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?

Later she will admit that she was taken aback by Rybak's anecdote. "It was offensive," she says. "But I couldn't think that I could just stand there and say that. I assume that everyone in the room took offense at it. To me, it was patronizing and racist."


SAYLES BELTON IS 50 YEARS OLD, THE married mother of three, but she giggles that she feels 35. She grew up in the mostly black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, the third of five girls born to Bill and Marian Sayles. When she was a child, much of the neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94. "The State of Minnesota killed Rondo," she recalls. "And as I kid I watched them do it. I was about eight or ten, and I remember friends' houses getting torn down and households being divided."

P-Jay Fidler

It's a rare, reflective moment. Sayles Belton is nibbling on a taco salad and sipping half a glass of cabernet at a burger joint called the Lake Street Garage near her home. It's 9:00 on a mid-October weeknight, and her conversational tone glides from street tough to meandering policy wonk to cautious idealist. She asks, as she often does, to not be quoted directly if she curses, which she manages to do only once in a number of appearances and interviews.

Sayles Belton's father was the first black car salesman in St. Paul. Her grandfather, Bill Sr., was a neighborhood activist. "I think that's where a lot of it came from," she says, lighting up at the chance to talk about her upbringing. "I always remember my grandfather going to a neighborhood meeting here, and another meeting downtown, and another meeting over there."

When Sayles Belton was a ninth grader, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Richfield. She was the only black kid in East Junior High, a situation that she says "wasn't very pleasant." One time, she recalls, a group of students were to join hands for an experiment about electrical current, and one boy wouldn't hold her hand. "There were all kinds of affirmations of racism there for me at that time," she says without bitterness. "And it's just stupid and hurtful. You think, 'How dumb.' That's how you react to it."

The following year her mother relocated to Cleveland, so Sayles Belton and one of her sisters moved to south Minneapolis to live with their father and stepmother, a strict woman with the improbable nickname Fluffy (which still reduces Sayles Belton to fits of laughter). When she was 15, Sayles Belton announced that she wanted to look for a job. Fluffy told her she had all of her life to work; during high school she might want to be a volunteer of some sort instead. So Sayles Belton filled out an application to be a candy striper at the now-closed Mount Sinai Hospital while she attended Central High School.

"I learned about loneliness, hurt, and kindness at the hospital," she says. "You don't take pay and you don't take tips, so you do nice things so people say nice things back. In that situation, it's all about human frailty and compassion."

From there Sayles Belton went on to work as a nurse's aide and spent some time in Mississippi as a civil-rights worker. In 1973 she graduated from Macalester College, where she had studied biology and sociology with an eye toward becoming a pediatrician. After a stint as a parole officer, she worked with victims of sexual assault, eventually co-founding the Harriet Tubman Shelter for Battered Women.

Meanwhile, she had become active in neighborhood politics. In 1983 Sayles Belton ran for city council in the south side's Eighth Ward (which stretches roughly from 25th to 50th streets between Interstate 35W on the west and Chicago Avenue on the east) and won. Once in office, she enjoyed a close relationship with Mayor Don Fraser, and she garnered a reputation as someone who could unite disparate factions. In 1990 she was elected council president--a powerful position in Minneapolis, which has a weak-mayor, strong-council form of government. She wasn't content to stay in that post for long, though; in 1993 Sayles Belton announced she was running for mayor of Minneapolis, a position never before held by an African American or a woman.


IF SAYLES BELTON IS CAMPAIGNING IN some new neighborhoods this year, politically she is on familiar ground: In 1993 she faced many of the same challenges she does today. There were five open city-council seats. The economic picture was uncertain. Safety was a pervasive fear, with growing gang violence and rising racial tensions. Mayor Fraser and the city council were widely perceived as beholden to big development, and the city had just lost a $31 million lawsuit brought by a developer who had pulled out of a deal to put a glass dome over Nicollet Mall.

The 1993 election started as a four-way race between DFLer Rip Rapson, chief aide to Don Fraser; Richard Jefferson, a DFL state representative from Minneapolis; council member Steve Cramer; and Sayles Belton. "Rip Rapson was courting the progressive wing of the DFL like Rybak is now," recalls Peter McLaughlin, the Hennepin County Commissioner who has co-chaired all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral runs.

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