City Pages on Election Night

"I think the Green Party of Minnesota is very well organized compared to other state parties, and this really puts us in a leadership position," says Holle Brian, chair of the Minneapolis Greens. In her view, the fledgling party benefited from growing support among black voters, who have traditionally been staunch DFL supporters. Two of the party's four candidates for city council are African American (Johnson Lee and the unsuccessful Third Ward endorsee Brother Shane Price), and the two wards where the Greens prevailed have significant black populations. "I think the African-American community has woken up to the realization that they are not being served by the Democratic Party," Brian posited.

If the election of Zimmermann and Johnson Lee marked a heady moment in the history of Green Party politics, it also signified a major change for the Minneapolis DFL. "As of last night, this is a two-party town," observed Brian Melendez, the chairman of the city DFL. "The Greens made a strong showing, and they are a force the DFL majority is going to have to deal with if they are going to govern effectively." For Melendez, Zimmermann's defeat of his DFL-endorsed opponent--political novice Dean Kallenbach--was not a shock; Johnson Lee's victory over Cherryhomes was. "I didn't see it coming," Melendez said. "I don't think anybody did."

Of course, the signs were there all along. Pre-election polls had the party's onetime standard-bearer, DFL incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, trailing R.T. Rybak badly for weeks--polls borne out by Sayles Belton's 30 percent repudiation. While Rybak is not a Green, he actively sought (but failed to get) the party's endorsement at its convention this summer; and in his campaign he tapped into many of the same themes.

The old guard: Jackie Cherryhomes and Sharon Sayles Belton
Craig Lassig
The old guard: Jackie Cherryhomes and Sharon Sayles Belton

Among the Greens celebrating the victory at the Blue Nile restaurant (and helping themselves to complimentary gourds at the door), theories abounded over the cause of the party's success in this election. Some gave credit to Ralph Nader, whose celebrated (and excoriated) run for presidency under the Green banner brought more people into the party fold. Jesse Ventura, others concede grudgingly, might be owed some credit because he demonstrated third-party viability. Still others figured the Green ascendance was the inevitable outcome of protracted single-party domination of city politics. "There were a lot of incremental factors," opined Jordan Kushner, an activist lawyer and Green Party member. "But even without Nader's candidacy, I think we'd still be seeing an active party locally. And this wasn't based on any fad or a gimmick. We didn't have some kind of celebrity. This was just grassroots campaigning. It's not short-term."


The Perfect Campaign


The polls had been closed for less than ten minutes when R.T. Rybak walked into the Ukrainian Event Center in northeast Minneapolis on election night, but the manic glee emanating from the candidate as he buzzed through the crowd of supporters left absolutely no doubt about what had transpired that day. As a Dixieland band played the de rigueur "Happy Days Are Here Again" and Rybak impulsively dipped 74-year-old campaign volunteer Pat Schon (a scene captured by a Strib photographer for the front page of the next morning's paper), results of the deluge were just beginning to trickle in. Within 90 minutes, all the votes would be counted and Rybak's 30-point margin over Sharon Sayles Belton would go into the books as the largest trouncing of an incumbent mayor in Minneapolis political history.

As Rybak went back to his campaign headquarters to wait for Sayles Belton to concede, the supporters in the increasingly packed hall let the mood carry them away. "It was a perfect campaign," gushed Sylvia Kaplan, of Rybak's PAC-less tsunami. Together with her husband Sam, she has shaken the money tree for Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sayles Belton, and many others, making them the most coveted fundraising couple in Minnesota politics. "R.T. is just a happy warrior," she continued, and, in case the reference was missed, added, "Not since Hubert Humphrey the first--the real one--have I seen such a natural politician."

"This is not an exaggeration," Sam chimed in. "I don't believe a single dollar was wasted. It was the most prudent expenditure of dollars I have ever seen."

In the space of 15 minutes, it was announced that Dean Zimmermann had won Minneapolis's Sixth Ward, Robert Lilligren had taken the Eighth, and--the real jaw-dropper--council president Jackie Cherryhomes had been toppled by Natalie Johnson Lee in the Fifth. A sea change was happening, but to those who had lived and breathed this stuff for most of the year, it had the intoxicating whiff of a revolution.

At 9:30 the mayor-elect reappeared to choreograph the climax. He began with a graciously touching eulogy for Sayles Belton's political career, then adroitly spun through some "I've learned from the people" campaign anecdotes (the best of which was his door-knocking encounter with a lady, naked except for her heels and earrings, "who taught me how to accessorize") and inevitably flattened out into an honor roll of thank-yous. Later, there had been more than enough mismatched-socks demonstrations, and the media (in Twins contraction mode) was finessed and hundreds of people were hugged.

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