On the last Sunday afternoon of September, the autumn sky is crystalline, and about 50 staunch DFLers who have gathered for a fundraiser are sipping white wine and munching strawberries inside a swank Lake Harriet home. The woman of the hour, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, is winding down a passionate speech about Minneapolis politics. In conclusion, she turns to Minneapolis City Council member Joan Campbell, who is sitting nearby, and--as she's done on at least one other public occasion--praises the majority leader's tenure and laments her primary election loss on September 11.
"One of our friends and beloved colleagues on the city council will be leaving us," Sayles Belton says, urging Campbell to stand up. "We need to lift her up and praise her for the sacrifices she's made for this city."
Campbell's eyes well up. The two embrace and whisper, "I love you" to one another. Then Campbell wipes the tears away and proclaims, "That's twice she's done that to me."
For the first time in nearly a decade, Minneapolis's power structure could be radically altered. Campbell, first elected to the city council in 1989, has widely been considered part of a ruling triumvirate, along with two-term incumbent Sayles Belton and city council president Jackie Cherryhomes, who was first elected to represent the Fifth Ward 12 years ago. Cherryhomes is facing a challenge from the Green Party's Natalie Johnson Lee, Sayles Belton is in a dead heat against upstart R.T. Rybak, and Campbell's defeat left two relatively unknown candidates to face off on November 6.
In one corner is the primary's top vote getter, Paul Zerby, a 67-year-old retired lawyer who allies himself with Minnesota's DFL party, which has traditionally dominated Minneapolis politics. The other contender is Cam Gordon, a 45-year-old community activist and founding member of the state's Green Party, which is enjoying an unprecedented level of success this election season. (In addition to Gordon, three other Green candidates for city council survived the primaries, as did four candidates for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.) Since the margin of Zerby's primary victory was negligible, the deciding factor may well be which candidate can sway the most Campbell supporters. "There's less than a hundred votes separating the two candidates, and each one is bound to pick up at least that many from Campbell supporters," says D.J. Leary, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "It's a big race. They'll be very, very close."
"People are always more passionate about new candidates than they are about incumbents," Campbell says, trying to dispassionately analyze the race from behind a conference table in her unusually spacious city hall office. The 65-year-old's shortly cut hair has gone snow-white and her bleary eyes betray fatigue. Defending her record, searching for an explanation for her profound defeat, she often sighs and shrugs--proudly maintaining that her decisions were always founded on what was best for the city.
"There was an absolute disbelief from my supporters that my campaign was in trouble," Campbell says, noting that she received 80 percent of the vote in the 1997 election. "To me, the interesting thing is that this city has never been in such good shape. I also knew that I had a record [the voters] could look to. But I was faced with not one, but two very hard-working opponents."
Campbell's last term in office was highlighted by a litany of controversial issues that Zerby and Gordon both exploited, the most highly publicized being a nearly two-year hassle over the Hard Times Cafe, a West Bank vegetarian diner in Campbell's ward that ran afoul of the city council after police conducted a drug sting there in 1999. Two weeks ago, after the Hennepin County District Court ruled that the café's attorneys could make legal inquiries into the city's handling of the situation, Campbell and her council colleagues unanimously decided to end efforts to permanently revoke the café's license and settle the lawsuit. But the damage had been done. "It was a big factor, and it came up a lot as I campaigned," says Gordon, adding that the Hard Times posted campaign information and a banner reminding patrons to vote. "It got some people to vote who wouldn't normally be involved in politics."
Campbell's hard-line stance on the Hard Times mirrors other decisions she's made that seemingly contradicted constituents' concerns: her fight to put $1.8 million worth of ornamental street lamps in Prospect Park, one of the ward's most well-to-do neighborhoods; and her push to rezone University Village, a new housing and retail development near the U of M's East Bank, which led her to advocate that a new pizza parlor receive a full liquor license. The city council ultimately signed off on both proposals despite cries of favoritism and concerns that there would be alcohol sold in a complex that essentially functions as a student dorm. More important, there was a growing sense that Campbell had brokered backroom deals without telling residents. "You could feel that she was in serious trouble," says D.J. Leary, who is also a resident in the Second Ward. "Joan just wouldn't back down on those things. There was this level of animosity [because] she seemed to get crazy on a couple things. The feeling was, a) she lied, b) she wouldn't talk about it, and c) she did it surreptitiously."
Despite the harsh criticism and the political defeat, Campbell says she is ready to retire from public life with a clean conscience. She cites her push for affordable housing, particularly in Elliot Park, as part of her legacy--one that will be appreciated after she's gone. And she bristles at the suggestion that she left citizens out of the decision-making process. "I was always results-oriented and pragmatic," she says. "I could have pushed to resolve the Hard Times issue before the primary so I could look good. But I wouldn't have felt right about it. I would have to live with myself before anybody else. And that's what I'll do."
In the end, though, both Zerby and Gordon succeeded in painting Campbell as a mainstream DFLer beholden to big development projects instead of neighborhoods. So now both candidates are vying to appear as the most progressive, grassroots contender in what editor Leary says is perhaps the city's most liberal enclave, where "recycling is like religion." The ward has a wide array of traditionally left-leaning residents: students and young renters make up the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood; waves of African and Asian immigrants have settled in Seward and on the West Bank; and then there's what Campbell calls the "big elephant in the middle of the ward"--the University of Minnesota.
Gordon, who grew up in Minneapolis and worked in public education for years, is self-employed as music teacher and has been active on many neighborhood groups. His interest in grassroots politics was sparked when he worked for presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. In 1994 he became part of the committee that would form the Green Party. Two years later he ran as a Green to represent District 62A at the state Legislature. He finished second with 24 percent of the vote. He believes that his "progressive" platform, which centers on implementing renewable energy sources and campaign finance reform, will engage many first-time immigrant voters.
"The Greens are really proving this year that we can field viable candidates, and the time is now to talk about the fact that we can govern as well," Gordon says. "Some people have seen the Greens as a single-issue party. But the fact is the Green agenda will continue to grow in many areas. Whether you call it 'liberal' or 'progressive,' we have the best solutions."
Zerby, meanwhile, is interested in courting DFL stalwarts. A graduate of Harvard Law School who worked in the Minnesota attorney general's office for 20 years, Zerby emphasizes the need for affordable housing for seniors and better community schools. "I would like to see a renewed emphasis on the basics of city government, with social responsibility and fiscal responsibility built from the grassroots on up," he says.
In an interesting flip of conventional wisdom, Gordon the Green is a smooth talker and natural politician, while Zerby the DFLer seems inclined to play policy wonk and look at issues on a block-by-block level. Leary says Zerby can bank on the DFL label, but he also notes that for more and more Minneapolis voters, the Green Party is becoming a viable option. "There's acceptance of new ideas in the traditional liberal world around the city and that change can be acceptable."
Zerby should get support among upscale liberals along East River Road and in Prospect Park, where he and his wife have been active in the neighborhood organization for years. Gordon has strong footing in working-class areas like the Seward neighborhood, where he has been a major figure in community-renewal projects. So both will have to work aggressively to attract Campbell loyalists scattered throughout the rest of the ward.
Asked to handicap the race, Leary is unwilling to place a bet. He is leaning toward voting for Zerby but observes that Gordon is beginning to brandish new ideas that could both attract new voters and resonate with those who once supported Campbell. "There are shades where they differ," Leary says. "And Cam can definitely make those small differences work for him."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.