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.

"Some would prefer if I speak only of being African, that I pretend my ancestors were all field slaves. If I don't, I might not be accepted as the real deal," Samuels said. "I argue the contrary. There is also wisdom in my shameful ancestry. It teaches that proximity to privilege can have advantages even when that proximity is dangerous and coupled with shame." He concluded by saying that "[P]eople who have the advantage to observe success will reproduce it more easily and frequently than people who don't. That is why the black middle and working class and all middle-class people must come back to communities of great poverty and share their capacity with the people left behind...."

The backlash, predictably enough, was fierce. The condescension and sense of noblesse oblige behind Samuels's dream of recruiting the middle class back to the ghetto grated on a lot of black people of less genteel bearing, and the historical legacy of house slaves snitching on field slaves to better their position is conveniently omitted from his argument--as is the practical reality that a reverse migration to the 'hood such as he advocates has never occurred in any American city, give or take the effectively unique case of Harlem in New York City.

"People get mad at me for comparing Don to Hitler," says Booker Hodges, the activist and former gubernatorial candidate who co-hosts a local cable-access show each week. Hodges is also married to Natalie Johnson Lee's council aide. "But that's what I think. In my opinion, he is a racist and a very divisive, dangerous man, the opposite of what this community needs." Adds Johnson Lee's husband, Travis Lee, "I grew up around Jewish culture in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. I know about the Holocaust and 'never forget.' And saying this about dark-skinned and light-skinned people is kind of like talking about Auschwitz and 'they didn't kill me because I had blond hair and blue eyes.' And when someone talks like this it can tear a community apart, like a David Duke."

Shortly after Samuels's remarks were printed, Hodges had this response on his cable-access show: "We as a people, one, must unite. We have to learn from, like, Nat Turner's mistake, and we have to kill the house niggas, we got to kill them and that's what we're doing on this show." Samuels, who throughout the current campaign has boasted of risking his safety by directly confronting drug dealers, lodged a complaint claiming that Hodges and co-host Al Flowers had threatened his life, an action that got the pair temporarily suspended from the cable broadcast. However, the Ramsey county attorney never brought charges on the matter. (Flowers, who didn't say anything about killing niggas, has in turn sued Samuels and other city officials for their role in his suspension and his later eviction from the city's DFL convention, despite Flowers's having appropriate press credentials.)

At the North High debate, Johnson Lee sought to distance herself from this nastiness. "The challenge here is, there are some people who are offended by some of the things my opponent has said, and they have decided to do some things with it. That has nothing to do with me," she said. That's disingenuous considering that her husband and the husband of a principal Johnson Lee aide have flung some of the harshest words.

Voters in the ward, regardless of their politics, are growing aggravated by the prevailing negativity. "The community of people behind Natalie need to recognize that when they make these inflaming accusations about people, they are not helping her, they are hurting her," says Tené Wells, a longtime friend and supporter of Johnson Lee. Natonia Johnson, who is supporting Samuels, is similarly unsympathetic to her candidate's role in the mud-slinging. "With this racial thing, I think Natalie's side started it, but I don't like this tit-for-tat that Don's campaign is doing either. What gets lost is, what can you do to improve the ward? That's what everybody really wants to know."

 

IT'S A HELL OF A QUESTION, WITH FEW concrete answers. In the view of most politics junkies who watch the machinations at City Hall, neither Samuels nor Johnson Lee have been particularly effective council members during their first terms. (Two of the most oft-repeated criticisms are that Johnson Lee is lax at returning phone calls and that Samuels has a relatively poor attendance record.) "It is a different thing holding each person back," says a colleague on the council who has remained neutral during the Fifth Ward campaign. "Natalie's focus is strictly on how many minorities are involved in something, how many people of color are in the mix--she's a one-note singer. And Don has this broader, kind of galactic philosophical outlook on some of the problems with his constituency. But neither one is really related to the nuts and bolts of how things happen around here."

Robert Lilligren has a different perspective. "I don't know that either of them have been as effective as they could be, but then they're not status quo politicians. If you push the status quo, it pushes back," says Lilligren, the current Eighth Ward council incumbent who, because of redistricting, now finds himself running for reelection in the Sixth Ward. "The 2000 census shows how racist we really are here. The gaps between communities of color are bigger here than just about anywhere in the country, and growing. As much as we like to think of ourselves as open and accepting in racial matters, the truth is, there is such enormous institutional racism that it is hard for them to be effective."

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."

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."

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."

The fact remains that the "personalities" of the two candidates are the most compelling and, in spite of all the nastiness, hopeful aspects of this campaign. Both Samuels and Johnson Lee are willing to engage in brutally honest discussions that put their reputations at risk and their passions on their sleeves. Unlike too many of their past and present colleagues, neither seems to be in politics for the money or to plot their next move up the electoral ladder. The fundamental tension between them is the same one that has vexed and motivated the civil rights movement for at least the last half century, since the days when debates over tactics and philosophy would rage between adherents of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: when to confront, when to accommodate.

Rebecca Stack has known Johnson Lee for six years. "I believe Natalie is color-blind. I am European-American and I have seen people in the African American community who believe they can't be prejudicial. So when I meet someone who is truly color-blind, it is very real and exciting to me. We got to know each other during meetings of the Northwest Area Foundation, years before she ran for office. I liked the way she solicited opinions from the shy people. She had a nice authority that was very subtle, she had good ideas, she was even-handed. But what I appreciated most was the way she treated me as a person."

That was the "confrontational activist" in this Janus-masked campaign. Here's the accomodationist, in his own words. "I have seen people who have lived here for a while see their children getting harder in their attempt to survive, maybe having a 'Don't mess with me' swagger, or seeing their girls get a little edgy. And they get frightened and they leave. And a few years later that person will look at those boys and girls in this community being edgy and they say, 'What's wrong with those kids? Why don't those kids do better?' And yet they fled the community because they were afraid they could not raise their own kids in this environment.

"When you hear that the county is spending $80 million a year in the North Side, know that a huge part of that money is for salaries of people living in Golden Valley and other suburbs; social workers, teachers, cops. So our community is a receptacle of the vulnerabilities and pain and ill, and many people who get the gain from that take it elsewhere, and then everybody can point to the community and say, 'Boy, that is a bad community.' It really is a cosmic joke.

"But I'm not laughing."

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