State of the City

Minneapolis pols draw lines, choose sides

The news that Don Samuels had been elected last week to fill Joe Biernat's vacated Third Ward seat on the Minneapolis City Council came adorned with the usual post-campaign platitudes: the embarrassing self-reflection from die-hard DFLers lamenting the loss by Olin Moore; Samuels fans naively proclaiming that a new day had come to city hall.

Certainly Samuels stands to change the complexion of the council ever so slightly when he's sworn in on February 14. But how much impact will he really have?

Samuels is a political outsider and man of deep faith who talks a free-market line of talk that's largely irrelevant to the low-income African Americans who make up a critical portion of his new constituency. Before the election, he was endorsed by Mayor R.T. Rybak, who thus far owes his entire political career to tickling the fancy of a wealthy, white Minneapolis that harbors a token sympathy for the downtrodden. Perhaps Rybak, who also ran without the DFL endorsement in 2001, felt an upstart kinship with Samuels. Or maybe he sensed an imminent victory and was already counting council votes.

And Samuels was endorsed by Natalie Johnson Lee, the city's lone black elected leader, who also happens to know her way around the Bible--as well as the rougher streets on the city's north side. Johnson Lee, the Fifth Ward representative, pulled off an upset of her own to get into office, though her squeaker over council president Jackie Cherryhomes more than a year ago was far more shocking and significant.

But Johnson Lee's endorsement of Samuels, a Jamaican immigrant, wasn't a foregone conclusion. Johnson Lee is, after all, an African American woman who is the new face, nationally, for the Green Party--the assumed nemesis of the DFL. And because of required redistricting based on the 2000 census, Samuels and Johnson Lee will both soon live in the realigned Fifth Ward--and will likely square off when reelection comes around.

In the meantime Johnson Lee has found herself the only true voice for minorities at city hall--often casting losing, but well-intentioned, votes. Maybe she just got lonely.

Despite being stocked with nine DFLers, two Greens, and one independent, the council has grown increasingly divided in recent weeks. More important, many ward leaders have become wary of race or class politics, obsessed with daunting financial issues, and disdainful of wide-eyed newcomers. In short, whatever Samuels does when he finally arrives at city hall--whether adhering to Rybak's vision or Johnson Lee's dissent--he won't find any open arms or kid gloves.

A year ago city hall was infiltrated by a majority of first-time office holders, a regime that introduced not only Rybak and Johnson Lee, but six other new council members--and the promise of sweeping reform. Yet aside from some victories for Rybak, the rest have encountered an old guard that is still very much on its game.

Council president Paul Ostrow and Barb Johnson and Sandy Colvin Roy seem to be carrying a torch for the way things used to be. Despite public distaste for what was perceived to be self-interested leadership at city hall--Cherryhomes, former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton--and the felony convictions of Biernat and former Eighth Ward council member Brian Herron, there's more than a hint that old alliances are alive and well.

The other council vets, onetime outsiders Lisa Goodman and Barret Lane, have joined the traditional voting bloc. Rybak has mostly lined up with them, leaving the other less experienced ward leaders to fend for themselves.

This was evident recently, when Paul Zerby tried to introduce an antiwar resolution in a committee meeting. More than just a plea for peace, Zerby's resolution (co-authored with Dean Zimmermann) laid out the detrimental financial impact a war with Iraq would have on the city's finances. The resolution was "returned to author," a rare move that essentially killed the idea.

Two days later Zerby brought up the resolution again before the Committee of the Whole--a dress rehearsal for the next day's council meeting--this time adding fellow council newcomers Robert Lilligren, Gary Schiff, and Johnson Lee. (The two other first-year representatives, Dan Niziolek and Scott Benson, did not sign on.)

Ostrow immediately spoke against the resolution, arguing that it was not "germane to the business" of the council, and that he intended, as council president, to rule it "out of order" at the next day's meeting, thereby killing any discussion. (Ostrow followed through on his promise.) Then he, Lane, and Goodman left the meeting, without even participating in the committee's debate.

The power play was surprising, given that the city council can spend more than two hours debating far more trivial matters, such as, say, zoning issues. Several cities across the United States, including Philadelphia and Chicago, have passed similar antiwar statements. That three council members did not even discuss an item signed by five of their colleagues was shocking.

But the reaction went beyond personal feelings regarding war and peace. Most council members opposed to the resolution, and Mayor Rybak, have expressed antiwar sentiment outside of city hall. The utter disregard for debate has less to do with council protocol than with political paranoia. It's no secret that Minneapolis is concerned with proving its mettle to a new state legislature dominated by budget-cutting Republicans. Most council members have bent over backward trying to curry favor at the capitol in hopes that state lawmakers won't pull funding for various programs that the city relies on. The city does not want to stir any partisan waters right now.

And there's a profound fear of the federal government among city leaders as well. The investigations of Biernat and Herron haunt city hall to this day. The prospect of facing a federal mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice to quell bad feelings between the Minneapolis Police Department and minority communities has met with unease. And the status quo successfully fought against adding subpoena power to the restructured Civilian Review Authority, the citizen board that handles complaints against the city's cops, for fear that all city workers would be vulnerable to federal subpoenas. At the moment, few city officials want to malign Bush Administration policies or antagonize U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Concern over the city's financial troubles has divided the council as well. Though a five-year plan to cut fat from the city's future budgets, heartily endorsed by Rybak, was approved by the council two weeks ago, debate again fell along old-guard/new-guard lines. Zimmermann and Schiff questioned the plan for burdening the poor--and increasing police--in their wards. Lane struck back by accusing them of engaging in class warfare to drive out the city's "richest people."

It's not that dissent is not welcome on the city council. And it's not that the council isn't moving together on some very tough issues. On January 31, for instance, the council earmarked $10 million of this year's budget to establish a "trust fund" to ensure there's affordable-housing money for years to come--an issue that united Goodman, a financial hawk, and Zimmermann, a far left Green. The city is facing serious issues, and the debate has been thoughtful and passionate.

But it's clear that the days of risk taking and progressive politics are gone. The more experienced council reps are holding their cards close. Don Samuels should take note before he antes up.

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