Loyal Opposition

If this is 'Over the Top' which one is Stallone? Robert Lilligren (left) and Dean Zimmermann
Diana Watters

Dean Zimmermann was a politician with an unhappy constituency. In fact, the problem lay with one voter in particular--his wife. He had lived in the Phillips neighborhood for some 20 years, before marrying progressive activist Jenny Heiser in 2002. He promised her then that one day soon they would buy a house together. Nevertheless, as the months and years ticked by, the City Council member balked at making a move. Meanwhile, he represented his ward from an old triplex at 25th Street and 17th Avenue South.

So, when Zimmermann announced a month ago that he would seek reelection to the Minneapolis City Council, it wasn't hard to sense some misgivings. Zimmermann, who was elected in 2001, had been in political limbo for three years, after a citywide redistricting plan bumped him out of his Sixth Ward seat.

Zimmermann sounds resigned when recounting his options for the 2005 campaign. He could stay in his longtime residence in the Phillips neighborhood and run for the Ninth Ward seat, move a few blocks away and run again in the Sixth Ward, or buy a house in another ward without an incumbent council member up for reelection.

In early February, Zimmermann and Heiser found a dream house in the new Sixth Ward, and his wife insisted it would be their new home. Politics are, after all, an art of strategic compromises. Suddenly Zimmermann was facing the prospect of running against sometime political ally Robert Lilligren, the council's vice president, who himself had seen his ward change from the Eighth to the Sixth. "I didn't necessarily want to run against Robert," Zimmermann says.

Marital bliss aside, the alternatives didn't appear more attractive. Gary Schiff, the Ninth Ward incumbent, would already be familiar to 90 percent of that constituency from the previous districting plan. (The Sixth and Ninth abut in the heart of south Minneapolis along Lake Street.) And while Zimmermann found that he had support for a potential run in the predominantly Northeast Third Ward, he likely would have had to face carpetbagger claims if he moved to the beerier side of downtown.

It's not as though Zimmermann couldn't have seen this conundrum coming. For nearly three years, two Minneapolis City Council members, Zimmermann and Natalie Johnson Lee, have had a lawsuit pending against the city over the new districts. The complaint filed in U.S. District Court lists the council's two Green Party members as lead plaintiffs, and takes issue with the redistricting plan adopted by the city in April 2002. It seems the Greens, a major party in the state since 2000, had only one rep on the closed redistricting commission. The DFL, the city's longstanding majority party, had three seats. The Republicans and the Independence Party boasted two representatives each--though neither party had a single elected official in city government. Most political wonks around town acknowledge that the redistricting amounted to yet another shameless example of gerrymandering.

It seemed less like a coincidence than a matter of design that both Zimmermann and Johnson Lee would have to face hurdles in seeking reelection. "The boundary alterations did not reflect demographic changes from the 2000 Census," the court complaint notes. "But rather [they] target wards to limit the overall power of minority populations and to attempt to limit representation by the Green Party."

(According to the suit, Johnson Lee's Fifth Ward, for example, which runs from the Near North Side to the Warehouse District, was "packed" with a constituency that is 83 percent nonwhite.)

Despite these claims, the court dismissed the case in September 2004, arguing that the new plan kept neighborhoods together. The Eighth District Court of Appeals will likely look at the case sometime this summer.


Meanwhile, the redistricting has led to the political dilemma that Zimmermann and Johnson Lee had sought to avoid: four incumbents fighting for two council seats. No one around town can recall it happening in recent memory. Johnson Lee will have to face Don Samuels (who was elected to represent the Third Ward two years ago) for the Fifth Ward office. They are the only two council members of color, and that race has become the main event in the coming council elections.

Yet the undercard between Lilligren and Zimmermann, two genuine people's politicians, is equally compelling. Both were considered part of the new left that came to City Hall in a sea change last election. Lilligren was, in 2001, a 40-year-old independent building contractor who wore a ponytail and was openly gay. Zimmermann was the 60-ish Park Board member and aging radical who had a dispute with city election officials over whether he could run with his gender-neutral nickname "Zimmerperson" on the ballot. The two, along with four other new council members and a new mayor also elected way back then, have seen their lofty talk displaced by the baser realities of running the city. Both were once seen as antiestablishment; this time around, both will be...well, established.  

But established where? The Sixth, which used to encompass all of Phillips to the east and southeast, has lost a chunk of turf that used to be Zimmermann country. Now it includes a swath that was previously part of Lilligren's Eighth, and gained Loring Heights, near Stevens Square. Zimmermann enjoyed popularity among African immigrants along Lake Street and American Indians on East Franklin in the old Sixth. The new ward, however, encompasses younger, whiter, more middle-class neighborhoods--like Whittier--that might go for Lilligren. In short, the race is a toss-up.

