On-the-Job Training

Mark Stenglein climbed out of a Dickensian childhood to become a business success and one of Hennepin County's most powerful politicians. Now he thinks he's ready to be mayor of Minneapolis.

It's just after 7:00 a.m. on a Thursday in February, and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein is headed for his first appointment of the day. If he attends all of the meetings and events on his schedule, he'll be working well into the night. He's used to this pace, but it's not good for his health, he admits. He doesn't eat much, and what he does eat is mostly junk. Today all he's got with him is a big bottle of water.

He's got the seat as far back as it will go, but he still looks somewhat cramped behind the wheel of his red Mercury Grand Marquis. At six-foot-four with broad shoulders and a head that fellow commissioner Mike Opat often describes as "really big," Stenglein always looks a little rumpled; his suit coats have no choice but to ride up on the back of his neck.

Pulling the car into the Hennepin County Government Center's ramp, Stenglein says it's funny how different things were when he first went to work as a commissioner in January 1997. On his first day, he showed up wearing a Rolex and driving a forest-green Jaguar that he'd written a check for on a whim on St. Patrick's Day 1993. He was single and earning more than $200,000 a year. It was, he says, the last impulsive act of a man who drank too much too often.

Michael Dvorak

After a brief stop at his office, Stenglein is off to a meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a group formed in 1995 after the New York Times immortalized a summer of drug-related violence by dubbing the city "Murderapolis." The committee meets monthly to talk about everything from dealing with chronic offenders and elder abuse to the cost of the new county jail. It's a tense coalition, Stenglein says, made up of elected officials who have too much at stake politically to really get much done a lot of the time.

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's chair is vacant and Stenglein isn't pleased. "Just because the murder rate has gone down in this city doesn't mean she should stop attending these meetings," he rants. "This is the kind of thing the mayor needs to participate in, because we can talk all we want but nothing's going to get done if she's not in on it." His complaint about Sayles Belton may be legitimate, but she's also a convenient target. Stenglein last week announced plans to run against her in the 2001 election.

"You know, I didn't run to be something," he adds. "I ran to do something."

While that statement may sound like a politician's platitude, Stenglein expects people to believe it. The trouble is that it's hard to pin down just what it is he wants to do. Mark Stenglein bills himself as an independent, which he says means he votes his conscience. But in the five years he has held political office, his colleagues--even those who consider him a friend--say he's garnered a reputation for being inconsistent. The ideological tiebreaker on the seven-member county board, his all-over-the-map voting style frequently leaves people scratching their heads in confusion and occasionally asking whether he knows what he's doing. As another commissioner says, the question is, "Is he dumb, or dumb like a fox?"

Despite all of this--or perhaps because of it--pretty much everyone seems to like Mark Stenglein. And if you believe the murmuring on the 24th floor of the Government Center, that's bad news for the other three candidates, Sayles Belton, Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald, and neighborhood activist and Internet entrepreneur R.T. Rybak. "They're calling up people asking, if the election were held today would they vote for them or me," chortles Stenglein. "All of them have called me to ask if I'm going to run and all of them want to go to lunch or something."

On the way back to his office, Mike Opat spies Stenglein in the hall and follows him into the elevator. Stenglein complains about Sayles Belton's absence. "So you lost control of the meeting, I guess," Opat jibes.

Stenglein changes the subject. "I heard your name come up on the Barbara Carlson morning show today," he says. "What was that all about?" They were talking about teen pregnancy, Opat replies, and Carlson "tried to turn it into a discussion about race and I wasn't going there." Opat pretends to ask himself a question in a screechy imitation of Carlson's voice.

Stenglein heads back to the parking garage, his black rubber shoe-covers slurping on the wet floor. He's still irked with the mayor. He's convinced he could do a better job. "I have three children under the age of five and I'm already really busy," he says. "But I also think the city needs good leadership right now. I know what my campaign posters would say, something like, 'It's time to fix Minneapolis.' There would be a picture of me in a hard hat with a tool belt on."

Stenglein laughs. "I mean, for Sharon not to know that Honeywell was going to move out of town? Come on. I mean, I would have been sleeping with them."

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