "I've got a calling. I've known it for years and kept trying to outrun it," he says. "I don't know where I'm supposed to be, and when I don't know, I have to be still."

Intern Dan Gearino contributed to this story.

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