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?

Sayles Belton talks about her response to the city's 1995 crime wave and about her stance on affordable housing. And then she talks up her leadership on something called the Clean Water Partnership, a somewhat controversial project that thus far has cost $2.4 million but led to cleaner lakes. Clean water is an issue that Rybak has recently latched onto, and the mayor is swinging back. "R.T.," she barks into a Minnesota Public Radio microphone, "are you listening?"

"People have said that Sharon Sayles Belton doesn't brag on herself," she concludes to a smattering of laughter. "And that's true. But this campaign, I will." There's fervent applause in the living room. It is the most impassioned speech of the campaign, and possibly a turning point for her and her stump-speech rhetoric. Too bad she's given it to a roomful of die-hard supporters.

 

THE MAYOR'S REELECTION CAMPAIGN in 1997 was, in the words of Randy Schubring, "on autopilot." Coasting on a receding crime wave and a good economy, Sayles Belton won the DFL endorsement uncontested. Independent Barbara Carlson, a former city-council member and radio talk-show host, emerged as the only real challenger. Carlson pounded on Sayles Belton's lack of visibility but never really created problems for the mayor. Sayles Belton won by a comfortable margin, 55 percent to 45 percent.

But in retrospect, Carlson's showing foretold some of this year's problems. Carlson, who actually fared slightly better against Sayles Belton than John Derus had four years earlier, carried the First and Third wards, underscoring Sayles Belton's historic lack of support in the city's northeast quadrant. (Carlson also carried the 12th Ward along the city's south side and the far-north Fourth Ward.) More than that, Carlson had been more than 19 points behind in polls in July, suggesting that some of the energy around Sayles Belton was waning.

Since then, Jesse Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial upset has shown that there was growing dissatisfaction with the DFL. And over time Sayles Belton has come to represent that DFL machine, one that many have concluded is not progressive--or fiscally responsible--enough.

More recently, Ralph Nader's presidential bid as a Green Party candidate has put chinks in the Democratic Party's armor on a national level. And perhaps nowhere in the country has that been more apparent than in Minneapolis, where Nader pulled more than ten percent of the vote. The Greens have made a strong showing this year in city politics, with four candidates going on to the general city council election.

In other words, the time was ripe for someone like R.T. Rybak, positioning himself as a progressive outsider, to tap into that disenchantment. The mayor's supporters like to accuse Rybak of being shallow on certain issues, to point to his lack of elected experience, and to claim that he is trying to be all things to all people. (Sayles Belton herself calls him "the Music Man.") But they concede that Rybak has managed to seduce away many of the same voters who put Sayles Belton into office because they perceived Fraser as too much of an insider. "R.T. has gotten those people who went to Sharon because of Fraser," admits Flynn. "He has managed to gain support without getting the core, middle-ground voters."

One of Rybak's converts is outgoing Sixth Ward council member Jim Niland, who briefly chaired Sayles Belton's 1993 campaign. "My hope initially was that she would run a progressive agenda, but it's clear her priorities involve corporate welfare, which is something neither liberals nor conservatives like," says Niland, who is now advising Rybak. "It's clear to me what a failure her administration has been, and that's put her out of touch."

It's a perception that insiders and critics alike are blaming on Sayles Belton's mayoral staff, who they suggest have hindered the best efforts of her campaign workers. "Personally you meet her and you think, 'Well, she's cool,'" opines Sarah Janacek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota and one of a number of Minneapolis Republicans who have grudgingly endorsed Sayles Belton. "But there's none of that when she is in the public as mayor. The only thing that makes sense is poor staffing. They don't know where to put her at the right times to garner attention."

For example, Natalie Johnson Lee, a Green Party candidate trying to unseat council president Jackie Cherryhomes, had hoped that she and the mayor could help each other's campaign. As a black woman running for city council, Johnson Lee assumed that Sayles Belton would be eager to take her under her wing. But so far, she says, there's "no real relationship." Johnson Lee sees this as a mistake: Sayles Belton could pick up disaffected black voters in the Fifth Ward by aligning herself with Johnson Lee. But the mayor has been reluctant to turn against Cherryhomes, who, campaign watchers say, wants a low voter turnout.

"Maybe the mayor doesn't think she needs the black votes up here," Johnson Lee grouses. "We could have a great partnership with the mayor, but she doesn't seem to want to be seen around here." Tellingly, mayoral campaign staffers curtly note that Sayles Belton always supports candidates endorsed by the DFL.

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