Nine Things We Learned Last Tuesday

Some highlights from the city elections that time (and voters) forgot

1. Apathy was, um, high.

On the day after the election, any web crawler who went to the city of St. Paul's official site trolling for vote tallies found instead a guide to the city's polling places. It was as if the election had come and gone without any official notice. Judging from the turnout, voters felt pretty much the same way. This year's city elections did not lack for talking points. As in all recent city elections, public safety

was a much-flogged issue. On top of that, one of the nation's few Green Party incumbents, Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann, had his campaign office raided by FBI officials shortly before the primary, though no indictments have yet followed. The first contest between black incumbents in Minneapolis history had one candidate talking openly about house slaves and field slaves while supporters of the other compared him to Hitler. The incumbent DFL mayor of St. Paul made that city's race a referendum on the Bush administration with his 2004 endorsement of the president. Even the Minneapolis Park Board races became a hornet's nest of charges and counter-charges.

Meet the new boss: Chris Coleman celebrates his decisive win
Michael Dvorak
Meet the new boss: Chris Coleman celebrates his decisive win

None of it mattered to voters. After a paltry turnout for the September primaries, the U of M's Humphrey Institute observed that "if past patterns hold [in Minneapolis], about 106,000 votes will be cast in November." But a mere 69,005 ballots, representing less than a third of the city's registered voters, were tabulated this year. Turnout was lowest in the poorer wards of the city. Close, controversial races in the Fifth and Sixth wards barely mustered 3,000 votes apiece. Over in St. Paul, just under 37 percent of the registered voters cast ballots--a solid showing compared to Minneapolis, but below Tuesday's national average of 38 percent, and the lowest percentage in the modern history of St. Paul elections. This continued a trend in city elections that is now over a decade old:

Minneapolis:

1993: 44.92%

1997: 45.94%

2001: 39.71%

2005: 31.06%

St. Paul:

1993: 42.88%

1997: 41.58%

2001: 39.72%

2005: 36.87%

--Britt Robson

2. Money changes almost everything.

In Minneapolis, the results affirmed the colossal advantages enjoyed by incumbents. Of the eleven incumbents who ran for mayor and City Council, nine were returned to office. The two who lost--Natalie Johnson Lee and Dean Zimmermann--were both running against fellow incumbents owing to redistricting. As you might expect, all nine successful incumbents raised and spent more money than their opponents.

But cash did not rule the day when it came to the open seats. In four of the five races with no incumbents, the candidate who spent less money emerged victorious. In some cases, that occurred despite considerable spending disparities. Ward Two winner Cam Gordon, for instance, spent about a third as much as Cara Letofsky and still won a narrow victory. The exception was Ward Three, where DFL-endorsed Diane Hofstede trounced the Green Party's Aaron Neumann. In her most recent campaign finance filing, Hofstede reported spending a whopping $95,000. Neumann, by contrast, spent a little over $2,500. --Mike Mosedale

 

3. Incoming St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is a lot like outgoing Mayor Randy Kelly--minus the burden of the Bush endorsement.

Some people are inclined to take outgoing St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly's historic drubbing (the worst loss ever by an incumbent mayor in St. Paul) as a sign that voters wanted a departure from the conservative policies of the last 12 years. Mayor-elect Chris Coleman is happy to hum along with this theme. Referring to Kelly's politically fatal 2004 endorsement of George W. Bush, he says, "It was a very symbolic embrace of a pretty extreme agenda that the voters of St. Paul are not in alignment with."

But Coleman is an unlikely candidate to lead a liberal revival in the capital city. His six years on the City Council, representing the Second Ward, were marked more by pragmatic, business-as-usual votes than progressive ones. Coleman supported the ill-fated 1999 referendum led by then-Mayor Norm Coleman to approve a 5 percent sales tax to pay for a new Twins stadium. He also voted to grant a waiver from the city's living wage ordinance to the Target Corporation when it sought $7.8 million in public funds to renovate its downtown Marshall Field's store.

These happen to be two of the touchstone issues for Progressive Minnesota, the group that successfully led the drive to defeat a 1999 stadium referendum. Even so, the group opted to endorse Coleman in this campaign. Ryan Greenwood, the executive director of Progressive Minnesota, says he's untroubled by Coleman's past record on these issues. "Chris Coleman has gone through a process that I think a lot of people have gone through where they've seen the results of devil-may-care conservative rule at the federal and the state and the city level, and they want to chart a new course," Greenwood argues.

Coleman's history of political endorsements is just as spotty. Four years ago he backed Kelly over city council member Jay Benanav, an outspoken left-liberal who had garnered the support of the DFL and ultimately lost by just 403 votes. Coleman again bucked the party in 2003, choosing to support Christine Nelson, a moderate Democrat backed by the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, as his replacement on the City Council, rather than DFL standard-bearer Dave Thune.

But regardless of Coleman's track record, his liberal backers insist that the promises he made on the campaign trail will make it difficult for him to tack rightward once in office. "I think it will be really easy to say 'Chris, here's what you said not once, not twice, but 15 times," notes City Council president Kathy Lantry. "He's got to remember who brought him to the dance." --Paul Demko

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