The Education of Sharon Sayles Belton

No party endorsement, a disastrous primary, and an opponent who attracts wealthy liberals: Can Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton revive her reelection campaign?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to her campaign, however, has been her seeming discomfort when it comes to talking to large audiences. By most accounts, when she's talking to supporters or to just a handful of people, Sayles Belton comes across as sharp, caring, and even visionary. On primary night, for example, Sayles Belton watched the election returns in a room with 60 people, most of whom she called by their first name. "The mayor," Dziedzic notes, "one-on-one, is very, very good."

But when she's faced with a large or potentially hostile group, that charisma too often gives way to wooden detachment. And this year, that's made it all the easier for her flamboyant opponent to distinguish himself from Sayles Belton and to tap some of the wealthy liberals who once supported her.

"There have been come-to-Jesus meetings with Sharon," says outgoing Second Ward council member Joan Campbell, a close friend. "You can't be home cooking every night at six o'clock for your family and still be running for mayor. You have to get up there and be making your campaign right."

P-Jay Fidler

Former state Sen. Carol Flynn concurs. "She has not been as visible as many people would have liked, and I understand that, but she isn't ever going to be controversial or flamboyant," says Flynn, who has worked on all three Sayles Belton mayoral bids, the first two as a campaign co-chair. "She has to stop playing mayor and start playing candidate. She'll be gone for an hour and a half talking about the city budget. I've tried to be very blunt with her that there is no tomorrow now. She won't get to go over the budget unless she gets out there."

In the weeks since the primary, Sayles Belton seems to have undergone a profound transformation, albeit one brought on by desperation. Now, with her political career on the line, she has finally come out swinging. Suddenly, she's everywhere. She's quicker to swat back at her fiery opponent. She sounds like she's firmly in charge. The question remains, though: Did the mayor reinvent herself in time to secure a third term?

 

IT'S 7:30 ON A SEPTEMBER MORNING, AND Sayles Belton and R.T. Rybak are sitting at adjacent tables in a basement conference room at the Nicollet Island Inn, going head to head at one of the many "mayoral forums" they will attend by the time the campaign is over. Today's breakfast is sponsored by the Jefferson Center, a Minneapolis think tank that deals with various social issues. About 75 people are in attendance, including state workers, local businesspeople, Minneapolis landlords, and various city and neighborhood activists.

Both candidates are remarkably flat. Sayles Belton stands stiffly behind the podium reading from notes, her voice alternating between a whisper and a piercing tone. "I have never been a mayor that pits Minneapolis against St. Paul, downtown versus the neighborhoods, or blacks versus whites," she says. "But the thing I am against is the cycle of poverty that has hit the city. The city has never been better in some regards, and now we are at the point where we must deal with poverty to make things better." She goes on to sound an even flatter note, citing a study that listed Minneapolis as "the nation's second-hippest city after San Francisco," and then ends by concluding that she wants to make this city better for children. There is polite applause.

Rybak grabs the microphone, strides out in front of the podium, and begins speaking perhaps a little too confidently. "As mayor of Minneapolis," he begins, before catching himself. "As candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, I want to let you know that I know this city moves outside of city hall. It moves in rooms like this."

He goes on to disparage what he calls a "deeply divided city hall" that should "be divided--or rather united." Rybak takes digs at the downgrading of the city's bond rating, and the mayor's record on affordable housing. "Our city has destroyed more housing than it has built in the last five years," he rails. He concludes by praising the mayor for her leadership while adding that it's time for a change. He gets the tepid applause Sayles Belton received.

For the next 25 minutes, the candidates take questions from the audience. Sayles Belton goes into great detail about various topics, while Rybak mostly shares anecdotes about problems he's noticed since he's been on the campaign trail. He usually wraps up these anecdotes by describing a need for "a climate of change around city hall."

The issue of the new central library in downtown Minneapolis comes up. Rybak wonders aloud what will happen if the city doesn't get the facility fast, saying it worries him to see groups of black youth loitering downtown. "Think of the 12-year-old African-American kid in this city," he urges. "Follow him around and think about where he belongs."

Belton begins her turn by saying, "Oh, I'm so excited about this question," but misses the chance to pounce on Rybak's logic, instead launching into a lecture on the library's financing. She concludes by softly saying, "I was that African-American 12-year-old girl walking around downtown Minneapolis, and me and my girlfriends used to go to that library," she says. "I want a new library for this city."

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