City Pages on Election Night

The old guard: Jackie Cherryhomes and Sharon Sayles Belton
Craig Lassig

End of the Party

It's twilight on Election Day, and south Minneapolis street corners have been taken over by campaign volunteers, who jump up and down and shake lawn signs at rush-hour commuters.

"Good thing we're not doing this in the cold," says one R.T. Rybak volunteer to a nodding supporter of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton on the southeast corner of Lyndale and Franklin avenues. At this intersection, the mayor's volunteers outnumber Rybak's three to two.

Two hours later it's clear that this street corner might represent the only victory in the incumbent mayor's reelection bid. At the Zuhrah Shrine Center in the Phillips neighborhood, five local news trucks idle curbside on Park Avenue South. Inside, three televisions are showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NYPD Blue, and Frasier. A small group huddles around a cash bar, drinking Tanqueray and tonics. Polls are open for a few more minutes, and most of the mayor's true believers--six staffers and some 300 volunteers--are still out door-knocking. For a little while, reporters outnumber supporters.

In the foyer, an elderly African-American woman, Kelema Lee, is manning a sign-in sheet, giving out nametags and American flag stickers and speaking of the Sayles Belton era in the past tense. "I believed in her and all the great things she did for this city," she insists. Even though Lee lives in Bloomington, she has worked on all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral bids. She remembers 1993's tiny campaign office over by the Dunwoody Institute. And Lee remembers the time last year when, at a fundraiser at the Fine Line nightclub, President Bill Clinton kissed her. "This is my last run," she says. "I'm gonna play the casinos now."

Over the next hour, as people file in offering condolences to Lee, her mood darkens further. "What are we gonna do?" Lee asks one man signing in. "We gonna keep the faith," he responds. "I'm not gonna survive this night," she replies. Within minutes, she will break down crying for the first of several times tonight.

Randy Schubring, the campaign's cherubic communications director, is getting ward-by-ward numbers over his cell phone, putting on a brave face by repeatedly saying he's optimistic. Early on it's clear that Rybak has taken what Schubring calls the "crescent wards" on the southern fringes of the city. Schubring is holding out hope for good showings in the First and Third wards in Northeast, where Sayles Belton has campaigned hard since she placed behind Rybak in the September 11 primary.

Schubring complains that the polls dictated the final days of the campaign, but surely he must know that much of the blame lies with Sayles Belton herself. The mayor has been a reluctant campaigner from day one, showing a remarkable knack for failing to use her position to rally support. In the past few weeks she was more visible and assured on the stump. But in the end, polls made it clear she couldn't shed the early buzz that she was invisible.

By 8:45 there's a crowd of about 150, and most folks are hitting the bar pretty hard. The TVs show that with 89 percent of the votes counted, Rybak is ahead by about 30 points. "You can't win forever, maybe," reasons Eli Jackson, 42, who works in the mailroom of the Star Tribune. "She's been good for parts of this city, and for the black people in this city. I just want to tell her she did a good job."

Shortly before 9:00, a local television station calls the race for Rybak, and Schubring goes pale, darting outside with his cell phone pressed to his ear. Overall, though, there's an odd sense of relief that it's finally over, and many in the room are suddenly reflective.

"We always knew the third term would be the toughest," opines Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, co-chair of all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral runs. The mayor had a "successful agenda," he insists, but that wasn't enough to counter talk that it was time for a change, especially after a sitting council member pleaded guilty to extortion. "The Brian Herron indictment gave that generic message legs," he says. "When that happened, and [Rybak] said it, to me, that was it."

Volunteers pass out red placards that read "We love you Sharon!" and "Thank you Sharon!" At 9:15, everyone crowds around the entrances of the auditorium and starts chanting, "We love Sharon! We love Sharon!" but it's a false alarm. "The mayor is about five minutes away," McLaughlin informs the crowd from the stage at the far end of the room. "You're in the right mood, but you've got to hold on a few minutes."