Ideologically speaking, there's not much difference between the two candidates. Zimmermann is keenly interested in the American Indian community; Lilligren is a tribal member of White Earth. Both are environmentalists, lefties in the classic sense. But each also sports a libertarian streak that leads him to advocate for small businesses. And both have taken care to appeal to the wide range of immigrants--Latinos and Somalis, in particular--who made up large parts of their previous political bases.

But even if they arrive at the same place more often than not politically, they differ greatly in approach. Zimmermann, avuncular and friendly, comes across as "a sort of sage teddy bear" in the words of one City Council member. But at the same time, Zimmermann's tenure on the council has been marked by flights of fancy--ideas that seem divorced from the day-to-day grind of managing the city's affairs. He has a strange obsession, for instance, with Personal Rapid Transit, a costly form of mass transit that requires an elaborate monorail system. It is generally regarded by most urban planners to be a flaky concept.

"He doesn't always do his homework," is how one City Council peer puts it. And Zimmerman rarely seems to generate much support from his fellow members on items he advocates.

"If I'm not failing, I'm not doing enough," Zimmermann says--a canny way of co-opting the criticism. "I'm always pushing the envelope." And in this spirit, Zimmermann did push an ordinance protecting city employees from having to enforce the immigration aspects of the Patriot Act, something many other U.S. cities eventually did.

Lilligren, on the other hand, is seen by many as politically savvy--perhaps too savvy. Though he is considered to be among the council's best and brightest, Lillegren's votes appear to be motivated by his desire to protect himself. He spoke out eloquently against the smoking ban, for instance, but eventually voted for it. At times, he has disappointed many activists in his ward.

For example, while he has been a vocal critic of the 35W access project--which would add ramps to the interstate at Lake Street--he has also been a champion of the sometimes controversial Sears project, which would tap millions of city dollars to renovate the abandoned department store. Mass-transit advocates and minority store owners on Lake Street argue that both projects are a form of gentrification, and will likely displace immigrant residents and businesses.

Speaking more generally, one City Hall observer says, "Robert will count votes on the council to see which way he should go."

Lilligren disputes claims that he votes out of political expediency. "I don't know where that comes from," he says. "I've never taken a vote for coverage. I've never taken a vote just for the political."


On the street level, both men are seen as formidable campaigners, but for different reasons. Lilligren was a political unknown when he ran for the seat vacated by Brian Herron after the FBI nailed the latter on bribery charges. Before his troubles, Herron had secured the DFL endorsement, so Lilligren ran without it; it remains to be seen whether the old gray party will embrace the council member this time around.

He has a strong network of volunteers in the GLBT community. At the same time, he also prides himself on being "ubiquitous." Lilligren says he plans to spend $30,000 on the campaign, with several "subnetworks" of volunteers, direct mailings, and phone banks.

Zimmermann is decidedly more blue-collar. He has high name recognition in the ward, owing to his many years doing handyman work for his neighbors. And in 2000, he parlayed his experience on the city's Park Board into a surprising victory over a DFL-endorsed candidate. Zimmermann, who says he hasn't yet worked out a budget, but hopes to soon raise about $5,000 for the contest, will rely heavily on door-to-door campaigning.

Wizard Marks, a neighborhood activist who has lived in the area for 32 years, knows both candidates well. "The Sixth Ward has a huge constituency of immigrants and blue and pink collars," Marks notes. "Lilligren doesn't play as well there as he does in the southwest corner of the ward"--like, for instance, the Wedge.  

But she takes note of Lilligren's political acumen, and gives him a slight edge in the race. "Robert 'gets' City Hall," she offers. "I'm not sure if 'getting' City Hall is a good thing, because you often end up swimming with sharks, and counting votes and noses. I'm not sure Dean gets that. Lilligren knows where he's going to pick up votes, and that's where the most people--white, middle-class--are going to vote."

For now, neither candidate will take swings at the other, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to work together on the council for the next eight months. And both still attack the redistricting that made their race unavoidable. (Lilligren has had to shrug off criticism that he should have moved to run again in his Eighth Ward, noting that he has lived in his current neighborhood for 22 years. The reshaped ward boundaries put Lilligren out of his ward by half a block.)

"I wasn't happy to lose 80 percent of my political base," Lilligren notes, adding that he was approached by Zimmermann to be a plaintiff in the suit, but declined. "Running against Zimmermann? I don't really like it. But it's a map now. That's all it is, and I've got to deal with it."

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