Big blow for Benson

MPLS City Council member's aspirations for higher office iced

class=img_thumbleft>What would have been a sleepy little race to re-elect Wes Skoglund in Minnesota Senate District 62 became a political curio the last few weeks. After the man who put in more than 30 years representing the Nokomis area of south Minneapolis in the state legislature announced he wouldn't run again, eight candidates lined up for the DFL endorsement to replace him.

One name stood out from the crowded field: Scott Benson, the second-term Minneapolis City Council member, seemed the closest thing to a favorite there could be with so many candidates. Certainly he was the only one with any kind of political name recognition, for better or worse.

But delegates do the darnedest things, and this weekend, those in 62 endorsed a relative unknown by the name of Patricia Torres Ray.

Torres Ray now stands to be the first Latina elected to the legislature in Minnesota, but that big news is almost overshadowed by Benson's failure to get the nod.

According to community newspaper The Bridge, the field was winnowed to four after the first ballot on Saturday, with Torres Ray picking up a rather commanding 25.6 percent of the vote, and Benson coming in fourth with 16 percent. By the fourth ballot, Benson had picked up some support to the tune of 24.6 percent, but by then Torres Ray had 46.8 percent, forcing Benson to drop out.

It could be that delegates find Benson to be too effective representing the 11th Ward on the City Council to see him go elsewhere. But indications are that may be a charitable assessment. At the very least, staunch members of his own party don't want to see him at the Capitol.

How can this be? By most accounts, Benson is a hard-working and intelligent officeholder, and he spent his first four years at City Hall as the council's chair on the Intergovernmental Relations Committee. That meant that he had to slog his way over to St. Paul on behalf of a municipal body that was widely viewed by state lawmakers as flaky, fringe and insignificant.

On a couple of occasions, I tagged along as a reporter as Benson worked the halls of the Capitol. He grew up outstate, and traded in some of those connections when lobbying on behalf of the city, but mostly he was simply diligent. I've always found him to be, on the surface, cooperative and amiable.

But there's another side to Benson's public image that clearly rubs people the wrong way. An attorney in the private sector, Benson can often come across as snappish and defensive when debating on the council, a reputation that carries over when he deals with constituents.

He also has a stake in a liquor distributorship, and is on record as permanently abstaining on any votes on the council that might be in conflict. Since a good portion of business before the council has to do with restaurant and bar liquor licenses and the like, Benson recuses himself on a significant number of votes.

(Benson faced no real competition for re-election last year.)

But it may be that Benson's biggest liability is an ally on the council. Since day one, Benson has formed a voting bloc of sorts with Lisa Goodman, the downtown representative on the council. Goodman herself can possess a snide demeanor and certainly has the reputation for being too aligned with big business--namely real estate and commercial developers.

Benson and Goodman, for instance, were two of the loudest voices agitating a year ago for the city to essentially turn the keys to the Hennepin theater district over to Clear Channel, the radio and entertainment behemoth. And lately the duo was part of a push for privatizing the city's Wi-Fi system without, some critics argued, enough public input.

Whether this reputation is well-earned is debatable, but in politics, perception is everything. One poster on Minneapolis Issues, the local e-forum, noted the loss over the weekend by wondering if Benson had learned any lessons.

"Perhaps the one [lesson] where he continues to align himself with Lisa Goodman to create a sort of Alliance of Keeping Things Hidden from the Public and Treating Them Like Idiots?" Steve Peterson, a Hopkins resident who works downtown, wrote. "That disdain for the public eventually shows."

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