When Sayles Belton struts in, she's composed. As she makes her way through the crush of people to the stage, she gives out hugs. She talks for 20 minutes, mostly about how much her administration did that's worth celebrating. She urges everyone to avoid anger or sadness, but rather keep the city moving forward. By the time she steps down, spirits have lifted.  

It's a soothing scene in what has been an arduous campaign and an uneasy election night. News has spread quickly that city-council president Jackie Cherryhomes, an ally of Sayles Belton's and arguably an equally powerful force in city government, has been beaten by Green Party newcomer Natalie Johnson Lee. Even though Sayles Belton carried Cherryhomes's Fifth Ward, the three-term incumbent's loss is shocking. Shortly before 11:00 p.m., a dazed-looking Cherryhomes arrives with her husband. She confers briefly with Sayles Belton, then vanishes, saying only, "I'm going to take a long vacation and I'm gonna have a life."

With seven new council members, a new mayor, and the disappearance of the longtime power brokers within city hall, it's clear that on this night, Minneapolis politics has changed radically. In retrospect, the primary loss by Second Ward DFLer Joan Campbell--who along with Cherryhomes and Sayles Belton made up a triumvirate that guided city hall for much of the 1990s--foreshadowed the demise of the DFL's lock on the city.

And then, of course, there's Brian Herron. He's not present tonight, but he might as well be: His former aide Vickie Brock pays a post-election visit to the mayor, as she did on primary night. The fact that Sayles Belton and Cherryhomes rallied around Brock and urged her to run for Herron's seat just after his resignation did not sit well with many voters. In turn, the two city leaders were unable to distance themselves from the scandal.

But in fact, the cracks in the DFL's foundation began showing statewide in 1998, when gubernatorial candidate Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III finished third behind Norm Coleman and Jesse Ventura. (Some would look even further back, to 1994, when then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman lost the gubernatorial endorsement to John Marty, a state senator from Roseville.) Locally, those cracks appeared in Minneapolis last summer, when Rybak stymied Sayles Belton's bid to get the party's endorsement.

At the Shrine Center, some campaign workers are complaining about Rybak, rehashing their belief that he made racist comments throughout the campaign, or that he cut a deal with the police union to get an endorsement, or that he attacked Sayles Belton personally. But the mayor is having none of it.

"I've always known that three terms for a mayor is unusual," she concedes. "The fact is, when I was out campaigning today, I didn't think about whether I was going to lose or not, because I was just energized by all the people around the city. I started at 5:30 this morning and went right up until the bell at 7:50 tonight. I told people, 'Didn't we have some fun!'"

She continues, grabbing the hand of a woman who just approached her. "I realized today that I've been in public service for 18 years, and I've been a volunteer in this community since I was 15 years old. I don't know what I'll do just yet, but I'll continue to serve Minneapolis."

The woman interrupts, asking the mayor if she can pull strings to get a pool in Powderhorn Park. The attempt to curry favor on a night like this seems tacky, but Sayles Belton says she'll do her best. "I'll plant the seed," she tells the woman. "I don't know that I can cultivate the seed now, but I'll plant it."


Ballroom Blitz


At first glance the ballroom in the Saint Paul Hotel appears to have all the buoyant energy of a campaign on the cusp of ascension. Supporters of DFL-endorsed St. Paul mayoral candidate Jay Benanav crowd the room, sipping light beer and diet cola and pressing the flesh. A mix of music being piped into the ballroom offers a peppy--if dated--Eighties pop beat (think Van Halen, the B-52's, early Madonna).

The gathering is so enticing, in fact, that out-of-town hotel guests have stopped in to await election results--never mind that they have no idea who Benanav is or, for that matter, what DFL stands for.

Yet underneath the upbeat veneer is a sense of foreboding. The campaign staff, in a quaintly low-tech manner, infrequently scrawls vote tallies on an overhead transparency. Frustratingly, the reports perpetually lag behind the buzz in the room, as supporters whisper to each other more recent totals that threaten to solidify opponent Randy Kelly's win.

