Opening Shots

AFTER BARBARA CARLSON announced her mayoral bid last Tuesday, I dialed up Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising, the Minneapolis firm responsible for producing local TV, radio, and newspaper spots for Sen. Paul Wellstone during the '96 campaign. An old-school consultant with an unblemished soft spot for the DFL, Hillsman spent the bulk of our conversation insisting Carlson didn't have a snowball's chance of unseating incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

"Carlson is a circus act," concluded Hillsman, a Sayles Belton consultant in 1993. "And the press loves circus acts because they make for good stories. And when you guys get interested, sometimes it can change the direction of things. But in this case we're looking at a mayor who can and should win easily."

In the wake of our bull session, in which Hillsman spitballed about Carlson's lack of policy-oriented credibility and hinted at strategies Sayles Belton could use to shift focus away from her own less dynamic personality, Charleen Bacigalupo, Carlson's events coordinator, put in her own call to North Woods Advertising. In less than an hour she convinced Hillsman to consider involving himself in Carlson's campaign. "I didn't say yes, but--to my surprise--I also didn't say no," Hillsman now says, almost apologetically. "Because I've started to see some vulnerabilities in Belton you could attack. Granted, she'd have to fumble pretty badly for Carlson to win. But the potential exists."

Hillsman's about-face is symptomatic of the Cinderella week following Carlson's official entrance into the race. Instead of being cast off as a stunt candidate, she's been treated as a contender, especially by the local press. Writers from the Star Tribune's Doug Grow to PiPress columnist Nick Coleman have begrudgingly concluded that, win or (more probably) lose, Carlson promises both to put some energy back into Minneapolis politics and unearth substantive issues.

After naming Carlson's Republican backers in the Legislature, commentators on MPR referred to her as a "serious threat." Even TV coverage of Carlson's announcement lacked references to the hokey publicity stunts, headline-ready one-liners, and tell-all gossip that defined her three terms on the Minneapolis City Council and seven-year stint as a radio host on KSTP-AM. "They still don't think I can really win. But I think people like Coleman and Grow are smiling right now, and they don't smile very much," Carlson crows. "Because they want a race, and they know I might be able to give it to them."

The tenor of the early coverage has put things ahead of schedule at Carlson HQ, according to Campaign Manager John Magnuson (who spun for Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad in his last two re-election bids). "Thanks to the type of coverage we've gotten through the weekend, we've established legitimacy right out of the gate; a legitimacy Barbara was concerned about having to earn the hard way," he says.

More importantly, people have been writing checks. In just three days, Magnuson says the campaign collected over $10,000--a long way from the $500,000 Carlson needs, but suddenly no one doubts it's forthcoming, including Hillsman and Sayles Belton's campaign manager, C. Scott Cooper, who also works as a lobbyist for the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council. "Since the Carlson campaign has well-established alliances in the Republican Party, I'm sure they'll be able to raise whatever funds they need to stick around through the summer," Cooper says, while refusing to divulge how much Sayles Belton intends to spend. Another insider says Sayles Belton believes the GOP establishment has already committed $250,000 to Carlson's independent bid.

Yet politically, Sayles Belton's camp stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that their candidate, riding high with a 69 percent approval rating, is facing anything but an inconvenience. Sayles Belton, Cooper, and mayoral spokesperson Amy Phenix all parrot the same line, more about Carlson's reputation than the mayor's record: "This isn't about fun and games, it's about serious business."

It's these one-liners, coupled with early refusals to engage on the few issues Carlson has already raised--such as crime, potholes, and flood repair--which has players such as Hillsman considering a trip across enemy lines. "Belton's people have a track record of sitting on the ball," he says. "Just letting Carlson come out of the gate and establish herself as a serious candidate, they've lost ground. If I was working with them I would've worked hard to discredit Barbara immediately. And you can't do it by just flicking her off your shoulder. That kind of dismissiveness says they aren't focused on their campaign, and didn't anticipate Carlson would be focused on showing a new face to the media. Even worse, is suggests they've yet to establish their own plan of attack."

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