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?

 

SOME OF SAYLES BELTON'S HANDICAPSare unique to incumbents. "There's a push and pull between being a candidate for mayor and being mayor," says Randy Schubring, her campaign communications director. "And sometimes being mayor wins.

"We are dealing with someone who has been in public speaking for 18 years and we aren't telling the mayor what to do," he continues. "But one thing I've learned about her is that she has a message that's worthwhile, and she wants to educate people on her message. She can go on for 20 minutes to answer one question, and it's compelling to me as a policy wonk. I love it, but people don't respond to that in campaigns like they do in small groups. We never tell her what to say--the message of results, integrity, and hard work is hers--but we urge her to talk in bullet points. We tell her she can't always educate."

He and other campaign staffers have asked her to be more concise and authoritative when she speaks. They have pushed her to speak of past accomplishments rather than simply future goals.

They have also started counting votes. "We are hitting Northeast, and the north side, going after voters that we think are 'persuadable,'" says Schubring. "There are votes that are literally up for grabs among the moderates in this city, those who are more typically conservative." (According to Niland, the Rybak campaign also sees votes in the same areas, wards that have never supported Sayles Belton.)

"We're not sure exactly what R.T. is, but this is probably the first time Sharon has run against someone who is not more conservative than her," Flynn adds. Because of this, she says, Sayles Belton has begun to play to her roots. "In order to win this one, she's got to help [voters] understand that she is working-class through and through."

The biggest change, however, is that she is suddenly willing to take Rybak to task. This was clear on October 12, when the mayor sat down with Rybak at Twin Cities Public Television's studios for an informal debate on Almanac. "There are no opening speeches, no stopwatches, and no podiums," warned co-host Eric Eskola by way of opening the debate.

Rybak began by arguing that the city has lurched from "crisis to crisis" under the mayor's leadership; Sayles Belton calmly assured viewers that Minneapolis has never been more stable. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks, she pointed out, she has put in long hours behind the scenes to assure a high level of public safety.

Rybak raised the downgraded bond rating; Sayles Belton cut him off. "Minneapolis is a billion-dollar corporation," she said, claiming that she's brought businesses back to the city. The mayor didn't quit there, however. She dissected Rybak's claims about his public-service record. "Bringing Chez Bananas and a couple other restaurants downtown as president of the Downtown Council pales in comparison to my record," she insisted. "Pales!"

The mayor deflected barbs about the Brian Herron scandal, declaring, "Brian Herron's behavior is Brian Herron's behavior." Rybak questioned the lag in bringing on an independent attorney to investigate other possible misdeeds at city hall, but then quickly retreated. "I don't believe that Sharon was directly involved in the scandal in any way at all," he added.

When asked what her favorite job was, Sayles Belton replied that it was when she was a parole officer, when, she jokingly added, she could "supervise men." She and co-host Cathy Wurzer snickered, but Rybak and Eskola shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It was her first clear victory in countless forums with Rybak.

Along with other recent appearances, the televised debate suggested that the aggressive characteristics that gave Rybak an early lead could backfire, says Bill Hillsman, the local political advertising guru who helped U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura pull off surprise upsets. "R.T. doesn't really hit her deficiencies, since they are alike on many issues," Hillsman opines. "He hits leadership, leadership, leadership. It's very dangerous to just assume that people are just tired of her. It's dangerous because Sharon has plenty of supporters out there." Hillsman worked on Sayles Belton's campaign in 1993. Both campaigns contacted him about this election, but he says neither signed him up.

Still, he can't help watching the campaign and at this point he believes it's a tossup. "R.T. has certainly done a better job than Sharon in getting his type of voters--those that are politically active--to latch onto his campaign," he observes. But "in the past, when push comes to shove, [Sayles Belton] has been a very good candidate. She's a very good closer--I'll give her that."

 

LATE IN THE CAMPAIGN, SAYLES BELTONspent an evening at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on the University of Minnesota's West Bank, giving a speech to student DFLers. About 16 students sat in a classroom, rifling through three pizza boxes from Papa John's. The mayor brought a prepared speech and rambled for about 30 minutes on her record, her goals, and how the mayor's job is mostly "consensus-building." Though impressive in its attention to detail, it felt like a college lecture.

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