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.

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

 

4. One clear winner in the St. Paul mayor's race: Minneapolis bar owners.

Randy Kelly is the only reason that you can still smoke in St. Paul bars. Earlier this year the City Council twice passed, by 4-3 margins, smoking prohibitions every bit as stringent as those subsequently adopted by Minneapolis and Hennepin County. Kelly vetoed both bills, and the council never gathered enough votes to override his diktat. Ramsey County eventually passed a watered-down measure that allows bars earning less than 50 percent of their revenue from food sales to remain cigarette-friendly.

The end result is that the vast majority of St. Paul watering holes remain clouded in smoke. This uneven playing field has resulted in a financial blow to Minneapolis bars, as many nicotine-addicted patrons have flocked across the river to do their drinking.

With Coleman in the mayor's office, every indication is that a measure more in line with Minneapolis's smoking ban will be enacted. Dave Thune, the Second Ward council member who sponsored the measures vetoed by Kelly, says he intends to bring it forward again. "As a matter of fact, I'm probably even more strongly for it now," Thune says. "It's really time to suck it up and say everybody around here is going smoke-free, period."

Coleman says his first priority is to lobby for a statewide prohibition. "I'm not unmindful of the business impact and that's why the statewide ban is so important," he says. But the bottom line is that Coleman will sign a municipal smoking ban if it ends up on his desk. "This is a significant public health issue," he says. --Paul Demko

 

 

5. Negative campaigning didn't work.

The conventional wisdom is that "going negative" is a necessary evil in the political process. Maybe the mudslingers in this year's local races were hopeless amateurs. Whatever the reason, negative campaigns became a harbinger of failure at the ballot box this year.

Up on the north side of Minneapolis in the Fifth Ward, supporters of Natalie Johnson Lee compared her opponent Don Samuels to Adolf Hitler and David Duke. They smeared Samuels with a 12-year-old restraining order that had nothing to do with ward issues, and used a local cable access program to hurl a seemingly endless stream of invective his way. Even after Samuels referred to Johnson Lee's husband as a pornographer, his campaign seemed squeaky clean by comparison, and he won the election amid a depressingly low turnout.

Down at the southern end of the city, overheated rhetoric on the part of park board reformers stymied their effort to win majority control of the board. The day before the election, District Six reform candidate Jim Bernstein was cited by the Minnesota State Office of Administrative Hearing for making three false statements about the record of his opponent, incumbent Bob Fine. Fine handily defeated Bernstein. The judgment against Bernstein, and the inability of reformers to back up their claim that a "slush fund" existed for the current park board superintendent, may well have contributed to the narrow defeat suffered by reform candidate Jason Stone in District Five.

And so it went. In the Tenth Ward, Ralph Remington won the seat vacated by Dan Niziolek, despite the leaking of details about Remington's 2001 personal bankruptcy to the Southwest Journal newspaper. The mayoral races in both cities featured increasingly shrill tactics by both losing candidates--Peter McLaughlin over rampant crime, Randy Kelly on rising taxes--versus the relatively sunny campaigns of victors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman. Minneapolis Eighth Ward council candidate Marie Hauser was the leading vote-getter on primary day, but lost to Elizabeth Glidden on Election Day after it was revealed that Hauser put out literature associating herself with park board candidate Mary Merrill Anderson without Anderson's permission. --Britt Robson

 

6. In as political forces: Progressive Minnesota, the Somali voting bloc, south Minneapolis lifestyle liberals.

If there was a new power broker in citywide elections this year, it was Progressive Minnesota, the 10-year-old St. Paul-based "economic and social justice" group that successfully lobbied the Minneapolis City Council to adopt a living-wage ordinance earlier this fall. PM saw all four of the Minneapolis City Council candidates it endorsed--Ralph Remington, Elizabeth Glidden, Betsy Hodges, and Scott Benson--win office. They were also vocal backers of Chris Coleman's mayoral campaign in St. Paul. PM's endorsements carried weight in part because the 4,000-member-strong organization provided ground support to its candidates: making phone calls, doing campaign lit drops, and going door to door.

Another relatively new presence on the local level: Somali voters, who were out in full force at R.T. Rybak's victory party last Tuesday night. Two groups, the Somalia Democratic Association and the Somali Business Association of America, endorsed candidates this year. Though actual numbers of Somali voters are elusive, Progressive Minnesota executive director Ryan Greenwood notes, "I saw an upswing in political activism from Somalis." Glidden made great efforts to reach out to Somali voters in her ward, and Rybak says he thinks enough of the Somali vote to have rejiggered his campaign strategy to better reach them after the primary.

For all of the feel-good rhetoric, though, it's clear that there's a new faction of Rybak DFLers emerging in the city, a mostly south-Minneapolis claque of representatives and organizers we'll call south Minneapolis lifestyle liberals. Rybak typifies the breed, as do newcomers like Hodges and Glidden, all of whom live in the wealthy enclaves on or near Lake Harriet.

The lifestyle libs are defined loosely by their embrace of social issues--pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-"diversity"--as opposed to bread-and-butter economic ones. This bloc is concentrated in the southwest portion of the city, as neighborhood polling numbers demonstrate. Though Rybak defeated McLaughlin by nearly the same percentage margin as he beat Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001, the areas where he fared best--taking more than 70 percent of the vote--wrap neatly around the chain of lakes. In 2001, Rybak also scored heavily in the traditionally blue-collar, labor-friendly environs of northeast Minneapolis; this time, some of those pockets went to McLaughlin, the loser. And in the poorer parts of the city, Rybak fared worse than he did four years ago. --G.R. Anderson Jr.

