Left of the Dial

Ward Two City Council candidates Cara Latofsky, Cam Gordon, Bill Svrluga, and Dan Miller
Jana Freiband

Ward Two is perhaps the most diverse, politically unpredictable electoral district in Minneapolis. It starts with the West Bank, home to thousands of East African immigrants with scant voting history. The ward also includes much of the University of Minnesota, with its fluctuating student population. Throw in the bucolic middle-class neighborhood of Prospect Park and the granola lefties of the Seward neighborhood, and you've got a volatile mix.

In 2001, three-term incumbent Democrat Joan Campbell was knocked off in the primary. DFLer Paul Zerby then barely beat back Green Party candidate Cam Gordon, 51 to 49 percent in the general election.

With Zerby opting not to seek reelection this year, the Ward Two City Council race is once again wide open. Gordon, former state chair of the Green Party, is mounting a second run for the post. He briefly considered vying for the DFL endorsement, but ultimately decided against such a course because the DFL prohibits supporting candidates who belong to other political parties. Even though it's supposedly a nonpartisan election, the Democrats aren't interested in cross endorsements. "I would have had to renounce my membership in the Greens and my history with the Greens," he notes. "That wasn't worth it to me."

That leaves three highly regarded Democrats--Dan Miller, Bill Svrluga, and Cara Letofsky--seeking the party's support. DFLers will meet on April 9 to determine which candidate (if any) they'll endorse. All three contenders say they will drop out of the race if they don't gain the party's blessing.

The three DFL candidates are almost ideologically indistinguishable. Each espouses a liberal political philosophy, frets about crime and the state of public schools, and vows to fight cutbacks at the state and federal levels that are negatively affecting Minneapolis. Numerous political interest groups--Progressive Minnesota, Stonewall DFL, Democracy for Minnesota--have held endorsement screenings, but most have opted to sit on the sidelines through the ward convention owing to the candidates' similarities.

Steve Cross, a DFL convention delegate and Prospect Park resident, opted to support Svrluga after meeting with all three candidates. He says he was won over by the veteran activist's enthusiasm and commitment to social-justice issues. "I'm not foaming at the mouth against either of the other two candidates," Cross notes. "I'd have no problem supporting either of them. But [Svrluga's] my first choice."

If there's a frontrunner for the DFL endorsement, it's likely Letofsky, owing to her long-standing neighborhood ties and political credentials. She has served as executive director of both the Stevens Square Community Organization and the Lyndale Neighborhood Development Corporation. She's also been active in DFL politics for more than a decade and is married to state Rep. Jim Davnie. At the ward convention, where personal connections are often paramount, Letofsky will undoubtedly garner the support of many veteran party loyalists.

Svrluga has a redoubtable résumé, but few ties to the immediate neighborhood. He's lived in the ward for just two years. His social-justice credentials date back to the 1960s, when he marched through Alabama with Martin Luther King to protest racial discrimination. He has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit groups, including the Greater Minneapolis Food Bank and Sabathani Community Center. Professionally he's served as dean of students at both Macalester and Carleton colleges, and has spent 12 years working at General Mills. Svrluga also has a notable link to the city's power structure: He lives with MPD Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold.

Miller is probably the biggest wild card in the race. He's a Prospect Park resident and graduate student and lecturer at the U of M's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Miller previously worked as a fiscal analyst in state Sen. Larry Pogemiller's (DFL-Minneapolis) office and as executive director of the Drug Policy Reform Group. The youngest of the DFL contenders, Miller promises to get more students and immigrants involved in the electoral process. "I think the fundamental problem with our party and our city is not lack of experience, not lack of competence, but lack of vision and ideas," he says.

Miller's focus on attracting new voters to the polls has led some to question his sincerity in seeking the DFL endorsement. At a meeting last week to set guidelines for the ward convention, Miller partisans endorsed rules that would make it more difficult for delegates to endorse a candidate. For instance, they sought to limit the number of ballots to five and the length of the convention to three hours. If those rules are ultimately adopted, it would make it extremely difficult for any candidate to garner the 60 percent level of support needed for an endorsement. "Clearly, if that is [Miller's] campaign's position they don't think they can win," says one political observer. "That's the only reason he would support those rules."

Letofsky is less blunt, but she wants less stringent rules that will facilitate an endorsement. "My point is, don't set the convention up to be futile," she says. "If you don't want the DFL endorsement, then don't seek the DFL endorsement." (Another meeting to discuss convention rules is set for later this month.)

Miller denies that he is trying to set up a deadlocked convention. "That was not our intention at all," he says. "Our intention was to make sure that we're not dawdling and wasting time."

He says the outcome of the convention will hinge on who can get their people to participate. "At the end of the day there's only 300-some delegates," he notes. "It just becomes a matter of who gets out of bed on Saturday."

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