Party Crashers

Daniel Ruen

It's not quite a Kodak moment, but the scene is worth revisiting. At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, more than 80 people are gathered at the North Commons YMCA, kicked back on folding chairs that have been scattered on the gym's drab, hardwood floor.

All eyes are fixed on Jeffrey Booty, Lisa McDonald, and R. T. Rybak, who are passing a microphone between them, trying to convince these members of the Minneapolis Green Party to help them unseat Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Booty, decked out in a hand-me-down tuxedo jacket and silver-studded belt, fits the rapidly fading stereotype of a third-party endorsee. His yellow Mohawk clashes with his red stretch pants and he riffs breathlessly about how "apathy is the enemy." Taking a shot at the absentee Sayles Belton, he tells the Greens he will be a "high-profile mayor." He concludes his remarks by promising to "make this city so cool that all the others will get jealous."

McDonald and Rybak are fresh from a fight at last month's DFL endorsement convention, where no candidate, including the incumbent mayor, received an endorsement. They are a tad more reserved than Booty. Rybak, who turned heads by upstaging Sayles Belton at the convention, is workaday casual in a maroon button-down shirt and khakis. McDonald is ready for another day at city hall, her pink suit coat and black pants a study in practical taste. "Even if I don't receive your endorsement, I still want you at the table," she promises. (Later, in the hallway outside the gym, the Ward 10 city council member explains that the Green Party "is more representative of the people" than the DFL.) Rybak, after making sure everyone knows he is still a Democrat, is out to "build a coalition": "This is an election about the status quo versus change, and that's why I'm here."

Four years ago, Rybak, or any other Minneapolis mayoral candidate with a chance, wouldn't have been here, pitching woo at the fringe. But that was before Minnesotans elected a pro wrestler as governor, making "three-party system" a household phrase. That was before consumer advocate Ralph Nader donned the Green jacket and put a few divots in last fall's presidential race, snagging enough votes to ensure major-party status for Minnesota's Green Party. And that was before local, rank-and-file Democrats began to feel that their party had finally lost touch with its base.

"There are a lot of people in Minneapolis who once identified with the Democratic Party, who now identify with Greens on stronger issues," says D. J. Leary, co-editor of Politics in Minnesota, a newsletter distributed to subscribers statewide. "There is the recognition that the [DFL] party endorsement no longer stands for what it once did. The Minneapolis convention was ripe to be hijacked."

Leary says the DFL's internal cracks started to show in Minnesota three years ago, when DFLers endorsed then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman as a gubernatorial candidate, but Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III emerged as the front-runner. The pattern continued last year as the race for Rod Grams's U.S. Senate seat unfolded. The DFL endorsed Jerry Janezich, a blue-collar bartender from the Iron Range, but it was moneyed liberal Mark Dayton who went on to win the election. "The damn endorsement doesn't matter much anyway," Leary opines. "Forty years ago, they used to take people's legs off to try to get a delegate to vote one way. Now people don't want to be stuck in a room for 10 hours. It's not worth it."

While still running as a DFLer, McDonald admits to being exasperated with the party's power structure. "The problem with the DFL is that you basically have to check off on every frickin' issue," she complains. "You spend hours calling delegates and they think they are the cognoscenti on all the issues. The party has to endorse candidates who can get elected and not just those who can stand up to the litmus test [of the platform]. It has to get outside the process."

Rybak is attracted to the Greens' outsider status, in large part because of his desire to link up alienated lefties with more mainstream liberals. He also believes the city is now being run by three or four DFL players, such as Sayles Belton and council member Joan Campbell, who have abandoned long-standing liberal commitments to neighborhoods, parks, and the working class--issues connected to voters. "I just got done proving that a majority of people in the DFL want a change," he says. "What I did find disturbing was how many delegates had drifted from the DFL."

State Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), received the DFL party's endorsement for governor in 1994. Marty, who eventually lost the race, says that DFL politicians dominate Minneapolis, but what they stand for is often obfuscated by petty special interests. The city council, for instance, is made up of Dems who bicker so vociferously and so often over the details of downtown revitalization or affordable housing that small differences of opinion look like great chasms in political ideology. At the same time, Mayor Sayles Belton, once a favorite of DFL stalwarts, seems out of sync with both the council and her constituents, who feel she has sold out her personal beliefs in the name of corporate development.

"The partisan splits at City Hall aren't between Greens, Democrats, Independents, or Republicans," Marty notes. "All differences are within the factions of the DFL." Marty also can't help but wonder how council members Jim Niland, an old-school liberal, and Jackie Cherryhomes, an upscale Democrat, can claim be in the same camp: "I guess I'd like to know on a [city] level, what is the philosophical base of the party?"

While their party of choice suffers from an identity crisis, Rybak and McDonald believe the Greens can help punch up a winning ticket. McDonald finds the Greens more educated than DFLers on issues such as the environment and campaign-finance reform. "I believe," McDonald opined at the convention, "that together we can build a more beautiful city through government." The Green Party, Rybak notes, "deserves credit for the role of incubator in politics in this city now." As Niland, a DFLer who was endorsed by the Green Party in 1997, put it when he introduced Rybak at the Green convention: "The winds of change are blowin' in this city." (The party did not officially endorse any mayoral candidate on June 2: Rybak received half of the delegates' votes, falling short of the two-thirds required to garner the endorsement. The lack of an endorsement leaves the door open for either candidate to sway Green loyalists.)

As in almost all things political, there's a whiff of cynicism in the environmentally friendly air. While Rybak and McDonald admit there's something to be gained by stumping in a musty gym courting the Greens and co-opting the party's street-level politics, neither is willing to shirk the DFL tag that plays so well in Minneapolis. In short, the two candidates simply view the Greens as a special-interest group--one that now has major party status. "It's just like a union endorsement," McDonald notes. Marty concurs: "I'm not surprised [McDonald and Rybak] are seeking the Green endorsement, but it's the same way one might go to an environmental group." Rybak says he has approached the Green Party the way he would seek out the Downtown Council.

In other words, McDonald and Rybak are simply practicing politics as usual, sucking up to a special interest because they're not getting enough love from their own. Which is why Leary believes that the candidates' pleas are as much about the demise of their party's endorsement process as anything. "The candidates are working the stump for an endorsement from the Amalgamated Cookie Cutters of America," he says, chuckling. "They've gotta find something, whether it's the Green Party or the Purple Party or whatever."

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