A Blast from the Past

Former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton on her successor

There's a certain candor when you talk to Sharon Sayles Belton these days that was rarely evident during her stint as mayor of Minneapolis. The two years since she was ousted from office by R.T. Rybak have tempered her perspective, and reflection comes easier than it did under the harsh glare she often avoided during her tenure.

"Humbled" is how one observer described Sayles Belton last week, with a greater understanding of the severe miscalculations during her last campaign against the current mayor. Then, as I covered her flailing drive for a third term, I was struck by her refusal to call out her opponent on what was simply campaign-trail hubris. Better to take the high road, she would tell me, than to start launching personal attacks.

So it was with some caution that Sayles Belton spoke to me last week about the city's current state of affairs. For the last 18 months, tensions between minority communities and city leaders, due largely to repeated incidents with the Minneapolis Police, have risen to where they were before Sayles Belton became mayor 10 years ago. Last month's allegations from Stephen Porter that Minneapolis cops had sodomized him during a drug raid galvanized a fresh wave of anger from the black community toward city leaders.

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

"If you're watching and paying attention to race relations, there should be cause for concern right now," Sayles Belton observes, saying there has been a "steady stream" of complaints from minorities toward city leadership. "We should raise our eyebrows if one person raises concerns. Many voices are making the same observations."

Sayles Belton, who has taken a post at the Humphrey Institute to study how changing demographics in Minnesota link to racism, maintains that she has "been trying [her] absolute best to stay out of City Hall and keep from criticizing the mayor." She doesn't want to be accused of sour grapes.

In fact, I called upon Sayles Belton to ask a few questions about her last campaign. Three weeks ago, I wrote about Rybak facing a hostile crowd, mostly African Americans, at a community forum following the Porter incident. In that column, I observed an astounding level of hostility toward the mayor from many in the black community, and tried to explain why such animosity would exist. Rybak's staffers and supporters were angered by the piece, taking issue with my assertion that Rybak had never sincerely engaged the black vote during the campaign.

Laura Sether, the mayor's press secretary, claimed Rybak made several campaign appearances in various black communities. Jonathan Palmer, a community activist on the north side, wrote in a letter to City Pages (in coordination with the mayor's office) that he had seen Rybak door-knocking in and around his neighborhood before the election.

"So what if you did?" Sayles Belton counters. "That doesn't mean he reached out to the black community.

"To the extent that he was on the north side, he was going after Green Party and progressive votes," Sayles Belton argues. "In an election, it's all about getting votes where you can. In Camden and other neighborhoods on the north side, there were pockets for him. But as far as talking to blacks on the near north, I never saw him."

Sayles Belton figures that Rybak had aligned himself with Shane Price, a black candidate from the Green Party, who was running against incumbent Joe Biernat for the Third Ward council seat. (The Third Ward, now represented by Don Samuels, has a contrast of white and black neighborhoods.)

But Price says there was only one event, a parade, where he and candidate Rybak appeared together. "He was interested in going after who Sharon was in trouble with, which wasn't necessarily the African American community," Price recalls. "He found it in the yuppie vote and in the homosexual community, and that was enough."

Election results bear this out. Sayles Belton took nearly twice as many votes as Rybak in the predominantly black Fifth Ward, and she eked out a victory in the Eighth Ward, which boasts several longstanding black neighborhoods. (Rybak trounced Sayles Belton citywide, garnering almost twice as many votes.) Many believe Rybak's campaign strategies are coming back to haunt him, now that he's mired in racial problems that have plagued the city for decades.

Sayles Belton, Price, and others have pointed to a moment last month, when community leaders showed up at Rybak's office to talk about race relations, and Rybak refused to meet with them. (Sether maintains that the group was told they could schedule a meeting.) And then there was a march against police brutality on Halloween that ended up at City Hall. Again, Rybak was noticeably missing.

Sayles Belton, who was frequently criticized for being an invisible leader, took note. "I was disappointed in that, it's ridiculous," she says, speculating that someone advised Rybak not to meet with certain activists. "You have to set aside 15 minutes and talk to them on their terms. That can go a long way in defusing a bad situation."

The MPD's track record was hardly better under Sayles Belton than it is now, and the city's civil rights department essentially crumbled during her tenure. But there was a feeling among blacks that at least there was someone at City Hall who would listen to them. That is no longer the case. The point remains that Rybak has a long way to go to earn the respect of many in different black communities.

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