Benanav himself is almost completely absent from the affair, stepping onstage for only a couple of minutes on two occasions. In an odd twist, John Brodrick, Toni Carter, and Elona Street-Stewart, the three DFL candidates for St. Paul School Board--which in most years would be a less watched race than that for mayor--are cheerily ubiquitous as they share the hotel ballroom's election-night headquarters. But then again, their winning races are enjoying a closure that Benanav's isn't. (It will be days before the city-council member concedes the close election, even though Kelly immediately begins a media blitz as mayor-elect.)  

Election night ends with a plea to stay tuned. "We may be going into extra innings," the candidate says after 11:00 p.m. "We're going to look at the numbers in the morning, and we'll get back to you." Lingering supporters watch on TV as Kelly delivers his acceptance speech at a steakhouse a couple of miles up the street.


West Seventh Shema


"I want all the Catholics here to say a Hail Mary," lame-duck Mayor Norm Coleman implores the faithful crowded into Mancini's Char House, site of St. Paul political fetes for decades. Election night has just ticked past 10:30 p.m., and the race to succeed him is still too tight to call. "I want the Jews to say a Shema; I want the Buddhists to do a chant; I want everyone to get on their knees and pray."

No one actually drops to their knees in this mecca of St. Paul politics to plead for divine intervention in the mayor's race, but many do respond by imbibing some holy water. The election may be a squeaker, but there is little doubt that the Randy Kelly camp is weaving its way to a landslide victory in alcohol consumption.

Kelly supporters have been blithely predicting victory all evening. "'Kelly Wins'--that's your headline," Don Maietta, chairman of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, repeatedly hectors. But despite the surface swagger of the Kelly supporters, whispered asides and anguished glances at TV monitors suggest that they are still wary of defeat. Rumors that exit polls show DFL-endorsee Jay Benanav winning by 200 votes have been filtering through the crimson leather booths all night.

At this late hour the wood floor directly in front of the podium resembles a rugby scrum. Reporters vie for space among suits with whiskey breath, craggy-faced East Side politicos, and burly police officers and firefighters. Amid the frenzy, vanquished mayoral hopeful Bobbi Megard makes an appearance, fresh from the Benanav gathering. "It's a very different atmosphere in here than it is over at the Saint Paul Hotel," she comments. "There's much more energy here."

After being routed in the primary election, Megard remained neutral in the mayoral race. She points out that a Kelly victory would mark the third straight time that the DFL-sanctioned candidate has gone down to defeat. "If Kelly pulls this off tonight, it's a final blow to the endorsement process," Megard declares. "They had to win this time."

A few minutes later, pregnant WCCO-TV (Channel 4) reporter Esme Murphy makes her way, grim-faced, through the crowd. "You're looking a little fatter than the last time I saw you," Megard comments. "That's all right." Not surprisingly, Murphy has little to offer by way of response.

As 11:00 passes, one of the TV stations reports that Kelly holds a 403-vote lead with all precincts counted. Relieved catcalls, claps, and "Randy! Randy!" chants break out--but still no sign of the candidate. Someone accidentally smashes a wine glass directly in front of the podium.

When a beaming Kelly finally glad-hands his way to the stage, joining a crowded cast of at least two dozen St. Paul politicos and family members, it's pushing 11:30. Kelly thanks a laundry list of supporters before repeating his campaign mantra. "Now is not the time to radically change direction, and I can assure you we won't," he says, Coleman beaming by his side. "We will build upon the progress of the past eight years, and we'll do so with your energy, your vision, and your commitment."

Nobody goes home after the speech. Cigar smoke fills the air. Second Ward city council member Chris Coleman gives a radio interview with a Miller Genuine Draft in one hand and a stogie in the other.

State Rep. Andy Dawkins has been here before. In 1993 he garnered the DFL endorsement but still lost to Norm Coleman. This year Dawkins backed Kelly all the way, despite earning the scorn of his party's faithful. "The DFL party's gonna be competitive for the near future," Dawkins says. "It all depends upon our willingness to be pragmatic. I do think that Randy Kelly is a Democrat."  

