City Pages on Election Night

End of the Party
BY G.R. ANDERSON JR.

It's twilight on Election Day, and south Minneapolis street corners have been taken over by campaign volunteers, who jump up and down and shake lawn signs at rush-hour commuters.

"Good thing we're not doing this in the cold," says one R.T. Rybak volunteer to a nodding supporter of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton on the southeast corner of Lyndale and Franklin avenues. At this intersection, the mayor's volunteers outnumber Rybak's three to two.

Two hours later it's clear that this street corner might represent the only victory in the incumbent mayor's reelection bid. At the Zuhrah Shrine Center in the Phillips neighborhood, five local news trucks idle curbside on Park Avenue South. Inside, three televisions are showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NYPD Blue, and Frasier. A small group huddles around a cash bar, drinking Tanqueray and tonics. Polls are open for a few more minutes, and most of the mayor's true believers--six staffers and some 300 volunteers--are still out door-knocking. For a little while, reporters outnumber supporters.

In the foyer, an elderly African-American woman, Kelema Lee, is manning a sign-in sheet, giving out nametags and American flag stickers and speaking of the Sayles Belton era in the past tense. "I believed in her and all the great things she did for this city," she insists. Even though Lee lives in Bloomington, she has worked on all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral bids. She remembers 1993's tiny campaign office over by the Dunwoody Institute. And Lee remembers the time last year when, at a fundraiser at the Fine Line nightclub, President Bill Clinton kissed her. "This is my last run," she says. "I'm gonna play the casinos now."

Over the next hour, as people file in offering condolences to Lee, her mood darkens further. "What are we gonna do?" Lee asks one man signing in. "We gonna keep the faith," he responds. "I'm not gonna survive this night," she replies. Within minutes, she will break down crying for the first of several times tonight.

Randy Schubring, the campaign's cherubic communications director, is getting ward-by-ward numbers over his cell phone, putting on a brave face by repeatedly saying he's optimistic. Early on it's clear that Rybak has taken what Schubring calls the "crescent wards" on the southern fringes of the city. Schubring is holding out hope for good showings in the First and Third wards in Northeast, where Sayles Belton has campaigned hard since she placed behind Rybak in the September 11 primary.

Schubring complains that the polls dictated the final days of the campaign, but surely he must know that much of the blame lies with Sayles Belton herself. The mayor has been a reluctant campaigner from day one, showing a remarkable knack for failing to use her position to rally support. In the past few weeks she was more visible and assured on the stump. But in the end, polls made it clear she couldn't shed the early buzz that she was invisible.

By 8:45 there's a crowd of about 150, and most folks are hitting the bar pretty hard. The TVs show that with 89 percent of the votes counted, Rybak is ahead by about 30 points. "You can't win forever, maybe," reasons Eli Jackson, 42, who works in the mailroom of the Star Tribune. "She's been good for parts of this city, and for the black people in this city. I just want to tell her she did a good job."

Shortly before 9:00, a local television station calls the race for Rybak, and Schubring goes pale, darting outside with his cell phone pressed to his ear. Overall, though, there's an odd sense of relief that it's finally over, and many in the room are suddenly reflective.

"We always knew the third term would be the toughest," opines Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, co-chair of all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral runs. The mayor had a "successful agenda," he insists, but that wasn't enough to counter talk that it was time for a change, especially after a sitting council member pleaded guilty to extortion. "The Brian Herron indictment gave that generic message legs," he says. "When that happened, and [Rybak] said it, to me, that was it."

Volunteers pass out red placards that read "We love you Sharon!" and "Thank you Sharon!" At 9:15, everyone crowds around the entrances of the auditorium and starts chanting, "We love Sharon! We love Sharon!" but it's a false alarm. "The mayor is about five minutes away," McLaughlin informs the crowd from the stage at the far end of the room. "You're in the right mood, but you've got to hold on a few minutes."

When Sayles Belton struts in, she's composed. As she makes her way through the crush of people to the stage, she gives out hugs. She talks for 20 minutes, mostly about how much her administration did that's worth celebrating. She urges everyone to avoid anger or sadness, but rather keep the city moving forward. By the time she steps down, spirits have lifted.

It's a soothing scene in what has been an arduous campaign and an uneasy election night. News has spread quickly that city-council president Jackie Cherryhomes, an ally of Sayles Belton's and arguably an equally powerful force in city government, has been beaten by Green Party newcomer Natalie Johnson Lee. Even though Sayles Belton carried Cherryhomes's Fifth Ward, the three-term incumbent's loss is shocking. Shortly before 11:00 p.m., a dazed-looking Cherryhomes arrives with her husband. She confers briefly with Sayles Belton, then vanishes, saying only, "I'm going to take a long vacation and I'm gonna have a life."

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