Black on Black Grime

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

But Samuels has claimed that it is Johnson Lee's abrasive style, and not any prevailing racial bias, that hinders her most, especially in her relationship with Rybak. At the Urban League debate, after Johnson Lee had described fighting against the health and human services cuts as chair of the committee, Samuels replied, "R.T. Rybak likes me. And guess what? [Rybak's mayoral opponent] Peter McLaughlin likes me too. Nothing is going to be cut on my watch.... Natalie is a Green Party member. She has a phone booth coalition."

That kind of ham-handed analysis, implying a quid-pro-quo relationship between personal friendship and public policy, obviously does Samuels no favors. Samuels has worked at painting himself as someone who can collaborate where Johnson Lee alienates; he has a long list of endorsements from elected officials to buttress the point. But among constituents who have no reason to trust the system, collaboration can seem like going along to get along, and alienation the result of standing on principle. It plays into Travis Lee's typically indelicate gloss on the situation: "When Natalie came in, there was 12 years of records shredded. [Note: Many of Cherryhomes's files could not be found when she left office.] Natalie was the one who was alienated by them, and Don was accepted--like the bad Negro and the good Negro."

Cherryhomes was among those gathered at a Saturday morning rally for the Samuels campaign at the Bean Scene coffee shop a few weeks back, and was specifically thanked by both Samuels and his wife, Sondra, who said, "Every time we door-knock, there are people who don't want to talk to us. And if Don says, 'You know Jackie is supporting me,' they'll say, 'Okay, I'll talk to you.'"

"At first we were paranoid about Jackie because she wanted to help out and we kept a distance," says Michael Guest, whom Samuels calls "the number one strategist" on the campaign. "Eventually we made a conscious decision that we should use her perspective--criticize her all you want, but she had a hell of a constituent service operation--because we were going to get tagged with her anyway. R.T. is probably more of a drag on us than Jackie, because R.T. doesn't play well on the North Side. But Don is a loyal person and R.T. supported him [against a DFL-endorsed candidate, no less] in his first race three years ago." During that morning's door-knocking, Samuels was asked directly whom he supported for mayor. "Rybak," he replied. "I work well with him and we have a mutual obligation to each other that I think I can parlay into more support for the ward."

 

"THE THING THAT CONCERNS ME ABOUT this race," Johnson Lee said, wrapping up her closing remarks at the Urban League debate, "is that we have had to run on our personalities and not our records, and mine outshines his ten to one."

It's a little more complicated than that. What do we make of the "issues," for example? Samuels says his top priority is public safety, that he wants to make it "a precursor to economic development" by bringing in more cops ("who are strong and fair," is his obligatory qualifier) and by working with reformed gangbangers to provide alternatives for young people caught up in drugs and crime. He claims that Johnson Lee has been such an "activist" that she goes directly to the economic development argument so she can avoid tough talk about crime and personal responsibility.

Johnson Lee counters that Samuels's public safety solution is an "outside-in" approach imposed upon the community, and that any enduring strategy requires creating wealth from within. Police enforcement is part of it, she allows, but so is affordable housing, entrepreneurship, and living-wage salaries.

To put matters another way, why is the violent crime rate continuing to rise, presently ranking among the worst in the city, in the home neighborhood of Don "public safety" Samuels? And why have hundreds of jobs, from Time Warner, Target, Lucille's Kitchen, and other businesses, continued to flee Natalie "economic development" Johnson Lee's Fifth Ward?

The Johnson Lee campaign correctly points out that many, if not most, of the new initiatives that Samuels has proposed and found funding for have come through the African-American Economic Development fund and the nonprofit Peace Foundation he started two years ago after being elected to office. They ask, reasonably, Why not have the best of both worlds by reelecting Johnson Lee to the council, thus allowing Samuels full, free rein to run the foundation as a private citizen? The Samuels campaign responds that community members will be heading up more of the foundation's efforts, allowing Samuels to devote more time to his council duties in his second term.

The Samuels campaign correctly points out that Johnson Lee had minimal involvement in, or actively opposed, many of the projects she now claims as economic development achievements, including Heritage Park, Block E, Sumner Library, and North Washington Industrial Park. "When you come in," answers Johnson Lee, "you are going to ride the coattails of the work done prior to you. If you look at council members, most of the stuff they are working on doesn't happen until their second term."

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