State of the Ward

City council member Brian Herron's disgrace left a vacuum in his Minneapolis district

On a late-September evening, Vickie Ann Brock approached a home in the Central neighborhood in south Minneapolis. Brock, a candidate for the vacant Eighth Ward city council seat, hoped to hand out some literature and make a favorable impression on the potential voter.

After Brock introduced herself to the woman who answered the door, however, it became evident that this was not to be a fruitful visit: The woman began screaming at Brock. It wasn't clear exactly what the woman was so angry about, only that she was incensed by the candidate's onetime connection to Brian Herron, the disgraced former city-council member for whom Brock worked as an aide. As Brock backpedaled down the steps of the house, the woman spit at her.

"Ninety-nine percent of the ward has been very warm and gracious and inviting," says Brock. "And then there's been a part of the ward that's been hurt. They haven't recovered from the pain. It's been a little bit on the brutal side. I find it hard to accept, because I'm being judged by somebody else's mistake, somebody else's life."

Robert Lilligren is one of three little-known candidates vying to fill the shoes of disgraced city council member Brian Herron
Craig Lassig
Robert Lilligren is one of three little-known candidates vying to fill the shoes of disgraced city council member Brian Herron

The pain Brock refers to is the resignation and indictment of Herron, who represented residents in the swath of central Minneapolis stretching from 24th Street south to Minnehaha Parkway. On July 18 Herron pleaded guilty to one count of felony extortion, admitting that he had accepted a $10,000 bribe from a local businessman. The revelation touched off a far-reaching federal investigation that has also resulted in the indictment of businessman Basim Sabri, who is accused of offering Herron $95,000 to support a proposed hotel on Lake Street. The corruption probe has cast a pall over all of city hall, but nowhere is the cloud darker than in the race for the council seat Herron left vacant.

Herron's resignation came on the last day that candidates could file for the race. Till then only three political neophytes had signed up to run against the popular incumbent. One of the few people who knew about Herron's departure in time to still jump in the fray was Brock, his former aide. She filed to run for office just before the deadline--and was promptly accused of exploiting insider information.

Despite the appearance of trading on her city hall connections, Brock has had a bumpy ride. In the September primary election, she finished a distant second to Robert Lilligren, a DFLer with no previous political experience. In fact, Lilligren was perhaps best known prior to the scandal for his lack of name recognition: In roundups examining the unprecedented number of gay men seeking city-council posts this year, City Pages, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and Lavender managed to overlook his candidacy.

Lilligren, a 41-year-old small-scale housing developer, admits that he's had to temper his enthusiasm as he goes door to door because of the Herron scandal. "People feel betrayed," he notes. "People put a lot of faith in him. It's almost as if they're mourning."

The race has been further muddled by the long-standing chaos of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA), the nonprofit that distributes Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds for much of the area. The organization has been mired in racial strife, accusations of theft, and general disarray for well over a year (see "Central Heating," June 20); it has no paid staff and has all but ceased to exist.

"To one year lose the functioning neighborhood group and then the next year lose your council member--how much more chaos can you throw at an area?" asks David Piehl, a Lilligren supporter and former CNIA board member.

About the only thing that everyone in the Eighth Ward can agree on is that the area desperately needs someone to step up and fill the void left by Herron. Despite the former council member's obvious flaws, he was one of the few people in the community capable of playing the role of ward healer.

Until the rifts caused by the Herron scandal and the turmoil at CNIA are mended, they add, the significant issues facing the ward's neighborhoods--which include some of Minneapolis's poorest areas--will continue to be obscured. The future of the massive former Sears Building, at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, is still up in the air. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency is in the process of wresting ownership of the 19-acre site back from controversial developer Ray Harris's STA Development Corp. STA has owned the property for more than two years but made little headway in filling it with tenants. The proposed rejiggering of exit ramps off of Interstate 35W has neighbors concerned, as does the ever-present nuisance of airport noise. In addition, citywide problems such as racial profiling and the lack of affordable housing are compounded in the area, with its racially diverse population and low household incomes.

"Our ward is already in trouble," posits Zachary Metoyer, who is running for the council seat as a write-in candidate. "We hold a vast amount of the poverty of the city of Minneapolis right now and, doggone it, we need to get to work."

Metoyer, a business consultant and former employee of Sabri, has been one of the central figures in the ongoing CNIA power struggle, ascending to the board presidency in May of 2000. He left that post to wage his quixotic run for the city-council seat, an effort that didn't get under way until after Herron's resignation.

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