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A Changing of the Guard?

           The red, white and blue signs are all over. "John Derus for state Senate," they say, poking out of lawns from Broadway to the city limits. In a quarter-century, Derus has lost only two races--the time voters unceremoniously kicked him off the county board, and the 1993 race in which Sharon Sayles Belton beat him to gain the mayor's office. Now the man once called the most powerful politician in town is back, for what might well be a last hurrah.

           But this time, things are tough. After years of working the north side's time-tested combination of tough talk, blue-collar economics, and machine electioneering, Derus is facing a primary opponent who's got all the things that used to be his: the DFL endorsement; the help of officeholders and party honchos; and the backing of a political machine--this one drawing on the trinity of feminists, gays and lesbians, and neighborhood/nonprofit types.

           And Derus's is not the only race hinting at the end of a political era. Eighteen candidates are elbowing their way toward the September 10 primary for an unprecedented three open legislative seats and one on the county board.

           The geography is basic. Senate District 58, where Derus is running, is bounded on the city limits to the north and west, the Mississippi River to the east, and Hennepin Avenue to the south. Carl Kroening had been its senator for 16 years when he announced his retirement in March. The northern half of the district, House District 58A, has been held for the last 26 years by Rep. Jim Rice, who is likewise stepping down. And just across the river lies House District 59A, which for 24 years elected Rep. John Sarna--another retiree.

           Between them, those three were a formidable crew at the Legislature. With seniority rivaled only by some of their Iron Range colleagues, they brought home the bacon, carried labor's standard, and took a hard line on things like gambling, crime, and property taxes.

           But although they were re-elected time after time, the neighborhood was changing. People like Linda Higgins were moving into the houses vacated by World War II vets, attracted by bargain prices and real woodwork. "When I came here 20 years ago," she says, "almost everyone in north Minneapolis had been born and raised in north Minneapolis. That isn't so anymore. A lot of people came to do the sweat equity thing. You met your neighbors because you needed the extension ladder. And politics got to be organized in a different way--along neighborhoods more than unions and political units." She is Derus's chief opponent in the Senate race.

           On the issues, Derus and Higgins aren't that far apart. In their literature, both list crime prevention as a top priority, followed by job creation and education--bread-and-butter issues with extra resonance in one of the state's poorest districts. Sure, Derus still loves to talk about his political passions, which include light rail, ethanol, and affordable health care; Higgins, for her part, makes sure voters know she's prochoice.

           But the real differences lie in where the two candidates come from--whom, and what, they represent in a shifting political landscape. Higgins, a freelance editor and publisher until she became City Council member Joe Biernat's aide three years ago, is considered one of the leading members of the "new northside mafia"--boomer-age, liberal, often white-collar activists, many of them women demanding an in to the boys' club. City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes is the most visible exponent of this group; she's supporting Higgins. So are abortion-rights advocates, who have made the race one of their top priorities in their bid to create a prochoice majority in the Senate.

           Derus, by contrast, has roots that run deep, wide, and often underground. There are a lot of people who owe him for personal or political favors; when in office, Derus was known for getting down to minute detail in constituent service. Carl Kroening and Jim Rice, both of whom command effective electoral organizations, support him. He has a lot of relatives around the area, including veteran City Council member Alice Rainville. And, perhaps most importantly, he's been endorsed by almost every major union.

           "The crucial thing to remember about this area," says Brian Rice--lawyer, political consultant, and son of Jim Rice--"goes all the way back to Floyd Olson [the left-populist governor from the 1930s, who grew up on the north side]. The north Minneapolis senator was always the senator from labor. When that senator rose and spoke, that was the voice of labor. Higgins and her friends are labor supporters. But it's not in their blood the way it is with a lot of these people here."

           At one time, none of this would have happened. For a long time in Minneapolis, elections were decided in April, when DFL conventions endorsed their candidates. Challenges to the endorsees were rare, and Republicans even rarer.

 

           Higgins, however, let it be known she was running against Kroening almost two years ago, when there was still no hint of his retirement. By the time Kroening broke the news to old allies like Derus this spring, it was almost too late: Higgins had worked the caucuses and lined up a majority of delegates. Even so, it took her five ballots to get endorsed. "I had been campaigning for about 10 days at that point," Derus crows, "with delegates that were largely her people. I thought we did really well."