 

7. Out as political forces: The police federation, organized labor, African American voters.

Labor has been a dead letter in national elections for quite a while now, but it had remained a fairly prominent player in select local races. This year the two most heavily labor-endorsed candidates in Minneapolis were Marie Hauser (Eighth Ward) and mayoral challenger Peter McLaughlin, and both lost. AFSCME and other unions had helped McLaughlin stalemate Rybak at the city DFL endorsing convention last spring, when delegates declined to give either man the nod. But that backing did not deliver a lot of votes in either the primary or the general election.

"The firefighters and AFSCME--right out of the chute, they provided the wind at my back," McLaughlin said in his concession speech last week. If their support wasn't enough to carry him through, the endorsement of another major city union may actually have hurt him. McLaughlin was backed by the Minneapolis Police Federation, a once-coveted endorsement that does not seem to carry the weight it used to. This year, 9 of the 13 City Council race winners managed to survive without it. Some observers, in fact, think the federation's endorsement may have contributed to the losses suffered by Cara Letofsky in the Second Ward and Marie Hauser in the Eighth. Why? Political wars inside and around the department in recent years, coupled with persistent and regularly publicized allegations of MPD misconduct, may have begun to erode the prestige of police endorsements.

"I remember when City Hall used to be governed by which faction of the police department pounded the most lawn signs in the last election," says Rybak, who was "happy to have" the federation's backing in 2001. "Now they've just become so negative in the eyes of many voters."

All that aside, the most diminished political force this year may be the African American voter. The turnout this year in traditionally black precincts was markedly lower than in recent years, in both the primary and the general elections. Gerrymandering of districts is only part of the reason the southside Eighth Ward will have its first white representative in many years; residents of the ward's core black neighborhoods simply didn't turn out to vote in the September primary, costing African American candidate Jeff Hayden a place on the November ballot.

In the Fifth Ward, general election turnout was also low, and the council's lone African American rep, Natalie Johnson Lee, was trounced by Don Samuels. (Samuels is black, but it should be noted that he takes care to identify himself as a Jamaican immigrant.) Ralph Remington, who is African American, was elected in the relatively affluent and white Tenth Ward.

Finally, it's worth noting that some of the perceived distaste for Rybak in the African American community plays out in this year's results, much as it did in 2001. Of the city's 131 precincts, McLaughlin only carried 26. All but five of those, when compared with 2000 U.S. census data, were in predominantly nonwhite wards. --G.R. Anderson Jr.

 

8. The DFL old guard turned back a reform drive at the Minneapolis Park Board.

One of the few bright spots for the DFL old guard in Minneapolis was retaining control of the park board in face of a stiff challenge by reformers. The ham-handed hiring of board superintendent Jon Gurban (who hadn't even interviewed for the job, but was a former high school classmate of then-board president Bob Fine) swung the spotlight onto a board ossified into a contentious 5-4 split over issues such as increased public input into board decisions, the leasing of park board property to private interests, and allegations that the fiscal management of the local parks and rec system was shoddy and shortsighted.

While the 5-4 split in favor of the old guard remains, there are reasons to believe the partisan bickering will be toned down a notch. Former superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson, who replaced the outgoing Marie Hauser in the lone change among the old-guard majority on the board, pledges, "I am not going to be in any camp," and does in fact endorse the sort of long-range budget planning favored by reformers. Meanwhile, the three new members among the reform-minded minority are arguably more politically adept and industrious than the previous group, which should help them bring more light and less heat to the reform agenda.

But when push inevitably comes to shove, the old guard faction will still likely be able to count to five on most issues. That includes supporting the construction of a football field for DeLaSalle High School on park board property and the retention of the controversial Gurban for the remainder of his three-year contract. The prospect of allowing more commercial concessions and lease agreements (a Dairy Queen on the lake, anybody?) to increase park system revenue remains a distinct possibility in the wake of last Tuesday's results, as does the likelihood that attorney Brian Rice--who serves both as the board's legal counsel and its legislative lobbyist--will be able to retain both positions despite the potential for conflicts of interest between the two roles. --Britt Robson

 

9. The Greens and local third-party politics: Not dead, not particularly well.

In 2001, the Green Party elected two candidates to the Minneapolis City Council, thus ending the DFL monopoly at City Hall and generating plenty of giddy speculation about the improved local prospects of third-party movements. The DFL undertook to quash the Green specter, and one measure of their success lies in the fact that both incumbent Greens on the City Council this year were running against other incumbents, thanks to redistricting. Both Greens lost their bids for reelection. Natalie Johnson Lee--who had shocked the city's political establishment by upsetting former City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes in 2001--was soundly trounced in the Fifth, and party stalwart Dean Zimmermann--running under the cloud of a federal corruption probe--lost by a 46-vote margin in the Sixth.

Still, Minneapolis voters did give the Greens two consolation prizes. In a hotly contested park board race, incumbent at-large member Annie Young narrowly retained her position. And in the biggest surprise of the night, Cam Gordon--a founding member of the Minnesota Greens--was elected to represent the Second Ward on the City Council. --Mike Mosedale

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