Not everyone here is so certain. A real estate agent enjoying a beer near the bar confidently declares that Kelly will follow Coleman's path and switch to the GOP. "This is a Republican party," he says.

Kelly dismisses such conjecture. "I'm a lifelong Democrat," he declares. "I remain a Democrat."

No matter what changes lie in store for the DFL party, chances are pretty good that four years from now Mancini's will play host to another election-night gathering--be it a wake or celebration. "This is an institution," says Kelly as last call approaches. "I cannot think of another place that is more St. Paul than Nick Mancini's place."


Green Streak



About 50 minutes after the Minneapolis polls closed on Election Day, Dean Zimmermann hung up the phone and addressed the 20 or so volunteers, friends, and family members who were packed into his pleasantly

ramshackle duplex on 17th Avenue South in the Phillips neighborhood. As the Green Party's endorsed candidate for the city council's predominantly liberal Sixth Ward, all day long Zimmermann had been telling anyone who asked that he was "cautiously optimistic." Now, with the final numbers phoned in, he flashed a big, broad grin at his supporters and let loose. "We're gonna make Newsweek!" he exclaimed.

Maybe, maybe not. But Zimmermann could hardly be blamed for a little giddiness--or, for that matter, ascribing some national significance to the night's events. A few minutes before learning of his own victory, he'd heard remarkable news about another Green candidate for city council: Over on the north side, Natalie Johnson Lee had eked out a 72-vote victory over the Fifth Ward incumbent, powerful council president Jackie Cherryhomes. As a result, Minneapolis had suddenly attained the distinction of the nation's Greenest big city, with more Greens in high office than any city of equal or greater size in the nation. And this, the local Greens hastened to add, transpired in the first year the party fielded candidates in the city-council races.

"I think the Green Party of Minnesota is very well organized compared to other state parties, and this really puts us in a leadership position," says Holle Brian, chair of the Minneapolis Greens. In her view, the fledgling party benefited from growing support among black voters, who have traditionally been staunch DFL supporters. Two of the party's four candidates for city council are African American (Johnson Lee and the unsuccessful Third Ward endorsee Brother Shane Price), and the two wards where the Greens prevailed have significant black populations. "I think the African-American community has woken up to the realization that they are not being served by the Democratic Party," Brian posited.

If the election of Zimmermann and Johnson Lee marked a heady moment in the history of Green Party politics, it also signified a major change for the Minneapolis DFL. "As of last night, this is a two-party town," observed Brian Melendez, the chairman of the city DFL. "The Greens made a strong showing, and they are a force the DFL majority is going to have to deal with if they are going to govern effectively." For Melendez, Zimmermann's defeat of his DFL-endorsed opponent--political novice Dean Kallenbach--was not a shock; Johnson Lee's victory over Cherryhomes was. "I didn't see it coming," Melendez said. "I don't think anybody did."

Of course, the signs were there all along. Pre-election polls had the party's onetime standard-bearer, DFL incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, trailing R.T. Rybak badly for weeks--polls borne out by Sayles Belton's 30 percent repudiation. While Rybak is not a Green, he actively sought (but failed to get) the party's endorsement at its convention this summer; and in his campaign he tapped into many of the same themes.

Among the Greens celebrating the victory at the Blue Nile restaurant (and helping themselves to complimentary gourds at the door), theories abounded over the cause of the party's success in this election. Some gave credit to Ralph Nader, whose celebrated (and excoriated) run for presidency under the Green banner brought more people into the party fold. Jesse Ventura, others concede grudgingly, might be owed some credit because he demonstrated third-party viability. Still others figured the Green ascendance was the inevitable outcome of protracted single-party domination of city politics. "There were a lot of incremental factors," opined Jordan Kushner, an activist lawyer and Green Party member. "But even without Nader's candidacy, I think we'd still be seeing an active party locally. And this wasn't based on any fad or a gimmick. We didn't have some kind of celebrity. This was just grassroots campaigning. It's not short-term."  