           Generally, endorsements were funny this year. In House District 58 A, Jim Rice's retirement brought four candidates to the convention--former school board member Carol Ann White, housing manager Brian Gorecki, attorney Joe Mullery, and teacher Dick Rainville. Mullery had the support of much of the Rice machine; Rainville, the son of veteran City Council member Alice Rainville, had her organization; Gorecki, who holds what was once Cherryhomes's job at the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council, got help from the council president; and White had a ready-made following from having run for Rice's seat two years before. The convention deadlocked.

           Meanwhile, just across the river, school board member and veteran local pol Len Biernat would normally have been a shoo-in for the DFL endorsement in House District 59A. Instead, it went to Hennepin County lobbyist Diane Loeffler, another one of the north side's newer faces; in what would once have been a mortal sin for a party loyalist, Biernat decided to run anyway. "What's happened," says Dennis O'Leary, a Republican media adviser who in many races works for DFLers, "is that the philosophical split in the DFL has moved from being north side vs. south side, which is how it used to be, to right down the middle of the north side. It's the old labor side versus what I'd call the feminist and gay/lesbian/transgender side. And right now, the feminists dominate."

           As it happens, O'Leary this year is working for Sheree Breedlove, who's unsuccessfully run for a variety of offices and this summer entered the Derus/Higgins primary contest. Breedlove, though her chances of winning are slim, stands out by virtue of being one of the few African-Americans running for state office--which, O'Leary suggests, says something about the DFL. "I'm not sure about this year," he notes, "but two years ago there were more black candidates running in the state with the Republican endorsement than with the DFL's. It's almost a sin how few opportunities there are for black candidates within the DFL."

           Case in point, some northsiders would say: Gregory Gray, a corporate attorney who came to the DFL convention this spring asking for its endorsement over Higgins and Derus. He never stood a chance. "This is the only district in the whole damn state where we could have elected a black person," fumes one of his supporters, "but they just weren't prepared to do it."

           Gray, for his part, says he can see pretty clearly what happened to him: "I kind of got caught between machines." What bothers him, he adds, is not the fact that the Derus and Higgins crowds had their troops lined up. "But I'm disappointed because other groups are not [organizing], and no one seems to be doing anything about the fact that they're not. In a party where we read affirmative action statements so often people know them by heart, I still don't see a serious effort to encourage candidates of color."

           The same claim, he says, applies to the party's legendary get-out-the-vote system. "People spend a lot of time working on the base, the people we know are going to come to the polls. Which means we're looking at the same people every year. But we need to deal with the people who have given up. Right now, in this district we have some of the worst voter turnout in the state. People talk about that, but then they go about business as usual."

           There is some evidence to support Gray's contention. Earlier this year, the DFL did some statewide phoning and polling to identify potential new voters. According to internal data, they came up with some 1,500 new voters in the northern, largely white half of District 58; in the southern half, which holds large concentrations of African-Americans and Southeast Asians, they found 53. And with no more than 8,000 people expected to vote in the primary district-wide, it likely won't take more than a few hundred votes to tip the balance.

           Even so, it's conceivable that the north side will find itself with some minority representation this year. Right now, White is considered to have a decent chance in her District 58A contest. There's also the possibility of Halisi Edwards Staten upsetting County Board member Sandra Hilary in a district that includes most of north and northeast. (In that race, too, the DFL convention deadlocked on an endorsement, and there are seven active candidates.)

 

           With Republicans remaining a fairly negligible force on the north side, the outcome of the legislative races at least should be all but sealed by September 11. But in the larger picture, the primary results will provide only an inkling of things to come. "I know everyone always says this," one activist insists, "but these really are historic races. Someone like John Derus, if he can't win this one, is not going to win one in this area ever again. His core vote will have died or moved out. The Higgins people, if they can't win one like this, they're not as good as they think they are. And if someone like Carol Ann White or Halisi Staten wins, that upsets the whole apple cart."

           The next test is already on the horizon. In 1997, City Council members including Cherryhomes, Biernat, and the First Ward's Walt Dziedzic will be up for reelection, and Rainville will be retiring. It's almost certain that some of the candidates from this year's legislative races will be back, lawn signs, name recognition, and machines in tow. "Things are in transition," acknowledges Cherryhomes, who could face a tough challenge for her own seat. "And this is only the first round."


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