Edina developer paid for Minneapolis campaign mailer as a 'public service'

Should a Minneapolis voter trust the opinion of someone from Edina?

Should a Minneapolis voter trust the opinion of someone from Edina? Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Paul Birnberg of south Minneapolis reached into his mailbox on November 6. One piece of mail caught his attention.

The return address was a post office box. No other information was given as to the sender. Inside, a two-page mailer read: “I am a concerned citizen and neighbor. I prefer to remain anonymous, but I won’t be making an attack on any candidate, so my name should not matter.”

The correspondence was framed as “a public service.” It included the names of dozens of “developers, business interests, architects, and contractors” who had made campaign contributions to Gary Schiff. Schiff, a former Minneapolis City Council member, was one of two challengers in 2017 looking to unseat Ward 9 incumbent Alondra Cano. It intimated Schiff’s relationship to developers was more important than it would be to his constituents. 

The mailer noted that 85 percent of the almost $71,000 in donations in Schiff’s report came from those in development circles.

“I hope my neighbors will find this information useful when thinking about who the next City Council Member from Ward 9 should be,” it concluded. 

Birnberg spoke to several friends who lived in the ward, which includes south Minneapolis neighborhoods of Powderhorn Park, Midtown Phillips, and Corcoran. They too had received the mailer. Three days after Cano had successfully withstood Schiff’s challenge and that of candidate Mohamed Farah, Birnberg went to the post office with the same zip code as the return address.

There, the clerk told him the name behind the PO box was one “Steven Minn,” of Edina, the well-known and politically active co-owner of Lupe Development, and former member of the Minneapolis City Council.

Birnberg was bitter. As first reported in a MinnPost article, nine days after the election, Birnberg filed a complaint with the state’s campaign practices office, writing, “A person living at 7 Overholt Pass, Edina, is not my neighbor. Indeed he not only does not live in my neighborhood, he does not live in my ward or even my city.”

Not only was the campaign mailer intentionally misleading “to make readers believe, contrary to fact, that it was sent by a neighbor,” the complaint read, it violated state statute, which states anyone making or disseminating campaign materials must include their name. 

Birnberg’s complaint would go on to note that Minn has been a “major player” in MinneapolisWorks!, a pro-business group that had spent more than $100,000 trying to influence municipal elections, including support of Farah’s candidacy.

Minn told MinnPost he had not seen the complaint, and therefore, “cannot comment on it.”

Reached by phone by City Pages on Monday, Minn wasn’t hesitant to admit he was behind the mailer.

“I didn’t attack anyone in it. It didn’t say vote for this candidate or against that candidate,” says Minn. “I did it as a public service. I did it to call out how big a hypocrite this guy is. Gary Schiff is always pointing the finger at other people, how they’re the ones taking all the money from developers, when he’s the one whose campaign is being bankrolled by the very interests he’s railing against.”

The public fight between Minn and Schiff dates back nearly a decade. In 2009, Minn, a city-appointed board member of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, called out Schiff’s fundraising practices. According to Minn, it was well known in developer circles that Schiff, who chaired the planning and zoning committee, was sure to offer fundraising event invitations to any firm that came before his panel.

Three years later, Schiff called for Minn’s removal from the housing authority, after it was discovered the developer had orchestrated a campaign against another developer, Kelly Doran, using online pseudonyms. The posts also included attacks on council members, Schiff included.

One said: “If I were a 9th Ward resident, I would want to bathe after meeting Mr. Schiff.”

Minn is bummed Farah didn’t unseat Cano, though sounds almost joyful speaking about Schiff’s unsuccessful bid.

“I did this to help stick a fork in him,” he says. “This guy needs to be done on the city council, and I can’t say I’m sad about that.”

Schiff could not immediately reached for comment Monday. But in a statement Tuesday he said: "Steve Minn’s rationale for why he still uses fake identities and breaks campaign finance law makes no sense. I support building more housing, for people at every income level, and it was a top issue in my campaign.

"Minn’s illegal antics in the 2017 election should concern everyone who wrote him a check. His transphobic attack on Phillipe Cunningham backfired in the Fourth Ward, costing Barb Johnson the election. Steve created the Minneapolis Works PAC, raising over $100,000 to defend Barb Johnson as City Council President. Instead, he ended up costing Barb her seat, plus four other candidates that he supported."