A Little Help from Their Friends

Why did a developer and a billionaire venture capitalist give $10,000 each to a Minneapolis Park Board PAC?

Why did a developer and a billionaire venture capitalist give $10,000 each to a Minneapolis Park Board PAC?

Leading up to the city elections held earlier this month, the battles between old-guard DFLers and the so-called reform faction on the Minneapolis Park Board often grew so heated and so personal that it was easy to forget that there were differences of policy as well as of personality underlying the fight.

But the differences may have been underscored during the run-up to the election by an extraordinary show of generosity on the part of two prominent political donors: Campaign records made public just before the election showed that developer Paul Klodt and venture capitalist Vance Opperman had donated $10,000 each to an old-guard-friendly organization called People for Independent Parks, which in turn poured a lot of resources into closely contested races in Districts Five and Six. In the end, old-schoolers Bob Fine and Carol Kummer won those two seats, helping to keep would-be board reformers on the short end of a 5-4 board split.

What prompted such a show of largesse in a race where the contribution limit on political donations to individual candidates runs from $300 a year (for district seats) to $500 a year (for at-large seats)? Klodt says his contribution was solicited by Julie Idelkope, a co-founder of PIP and former member of the Minneapolis Planning Commission. "Julie said they were working on this, and that they wanted to promote parks for children. I said, 'Sounds good to me,'" Klodt related. "I have always thought the Minneapolis parks people did a nice job and I have always enjoyed the parks."

Opperman, who is best known as a former owner of legal publisher the West Group (which he and his father sold in 1996 for over $4 billion), says that his donation was prompted by a visit from Minneapolis City Council member Barb Johnson. "She told me she thought many good people were running for park board and reminded me that I knew most of them," Opperman remembers. "And I do go back 20 years or more with Walt Dziedzic, Bob Fine, and with Carol Kummer. So I've known these people for most of their adult lives and Barb asked if I could contribute and I said yes."

But the fact that a developer and a venture capitalist poured such striking sums into reelecting DFL traditionalists on the board is likely to fuel longstanding fears on the part of reformers and their supporters about the future of the Minneapolis parks and recreation system.

With some 6,400 acres of real estate under its control, the park board is the largest landowner in Minneapolis. In recent years, as the state Legislature has grown more frugal toward local units of government, reformers have grown concerned that DFL old-timers on the board will allow private developers to lease or otherwise commercialize the city's public lands. There have already been spirited, though as yet unsuccessful, attempts to build a power plant on the Mississippi River, to install sailing club facilities at Lake Calhoun and Dairy Queen franchises around the local lakes, and to lease the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis to private interests. And recently the board took steps to green-light the construction of a football field for a private Catholic school on Nicollet Island.

Because PIP was formed so late in the campaign, the PAC did not need to file a campaign finance report until just before the recent election, covering contributions through October 21. That report reveals that more than 80 percent of the $23,600 raised by the group came from Klodt and Opperman.

Though precise expenditure figures were not available, PIP seemed to deploy much of that sum on behalf of park board incumbent Carol Kummer, who was generally regarded as the most vulnerable of the old guard seeking reelection. On October 5, Klodt contributed $10,000 to PIP. During the last two weeks of the campaign, no fewer than four PIP-sponsored pieces of literature blanketed the District Five area where Kummer was running. On November 8, Kummer defeated Jason Stone by a mere 300 votes, out of 12,796 total ballots cast.

Just six days later, on November 14, a proposed 233-unit housing project to be developed by Klodt, known as Hiawatha Flats, was brought before the Minneapolis Planning Commission. Although the commission agreed to rezone the area, located at East 43rd Street and Snelling Avenue in south Minneapolis, to accommodate the development, they denied the issuance of a conditional-use permit that would have moved the project forward. The vote to stymie Klodt's Hiawatha Flats was 6-1. The lone vote in favor of Klodt was cast by the park board representative to the planning commission--Carol Kummer.

Kummer maintains now that at the time of that vote, she wasn't even aware that Klodt had contributed to PIP. "I had no idea," she says with a chuckle. "Absolutely not. Now I am beginning to think I should check the donor list." With respect to Hiawatha Flats, Kummer says, "I thought he had responded to the neighborhood's concerns.... As the park board rep, I am always looking out for trees, and [the developers] assured me that the townhouses where the one substantial oak tree was located would be one part of their landscape plan," Kummer adds. "I thought, 'Well, that works for me.'"