Who's on Third?

Faith versus meat-and-potatoes politics in the city council race to replace Joe Biernat

The Third Ward of Minneapolis is in the midst of a city council election in which the candidates reflect the ward's bifurcated demographics. East of the Mississippi River, the ward contains predominantly white, working-class neighborhoods that make up the bosom of blue-collar northeast Minneapolis. On the other side of the water, in north Minneapolis, the ward's predominantly black and immigrant communities struggle to surmount one of the city's most entrenched cycles of crime and poverty.

Until very recently, the Third Ward was represented by Joe Biernat, a moderate, DFL council member who, after being caught making an under-the-table deal for union plumbing work done on his home, had to be dragged kicking and screaming from office. Biernat resigned his post on November 21, shortly after being convicted of aiding and abetting theft, mail fraud, and making false statements to a federal agent.

Twenty candidates ran in the December 30 primary. The top two vote-getters will now square off in a special election on February 3: DFL endorsee Olin Moore, a 32-year-old Northeast resident who has spent nearly all of his adult life as an aide to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo; and Don Samuels, a 53-year-old toy designer and community activist from North's besieged Jordan neighborhood.

Third ward survivors: Don Samuels (left) and Olin Moore emerged from a field of 20 candidates
Kathy Easthagen
Third ward survivors: Don Samuels (left) and Olin Moore emerged from a field of 20 candidates

On paper, the two candidates have nearly indistinguishable agendas. Both cite the need to reduce crime and enhance public safety as a top priority. Both say they want to promote economic development along the commercial corridors of West Broadway and Central Avenue Northeast, establish better communication with constituents, and deliver better value for basic city services. In terms of personal style and life experience, however, the two first-time candidates present a compelling contrast.

Samuels is a Jamaican immigrant and former corporate executive who moved into Jordan five years ago. As a member of the Jordan Livability Forum, he began working to stabilize the community. He first gained citywide notoriety in the wake of this summer's riot in the neighborhood, when he criticized police and city leaders for trying to quell tensions by soliciting outside help from members of the City Inc. and the Urban League rather than relying on grassroots groups in Jordan. Six months later, his campaign is fueled by an unabashed, almost religious belief that he has been chosen to lead.

"My presence in this race is not just an aberration of circumstances; it is a convergence of history and faith," he says, sitting at his dining room table. "I feel that fate has conspired for me to be here: as an African American, as an immigrant, as a husband and father of two children, and as a former single father who raised a child from three years old to 18 by himself. I have contemplated racial issues while existing in a mostly white world, and my neighbors are inspired by what I bring to the table.

"I never thought I would be saying something that could be framed by a cynic as being egotistical. But I see the problems we struggle with, and feel in my heart I have the answers."

Acknowledging the city's gaping budget deficit, Samuels says he'll argue that the Third Ward has needs that can't be ignored or shortchanged. He maintains, however, that his vision is as much about attitude and morality as economics. He talks about how three new houses have been built near his home because residents worked to rid the area of drug dealing and other crime; and how he just received a letter and a $100 contribution from a lawyer in Burnsville who is moving to the neighborhood. "That is a spiritual reaction, moving here. People want to do the greater thing. I think that I have the ability to reframe the context in such a way that people won't have to be forced to do the right thing. Fairness and justice will exist along with economic stimulation and balance."

While emphasizing that he "won't be parochial and leave the Northeast out," Samuels says that a similar sense of spiritual goodwill will spur residents east of the river to understand and endorse the need to make the revitalizing of north Minneapolis neighborhoods a priority. He also believes an attitude of mutual respect can go a long way toward alleviating police-community tensions in Jordan and other impoverished neighborhoods.

"We have to have strong policing and we have to have justice. And so at the same time I am saying to the guys on the corner, 'You will not sell drugs in my neighborhood. I have a cell phone and I am calling 911 right now,' I take the same position with the police. I say, 'You will not treat these boys as if they are not human beings.' And I'm not saying it in a nicer way; I am saying it in the same way I talk to the guys on the corner, with a respect and acknowledgment of their humanity."

Whether you regard Samuels's message as boldly inspirational, hopelessly naive, or something in-between, the tenor of his candidacy almost ensures a visceral reaction. By contrast, Olin Moore is running the sort of orthodox, meat-and-potatoes DFL campaign that has traditionally kicked up more votes than emotions in the Third Ward.

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