Loyal Opposition

City Council allies Zimmermann and Lilligren face off in Minneapolis's Sixth Ward

Ideologically speaking, there's not much difference between the two candidates. Zimmermann is keenly interested in the American Indian community; Lilligren is a tribal member of White Earth. Both are environmentalists, lefties in the classic sense. But each also sports a libertarian streak that leads him to advocate for small businesses. And both have taken care to appeal to the wide range of immigrants--Latinos and Somalis, in particular--who made up large parts of their previous political bases.

But even if they arrive at the same place more often than not politically, they differ greatly in approach. Zimmermann, avuncular and friendly, comes across as "a sort of sage teddy bear" in the words of one City Council member. But at the same time, Zimmermann's tenure on the council has been marked by flights of fancy--ideas that seem divorced from the day-to-day grind of managing the city's affairs. He has a strange obsession, for instance, with Personal Rapid Transit, a costly form of mass transit that requires an elaborate monorail system. It is generally regarded by most urban planners to be a flaky concept.

"He doesn't always do his homework," is how one City Council peer puts it. And Zimmerman rarely seems to generate much support from his fellow members on items he advocates.

"If I'm not failing, I'm not doing enough," Zimmermann says--a canny way of co-opting the criticism. "I'm always pushing the envelope." And in this spirit, Zimmermann did push an ordinance protecting city employees from having to enforce the immigration aspects of the Patriot Act, something many other U.S. cities eventually did.

Lilligren, on the other hand, is seen by many as politically savvy--perhaps too savvy. Though he is considered to be among the council's best and brightest, Lillegren's votes appear to be motivated by his desire to protect himself. He spoke out eloquently against the smoking ban, for instance, but eventually voted for it. At times, he has disappointed many activists in his ward.

For example, while he has been a vocal critic of the 35W access project--which would add ramps to the interstate at Lake Street--he has also been a champion of the sometimes controversial Sears project, which would tap millions of city dollars to renovate the abandoned department store. Mass-transit advocates and minority store owners on Lake Street argue that both projects are a form of gentrification, and will likely displace immigrant residents and businesses.

Speaking more generally, one City Hall observer says, "Robert will count votes on the council to see which way he should go."

Lilligren disputes claims that he votes out of political expediency. "I don't know where that comes from," he says. "I've never taken a vote for coverage. I've never taken a vote just for the political."

 

On the street level, both men are seen as formidable campaigners, but for different reasons. Lilligren was a political unknown when he ran for the seat vacated by Brian Herron after the FBI nailed the latter on bribery charges. Before his troubles, Herron had secured the DFL endorsement, so Lilligren ran without it; it remains to be seen whether the old gray party will embrace the council member this time around.

He has a strong network of volunteers in the GLBT community. At the same time, he also prides himself on being "ubiquitous." Lilligren says he plans to spend $30,000 on the campaign, with several "subnetworks" of volunteers, direct mailings, and phone banks.

Zimmermann is decidedly more blue-collar. He has high name recognition in the ward, owing to his many years doing handyman work for his neighbors. And in 2000, he parlayed his experience on the city's Park Board into a surprising victory over a DFL-endorsed candidate. Zimmermann, who says he hasn't yet worked out a budget, but hopes to soon raise about $5,000 for the contest, will rely heavily on door-to-door campaigning.

Wizard Marks, a neighborhood activist who has lived in the area for 32 years, knows both candidates well. "The Sixth Ward has a huge constituency of immigrants and blue and pink collars," Marks notes. "Lilligren doesn't play as well there as he does in the southwest corner of the ward"--like, for instance, the Wedge.

But she takes note of Lilligren's political acumen, and gives him a slight edge in the race. "Robert 'gets' City Hall," she offers. "I'm not sure if 'getting' City Hall is a good thing, because you often end up swimming with sharks, and counting votes and noses. I'm not sure Dean gets that. Lilligren knows where he's going to pick up votes, and that's where the most people--white, middle-class--are going to vote."

For now, neither candidate will take swings at the other, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to work together on the council for the next eight months. And both still attack the redistricting that made their race unavoidable. (Lilligren has had to shrug off criticism that he should have moved to run again in his Eighth Ward, noting that he has lived in his current neighborhood for 22 years. The reshaped ward boundaries put Lilligren out of his ward by half a block.)

"I wasn't happy to lose 80 percent of my political base," Lilligren notes, adding that he was approached by Zimmermann to be a plaintiff in the suit, but declined. "Running against Zimmermann? I don't really like it. But it's a map now. That's all it is, and I've got to deal with it."

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