Boss Lady

Meet Barb Johnson, the most powerful politician in Minneapolis

Johnson has her own track record of neighborhood politics up on the city's north side, where she was raised and has lived once again for the past 23 years. Aside from her reputation for being concerned with what she calls "the integrity of the city," Johnson's grassroots credibility still earns her the admiration of her colleagues on the council.

Gary Schiff, an openly gay council member currently representing the city's Ninth Ward, lights up at the mention of her name: "I love Barb Johnson." Natalie Johnson Lee, an African American woman who represents the Fifth Ward, says that despite their political differences, Johnson's the first person to turn to over any knotty policy question. Even Candy Sartell, a neighborhood activist in the Fourth Ward who has clashed with Johnson in the past, says: "I think she really does care about what she does. When you have those kinds of ties to the community, it's hard to dispute."

Johnson was first elected to the council in 1997, succeeding her mother, but it's really in the last two years that she has emerged as a leader. As her power has grown, so has her outspokenness; she is known among colleagues for making comments and casting votes that anger other council members. But Johnson chooses her battles wisely and commands the respect to fashion voting blocs for or against measures before the council.

"You need 10 votes to get seven," she says, "because you never really know who's going to do what when it comes to roll call."

Even if you disagree with her politics, it's hard not to appreciate Johnson for her candor. It's more than just savvy with Johnson, it's that rarest of all traits found in politics these days: honesty.

 

That old saw aboutMinneapolis being governed by a "weak-mayor system" is true; nearly every piece of policy that the city's top leader may want enacted has to go through the City Council. Over the years, plenty of mayors have gone about seeking changes in the city charter, looking for more autonomy in decision-making. But the effective ones, for better or worse, find allies on the City Council to get things done.

In turn, the top political players in Minneapolis tend not to be mayors, but City Council presidents. For most of the 1990s, Jackie Cherryhomes used her position as council leader as a bully pulpit, micromanaging the city's affairs through a powerful faction that she cultivated on the council and her alliance with former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Prior to that, former Mayor Don Fraser wisely aligned himself with Sayles Belton when she was council president.

But two years ago brought a changing of the guard rarely seen in Minneapolis city politics. Sayles Belton was trounced by political novice R.T. Rybak. And a host of city council members opted to not seek reelection, paving the way for seven new faces taking an oath of office on inauguration day in January 2002. (Another seat was filled last year after a longtime council member was convicted on federal charges of public corruption.) In short, there was no longer any clear pecking order at City Hall.

There ensued a scramble for plum positions during the council's internal elections. The process proved messy; many "locked-up" votes changed at the last minute, and some council members didn't get the executive or committee posts they expected. The resulting acrimony helped ensure that it would take a while to forge working alliances on the new council.

Barb Johnson, who was beginning her second term representing the Fourth Ward, initially sought the council's presidency, but lost and instead ended up heading the council's Ways and Means/Budget Committee. Johnson's fate was nothing if not timely: A serious city financial crisis was looming as the newcomers took office. Every proposal that came before the City Council was colored by budget shortcomings, and Johnson had the tightest grip on the purse strings. Votes from the rookie council members were wildly unpredictable, and most of Rybak's campaign promises took a backseat to hard fiscal realities. It became clear that no one else at City Hall was as powerful as Barb Johnson.

Johnson had the added advantage of witnessing firsthand the operation of the Cherryhomes coalition that preceded her. She made particular note of the former president's partnership with then-Ways and Means chair Joan Campbell. She learned the strengths and weaknesses of both. "Jackie was more, I don't want to say devious, but she managed all kinds of stuff," Johnson says. "I don't have a desire to be controlling."

And though she is an old-school DFLer in some regards, Johnson's defining trait is her watchful eye over the city's bottom line. Last month, as the council grappled over Rybak's proposed $1.24 billion budget for 2004, it was Johnson who led her colleagues through several long budget mark-up sessions, poring over every detail of the city's finances. Observers point to a "budget cabal" consisting of Johnson, Rybak, Council President Paul Ostrow, and the 13th Ward's Barret Lane. Johnson shrugs it off, saying that "the budget comes from the mayor, and we try to pass it pretty much intact." But Johnson's fingerprints are all over the final result.

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