The Perfect Campaign


The polls had been closed for less than ten minutes when R.T. Rybak walked into the Ukrainian Event Center in northeast Minneapolis on election night, but the manic glee emanating from the candidate as he buzzed through the crowd of supporters left absolutely no doubt about what had transpired that day. As a Dixieland band played the de rigueur "Happy Days Are Here Again" and Rybak impulsively dipped 74-year-old campaign volunteer Pat Schon (a scene captured by a Strib photographer for the front page of the next morning's paper), results of the deluge were just beginning to trickle in. Within 90 minutes, all the votes would be counted and Rybak's 30-point margin over Sharon Sayles Belton would go into the books as the largest trouncing of an incumbent mayor in Minneapolis political history.

As Rybak went back to his campaign headquarters to wait for Sayles Belton to concede, the supporters in the increasingly packed hall let the mood carry them away. "It was a perfect campaign," gushed Sylvia Kaplan, of Rybak's PAC-less tsunami. Together with her husband Sam, she has shaken the money tree for Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sayles Belton, and many others, making them the most coveted fundraising couple in Minnesota politics. "R.T. is just a happy warrior," she continued, and, in case the reference was missed, added, "Not since Hubert Humphrey the first--the real one--have I seen such a natural politician."

"This is not an exaggeration," Sam chimed in. "I don't believe a single dollar was wasted. It was the most prudent expenditure of dollars I have ever seen."

In the space of 15 minutes, it was announced that Dean Zimmermann had won Minneapolis's Sixth Ward, Robert Lilligren had taken the Eighth, and--the real jaw-dropper--council president Jackie Cherryhomes had been toppled by Natalie Johnson Lee in the Fifth. A sea change was happening, but to those who had lived and breathed this stuff for most of the year, it had the intoxicating whiff of a revolution.

At 9:30 the mayor-elect reappeared to choreograph the climax. He began with a graciously touching eulogy for Sayles Belton's political career, then adroitly spun through some "I've learned from the people" campaign anecdotes (the best of which was his door-knocking encounter with a lady, naked except for her heels and earrings, "who taught me how to accessorize") and inevitably flattened out into an honor roll of thank-yous. Later, there had been more than enough mismatched-socks demonstrations, and the media (in Twins contraction mode) was finessed and hundreds of people were hugged.

"We had a conscious 'left-right' strategy," explained retiring city-council member Jim Niland, a prominent field general and number-cruncher in the Rybak camp. "We needed to split Sharon's progressive-liberal DFL base enough to block the endorsement at the convention, then, for the primary, secure our base with those same people in the fertile crescent of [voter-rich, south-side] wards 13, 11, and 12. We knew [erstwhile mayoral candidates Lisa] McDonald and [Mark] Stenglein would fight it out for the conservative vote, but that if we got through the primary we'd be the alternative candidate, because for a lot of them, Sayles Belton was just unacceptable. That's where we'd go after the primary, north and northeast, in those three wards--one, three, and four--that had never voted for the mayor."

Which explains why affordable housing was Rybak's number-one issue leading up to the primary and why "getting the city's financial house in order" became his number-one issue leading up to the general election: "Left-right." A one-two punch that the mayor--who eventually resorted to almost literally draping herself in the flag, donning a patriotic scarf for the final debate--saw coming way too late.

Overall, Rybak lost only two of thirteen wards, the fifth and the eighth, both of them predominantly African American, although there was enough of a racial rainbow in the Ukrainian hall to banish any latent guilt from the celebration. In particular, there was an especially large contingent of Somalis, who no doubt helped Rybak nearly overtake the mayor in her old Eighth Ward neighborhood.

"He said he could help us, help our culture," said Hawa Aden, a coordinator for the group Somali Women in Minnesota. "It is because of his personality and his good heart, the spirit and the energy that came from his eyes. That's why we voted for him."

The perfect campaign is over. Now R.T. Rybak has to figure out how to build thousands of units of affordable housing and put the city's financial house in order at the same time. May the spirit be with him.

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