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?

Though Sayles Belton was an early favorite and led the pack in fundraising in what was then the most expensive mayoral race in the city's history, by the time the DFL convention came around, her campaign had stumbled. In the wee morning hours, the party's delegates could not make a clear decision after several ballots between Rapson, who like Rybak had never held an elected office, and Sayles Belton. Neither candidate earned the endorsement.

Just before the filing deadline in July, John Derus, who had lost a bid to be reelected to the Hennepin County Board the year before, joined the race. He and Rapson quickly became the favorites to survive the primary; most people figured Sayles Belton would come in a distant third. But she had money and a relatively sophisticated campaign that consisted of three phone banks and a staff of ten. She also had support from both political insiders and interest groups.

"Her race then was a cause because she was a woman," recalls Carol Flynn, who recently retired after 11 years of serving south Minneapolis as a state senator. "There was a remarkable excitement around her. I know one friend who delayed a trip to Japan at the time just so she could contribute to Sharon's campaign." Sayles Belton jockeyed hard to take gay and lesbian supporters away from Cramer, and she wooed black voters away from the fading campaign of Richard Jefferson, the race's other black candidate.

P-Jay Fidler

But most important, she won Don Fraser's endorsement. Perhaps hoping to ease racial tensions, Fraser turned on Rapson, his former aide, and helped Sayles Belton lobby for support among those Flynn calls "the rich people who live around the lakes." Sayles Belton won the primary with 28 percent of the vote. Derus placed second with 20 percent. A few weeks later, she won the election just as handily. Strong showings in the Fifth and Eighth wards, home to many poor minorities, helped put her over the top. Suddenly, the black girl from Rondo was making national headlines.

 

IN THE HIGH-NOON SUNLIGHT OF A clear autumnal Sunday, Sharon Sayles Belton strides up the concrete driveway of a stark-white stucco home overlooking Lake Harriet. As a bespectacled, college-age kid opens a storm door onto a gracefully decorated foyer, a couple of campaign staffers converge, one taking the mayor's purse. Sayles Belton continues inside to the home's sunken living room.

Inside, Hadassah Lieberman, wife of former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, is putting in an appearance at a fundraiser for Sayles Belton. Assembled are some 50 DFL stalwarts, among them outgoing council member Campbell, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, former MCDA head and U.S. Senate candidate Rebecca Yanisch, former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe, and Peter McLaughlin. Guests are sipping white wine or sparkling water and helping themselves to a spread catered by D'Amico that includes caviar, kiwi, and various cheeses.

Lieberman's appearance has made this a media event, and she and the mayor embrace, then chat, arm in arm, for the cameras. Lieberman, an angular blond woman, talks vaguely about what Sayles Belton has done for Minneapolis, including "making it one of the six cities in the country that is a 24-hour city, and that's huge," she says. Mostly, though, she talks about all the hard work Sayles Belton did as chair of the Democratic presidential campaign in Minnesota, thanking Sayles Belton "for positioning the Gore-Lieberman ticket" locally.

There has been speculation that much of the lethargy of Sayles Belton's current campaign had to do with the possibility that she had moved on, at least mentally, to Washington. Sayles Belton denies this, although in reflective moments she admits that she expected to be tapped for a post in a Gore administration. "That's something that happens when you are mayor of a city like this," she says, noting rhetorically that she's a black woman, something that naturally thrusts her onto the party's national radar. Still, she says, she always planned to run for a third term.

"Everybody was making a big to-do about me and the Gore campaign," she complains, forgetting her modulated public tone and allowing her irritation to show. "Everybody was saying that Gore's gonna get elected and telling me, 'The mayor's gonna go to Washington.'

"It's nice to be highly thought of and all that stuff," she continues. "Look, I've been on this list before. I got a call from the Clinton administration to consider running, I mean, consider being secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I filled out all the FBI applications. But nothing was promised to me at any point. Nothing was promised to me with a Gore victory. I already learned you can't bank on that. My only objective has been to run for a third term, and that's it."

She does concede that she'd consider running for statewide office, and then she segues on to an opinion many have floated about her in recent months: "Gore," she opines, "couldn't turn it on en masse."

Back at the Lake Harriet fundraiser, that criticism seems particularly ironic. Sayles Belton is quite obviously in her element here: She calls nearly everyone by first name. Her voice is loud but resonant, a far cry from the shrill pitch that too often comes out in front of larger crowds. She rattles off her résumé firmly and clearly, occasionally raising her right thumb.

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