A Blast from the Past
There's a certain candor when you talk to Sharon Sayles Belton these days that was rarely evident during her stint as mayor of Minneapolis. The two years since she was ousted from office by R.T. Rybak have tempered her perspective, and reflection comes easier than it did under the harsh glare she often avoided during her tenure.
"Humbled" is how one observer described Sayles Belton last week, with a greater understanding of the severe miscalculations during her last campaign against the current mayor. Then, as I covered her flailing drive for a third term, I was struck by her refusal to call out her opponent on what was simply campaign-trail hubris. Better to take the high road, she would tell me, than to start launching personal attacks.
So it was with some caution that Sayles Belton spoke to me last week about the city's current state of affairs. For the last 18 months, tensions between minority communities and city leaders, due largely to repeated incidents with the Minneapolis Police, have risen to where they were before Sayles Belton became mayor 10 years ago. Last month's allegations from Stephen Porter that Minneapolis cops had sodomized him during a drug raid galvanized a fresh wave of anger from the black community toward city leaders.
"If you're watching and paying attention to race relations, there should be cause for concern right now," Sayles Belton observes, saying there has been a "steady stream" of complaints from minorities toward city leadership. "We should raise our eyebrows if one person raises concerns. Many voices are making the same observations."
Sayles Belton, who has taken a post at the Humphrey Institute to study how changing demographics in Minnesota link to racism, maintains that she has "been trying [her] absolute best to stay out of City Hall and keep from criticizing the mayor." She doesn't want to be accused of sour grapes.
In fact, I called upon Sayles Belton to ask a few questions about her last campaign. Three weeks ago, I wrote about Rybak facing a hostile crowd, mostly African Americans, at a community forum following the Porter incident. In that column, I observed an astounding level of hostility toward the mayor from many in the black community, and tried to explain why such animosity would exist. Rybak's staffers and supporters were angered by the piece, taking issue with my assertion that Rybak had never sincerely engaged the black vote during the campaign.
Laura Sether, the mayor's press secretary, claimed Rybak made several campaign appearances in various black communities. Jonathan Palmer, a community activist on the north side, wrote in a letter to City Pages (in coordination with the mayor's office) that he had seen Rybak door-knocking in and around his neighborhood before the election.
"So what if you did?" Sayles Belton counters. "That doesn't mean he reached out to the black community.
"To the extent that he was on the north side, he was going after Green Party and progressive votes," Sayles Belton argues. "In an election, it's all about getting votes where you can. In Camden and other neighborhoods on the north side, there were pockets for him. But as far as talking to blacks on the near north, I never saw him."
Sayles Belton figures that Rybak had aligned himself with Shane Price, a black candidate from the Green Party, who was running against incumbent Joe Biernat for the Third Ward council seat. (The Third Ward, now represented by Don Samuels, has a contrast of white and black neighborhoods.)
But Price says there was only one event, a parade, where he and candidate Rybak appeared together. "He was interested in going after who Sharon was in trouble with, which wasn't necessarily the African American community," Price recalls. "He found it in the yuppie vote and in the homosexual community, and that was enough."
Election results bear this out. Sayles Belton took nearly twice as many votes as Rybak in the predominantly black Fifth Ward, and she eked out a victory in the Eighth Ward, which boasts several longstanding black neighborhoods. (Rybak trounced Sayles Belton citywide, garnering almost twice as many votes.) Many believe Rybak's campaign strategies are coming back to haunt him, now that he's mired in racial problems that have plagued the city for decades.
Sayles Belton, Price, and others have pointed to a moment last month, when community leaders showed up at Rybak's office to talk about race relations, and Rybak refused to meet with them. (Sether maintains that the group was told they could schedule a meeting.) And then there was a march against police brutality on Halloween that ended up at City Hall. Again, Rybak was noticeably missing.
Sayles Belton, who was frequently criticized for being an invisible leader, took note. "I was disappointed in that, it's ridiculous," she says, speculating that someone advised Rybak not to meet with certain activists. "You have to set aside 15 minutes and talk to them on their terms. That can go a long way in defusing a bad situation."
The MPD's track record was hardly better under Sayles Belton than it is now, and the city's civil rights department essentially crumbled during her tenure. But there was a feeling among blacks that at least there was someone at City Hall who would listen to them. That is no longer the case. The point remains that Rybak has a long way to go to earn the respect of many in different black communities.
"Oh, I certainly agree with that," Price says. "Look, Sharon should have beat this guy, and she knows it. But now we have a mayor that has got to engage African Americans in a big way. This will be the deciding factor in the next election."
The Last Days of Mediation? As hard as it is to imagine, negotiations between the city, the MPD, and community representatives to revamp policing practices are apparently nearing an agreement.
The talks, brokered by a federal mediator from the Department of Justice, have stalled repeatedly over the last year. More recently, after community rep Alfred Flowers was allegedly roughed up by Minneapolis cops, the talks have appeared in jeopardy altogether. Stephen Porter's allegations likewise cast a pall over any potential agreement.
However, I'm told that Police Chief Robert Olson, who had refused to come to the table a year ago, has been pushing to wrap up the process before he leaves office at the start of the new year. A tentative deadline of December 1 for all parties to sign an agreement has been set, but any details are unclear at this point.
But sources say the chief's departure may come into play, and that city and police representatives are hesitant to implement any concessions until a new police chief has been hired. If that's the case, it may be as late as April until the agreement is made public. At any rate, Olson stands to benefit either way, adding one more accomplishment to his résumé before he leaves town.
The Porter Situation: There's been some confusion on the FBI's investigation of the Stephen Porter case. Initially, it was believed that federal investigators would be issuing a preliminary report last week, within 30 days after the alleged incident on October 13. But, it turns out, the FBI will not publicly release any information until the investigation is completed, instead reporting initial findings directly to the Justice Department.
"That was some misinformation that came out when the mayor had a press conference," says FBI spokesman Paul McCabe. "There will be no public reports, and there are no time constraints on the investigation."
Still, McCabe insists the agency has invested "significant manpower to expedite" the investigation. If charges are not pursued, McCabe notes, a letter will go to the police chief, the alleged victim, and the accused police officers. Otherwise, the next public announcement on the Porter incident would come with a grand jury indictment. "This will be a thorough investigation," McCabe promises.
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