Black on Black Grime

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

And when they are, it is hard for those on the privileged side of the race and class divide to notice and appreciate it. Johnson Lee worked hard on a federal mediation process designed to improve police-community relations, and waged a tenacious, often lonely battle to minimize budget cuts in the city's health and human services programs. "Health and family services are people in the trenches providing a safety net. For every city dollar we spend, we can leverage between $1.53 and $2," she says. "We commissioned an outside blue ribbon panel to see if we should fold our services into [Hennepin] County and it came back a resounding no. It is where the rubber meets the road for many of my constituents."

Her nuts-and-bolts engagement with this corner of the political process doesn't mean as much to council representatives in wealthier wards. But if she hadn't successfully beaten back some of the more dramatic budget cuts, the voice mailbox on her phone would be filled to capacity even more frequently than it is now. In a similar vein, Samuels's attendance record at City Hall would be stronger if he stopped conducting vigils and staging events that have focused attention and resources on public safety troubles in his ward.

"Ineffective? No, they have very different styles, but I would say both Don and Natalie have been very effective for the North Side," says Minneapolis Police Department Assistant Chief Tim Dolan, who until recently served as commander of the MPD's Fourth Precinct, which is located in the Fifth Ward. "After the riots, Don Samuels was personally responsible for getting me the state patrol," says Dolan, referring to the dozen troopers briefly assigned to the area by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in response to Samuels's agitation after a spate of shootings in the area two years ago. "And Natalie was always very helpful when I dealt with her, particularly with some problem properties over on Plymouth Avenue. Both were very involved with their constituents. When I was there, they were a great team, and [the] North Side needs them both."

Craig Lassig

Conversely, some City Hall critics accuse them of similar shortcomings. "Let me give you an example," says one. "When the meetings were held on the final decisions about West Broadway, Barb Johnson was the only council member there. [Samuels and Johnson Lee] just weren't interested, or weren't aware of decisions taking place affecting multimillions of dollars' worth of construction money going into a major arterial [street] in their wards."

During a late-September debate at the Urban League headquarters, both candidates were asked to identify their role in three economic development projects affecting north Minneapolis. Samuels mentioned Cub Foods and spent the rest of his three minutes talking about the planting of trees along the West Broadway median. Johnson Lee cited Cub Foods, Café Tattabunna--and Lucille's Kitchen, which had already gone out of business.

The shortfalls in funding for Northside improvements are hardly the fault of either Samuels or Johnson Lee. Even a notorious power broker like Jackie Cherryhomes, operating in tandem with a free-spending mayor and a governor who didn't cut local government aid to the city, had difficulty stimulating major economic development projects in the ward. The massive Heritage Park housing development arose out of a federal consent decree that essentially mandated its construction. And Block E was decades in the works and involved the ardent efforts of half a dozen different council members.

The redistricting of the Fifth Ward certainly hasn't made its prospects for economic development any rosier. Though its old boundaries contained downtown office buildings and the burgeoning array of high-priced condos and townhomes now sprouting along the river, those areas have been excised from the ward. In their place, the Fifth now harbors the long-troubled Jordan neighborhood, which in the past few years has become the city's poster child for poverty and violent crime. Johnson Lee says the changes have resulted in the net loss of nearly $1 billion worth of real estate from the ward's boundaries. "It means I will continue to have more social issues to contend with," she says. "And it took away some of my influence leveraging."


BY "INFLUENCE LEVERAGING," JOHNSON Lee presumably means the clout to be a political player--to make deals and to build alliances from a position of strength. The subject has become one of the hot-button issues in her race with Samuels.

In retrospect, one of the weirdest, shortest honeymoons in the city's political history occurred on the night nearly four years ago when Johnson Lee seemingly came out of nowhere to vanquish Cherryhomes. Giddy from her improbable upset, Johnson Lee rushed over to celebrate with the newly elected R.T. Rybak, who also had helped usher in a new era in city politics by taking down longtime incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, a Cherryhomes ally. That night, Johnson Lee memorably referred to the mayor-to-be as "my boss," and beamed like a schoolgirl when the equally ebullient Rybak announced her to the audience as a future mayor.

These days, Rybak and Johnson Lee barely bother to conceal their mutual antagonism, and it is hard to imagine the councilwoman regarding anyone as her boss. "Natalie speaks truth to power, says things that other council members wouldn't say. I'll never forget the day she said, 'I guess pretty soon I'll have to tie a rag on my head and start serving y'all,'" says Lilligren of his friend and colleague. Later he adds, "It is interesting to see how often even on issues directly related to her ward, even on mundane development issues, Natalie will be the last person approached by staff and council members. If she were not an African American, I think she would be the first person."

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