Black on Black Grime

The Natalie Johnson Lee/Don Samuels race for city council is one of the nastiest campaigns in local memory

DEPENDING ON WHICH SET OF PARTISANS YOU TALK TO, Don Samuels is either following the brave tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King or the blasphemous route of Nazis and Klansmen. Likewise, Natalie Johnson Lee is either a conscience and crusader at City Hall or a shrill, divisive force who plays her political hand as if nothing but race and victimization cards were in the deck. (And, oh yeah, her husband peddles porn.)

Welcome to election season in the redistricted Fifth Ward of Minneapolis, where the first prominent black-on-black council contest in the city's history is being waged in nasty shades of black and white--and brown all over, judging from the volume of mud slung by both sides.

The enmity between the Johnson Lee and Samuels campaigns is personal, philosophical, racial, and political.

It is also circumstantial: Samuels, the current City Council incumbent in the Third Ward, had his neighborhood redistricted into Johnson Lee's Fifth Ward, and chose to challenge the only other black councilperson rather than move from the community. Cheap shots now seem to be on the agenda whenever the two candidates appear together.

Take a recent candidate debate at the Harrison community center just off Glenwood Avenue at the south end of the ward, the kind of weeknight affair where folks sit on folding chairs in a gymnasium eating noodles off paper plates held in their laps. In sharp contrast to her insurgent campaign of 2001, which ended in a stunning upset of then-council president Jackie Cherryhomes, Johnson Lee is now running as someone "who knows how stuff works down at City Hall," and her answers at Harrison strutted that theme. The acronyms of city agencies salted her sentences and she called community council members by their first names as she recounted how they had negotiated the swamp of bureaucracy together on past projects.

It's a shrewd strategy because Samuels isn't much of a process guy, and because he lacks direct experience with many of the neighborhoods in the Fifth Ward. For better and for worse, he came off less polished and more passionate than Johnson Lee at Harrison, especially on his bread-and-butter issue of public safety. For most of the allotted hour, the event provoked spirited exchanges, but there were no tacky extracurricular attacks.

Then a man festooned with Johnson Lee buttons rose to ask a question, presaged by the comment that the ward contained many working adult women. What he wanted to know was, had either one of the candidates ever been served with a restraining order?

The questioner obviously knew that Samuels had indeed been served with a restraining order back in 1993. He was probably also aware that the order was obtained by the male pastor of the church Samuels attended, because Samuels had physically confronted (but never struck) the pastor over allegations of sexual abuse that had inflamed and divided the congregation. But of course that's not how it sounded at a public forum--the implication, pretty clearly, was that Samuels had a history of menacing women.

In matters of cheap innuendo, however, Samuels has not been an innocent. A week before the event at Harrison, he and Johnson Lee met at Minneapolis North High School for a debate moderated by Insight News publisher and KFAI radio host Al McFarlane. Samuels went on the attack almost immediately, wondering aloud if Johnson Lee was now supporting the Block E development (a project she had opposed in her race against Cherryhomes) because a nightclub on the block was taking out full-page ads in her husband's "porn magazine." Trendsetter, a monthly entertainment newspaper published by Travis Lee, is less than the normal fare in the back of City Pages. A few minutes later, McFarlane, whose own paper competes with Trendsetter, and who personally contributed $200 to the Samuels campaign in early August, asked both candidates if they felt it had been a nasty campaign. Johnson Lee demurred, but Samuels once again tore into his critics, and Trendsetter. After his fourth reference to it as a "porn" publication, McFarlane felt compelled to say that Travis Lee doesn't characterize his paper that way. "No," Samuels replied, undaunted. "But I do."

"That was painfully strategic on my part," Samuels later admitted in a phone interview. "Painful in the sense that I don't like to do that, but strategic in that they have been slinging a lot of mud and I just wanted to remind them that they don't live in a glass house."

 

ONE CENTRAL CATALYST FOR THE POISONOUS atmosphere that prevails between the Johnson Lee and Samuels camps was a series of verbal and written remarks Samuels made about his racial heritage. During the summer of 2004, in a forum sponsored by the Citizens League, Samuels had sought to open a dialogue about race relations by lying bare his own prejudices and politically incorrect perceptions. He acknowledged that as a kid, he had made fun of the physical attributes of darker-skinned black people. In a radio speech later published as an Insight News essay titled "Shame and Advantage," Samuels wrote that he benefited in life because his great-grandfather was a mixed-race "house slave" who inherited a piece of land from his master.

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