[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Ringside at Lucille's
COMMUNITY ACTIVIST NATALIE Johnson Lee might not have much hope of unseating incumbent Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes, but you wouldn't have guessed that if you'd ventured into Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis the other day. The occasion was the Tuesday-morning Public Policy Forum co-hosted by Insight News and KMOJ-FM (89.9). This past week's main event: a debate featuring candidates for the Fifth Ward city council seat.
The undercard--a Ninth Ward candidates' debate--having been dispensed with, Insight News publisher and forum moderator Al McFarlane invited Cherryhomes to give her opening statement. The council president, clad in her trademark bright-red suit, spoke fondly of her 11 years in office. "I love my job," she said, pointing to her efforts to enhance development in all parts of the city, especially the Fifth Ward. "We've moved forward together. In the future, the first primary commitment is to increasing funding for affordable housing."
The heckling commenced. "Yeah, right, Jackie!" came a woman's voice from the back of the room. "You're an advocate for affordable housing. Uh-huh!"
"Oh, please!" a man echoed.
Shushing the jeers, McFarlane introduced Johnson Lee, who got right to the point. With its poverty, crime, and boarded-up buildings, the near north side is not getting better, she asserted, it's getting worse. When the challenger quoted legendary civil-rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer--"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!"--cheers erupted.
Her voice quavering, Johnson Lee went on. "I have watched our community resources be doled out as hush money," she said, alluding to Cherryhomes's reputation as a ruthless power broker and alleging that her opponent has created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in the ward by punishing her critics and rewarding those who back her. "I don't believe that she is the most powerful woman on the city council," Johnson Lee concluded with a note of irony. "If she was, then this community would be slamming right now!"
As McFarlane struggled to quiet the crowd, a visibly flustered Cherryhomes rose in her own defense. "I make absolutely no apologies," she said, noting that it's easy to base one's criticism on things that haven't happened. As for who wields the power at city hall: "It's not my issue. Am I the most powerful person on the city council? Frankly, I don't care. My issue is that I'm a good mother and a good wife--"
The crowd drowned her out.
Things calmed down a bit as the two candidates gave their closing remarks and the floor was opened up. After a few general questions, a young black man stepped to the mic and addressed Cherryhomes. "I like your strategy," he said. "I'm not impressed with your leadership. But I like your ability to bring these house negroes out to support you."
Pandemonium ensued, forcing KMOJ, which was broadcasting live, to go off the air temporarily. Order was finally restored, but not before Minneapolis Public Housing Authority board member Carol Batsell-Benner, who'd arrived among the Cherryhomes entourage, leaped to her feet and grabbed the microphone in an attempt to shout the man down.
Cherryhomes closed by pointing to her proven track record. "I love my job," she reiterated. "I'm proud of my job."
Countered Johnson Lee: "I come with honesty and integrity. I don't believe in back-door deals."
The Case of the Wayward Whiz
OFF BEAT EMPATHIZES with the Star Tribune. In these hedonistic times, it's not easy to keep your employees free from the scourge of illegal drugs. A recently filed U.S. District Court case illuminates just how messy the process of drug testing can become. Shawn George Baker was fired from the Star Tribune in September 1999, after allegedly testing positive for marijuana use. Baker had been employed by the company for 24 years (most recently as a driver), earned $22 per hour, and was just a year and a half away from securing a full pension. In the lawsuit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages, Baker denies having used pot and alleges that the process used to test his pee was downright sloppy. The cups for the urine specimen "were not wrapped in a protective, sealed wrapper" at the time of the test, he claims, and the person who administered the test "held his finger in the open specimen collection container." StarTribune spokeswoman Pat Adkins declined to comment on the case because it is pending. The company has filed a motion to have the matter dismissed.
Correction published September 12, 2001: We misspelled the name of Al McFarlane, publisher of Insight News, in last week's Off Beat column. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.