Over the River and Through the Woods
Last Wednesday night, Tom Taylor, a 49-year-old artist, longtime neighborhood activist, and now candidate for the state House of Representatives, embarked on what must have been a first for Minnesota politics. With a handful of supporters trailing behind him, Taylor led a get-out-the-vote pub crawl by bicycle through northeast Minneapolis. His objective? To reach out to that elusive slice of the electorate: the uncommitted barfly.
The activities commenced in friendly territory, a hole-in-the-wall bar called Grumpy's, a block from Taylor's campaign headquarters. After a couple of pints and a frozen pizza, Taylor and the gang peddled down Fourth Street to Jimmy's, one of the city's few remaining unionized bars, where Taylor laid his usual rap on anyone who would listen.
"Our democracy is broke," he announced to patron after patron. Some listened intently; others let their eyes wander to the television, which was playing the Yankees and Red Sox series. An overture to a homeless guy ended when the homeless guy--in a reversal of the usual voter-politician interaction--panhandled the candidate.
At the Moose on Monroe (for some reason declared a presumptive Republican stronghold), Taylor talked farm policy, development, and pollution over the din of loud karaoke (Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive"). At Shaw's Bar and Grill, a baby-faced fireman pronounced himself impressed with Taylor. "He seems honest," the fireman declared. "That's all that counts."
At the Knight Cap, Taylor handed out buttons with his bright green logo. And so it went until approximately 1:30 a.m., when he and the volunteers finally called it quits, wobbled off on their bikes to the home of a supporter, and gobbled down free bowls of hot chili.
Whether campaigning bar to bar is as efficient a tactic as old-style door-knocking remains an open question. But it is certainly more fun. And for Taylor and his fellow members of the Green Party of Minnesota, fun and good times have been in short supply since the glory days in 2001, when two of the party's candidates won seats on the Minneapolis City Council.
Since then, the Greens' fortunes have slid somewhat, with poor showings in the 2002 elections and declining participation in caucuses. This year, the presidential election--and a powerful Anyone But Bush sentiment among moderates and liberals--has taken more of the luster from third parties, including the Greens.
"I've already had the Nader card played on me," Taylor says glumly, in a reference to the lingering anger over the Green Party's 2000 presidential candidate and his supposed culpability in Bush's ultimate victory.
Still, by most accounts, Taylor is the Greens' best hope in Minnesota this year. Of the party's six candidates for the state House, he has the most money (he expects to spend between $15,000 and $20,000), has attracted the most volunteer support, and is far and away the best known.
Taylor's résumé includes a long-running involvement with an array of progressive causes, including stints as a field organizer with the Organic Consumers Association and the health-care reform group Minnesota COACT. And in the Sheridan neighborhood, where Taylor moved in 1985, "after being gentrified out of [his] studio in the warehouse district," he is a very familiar face. When the neighborhood organization Sheridan Today and Yesterday melted down amid acrimonious infighting in 1998, Taylor was among the founders of its replacement, Sheridan Neighborhood Organization.
Taylor's biggest advantage over his fellow Greens is that he's running for an open seat in a liberal district. That said, the DFL-endorsed candidate, Diane Loeffler, remains the presumptive favorite. A longtime policy analyst with Hennepin County, Loeffler is a sharp and credible candidate who possesses an impressive grasp of the state's health care bureaucracy. ("Diane's a numbers wonk," Taylor says. "She can bury you with minutiae at the debates.")
The wild card in the race is 37-year-old carpenter Valdis Rozentals. Though he received the GOP endorsement, Rozentals seems to be a Republican in name only. His lawn signs make no mention of party affiliation (not a bad move in a district where Republicans are lucky to get 30 percent of the vote), and his platform is decidedly non-party line. He is pro-choice, wants the state to crack down on industrial polluters, and favors a radical expansion of Minnesota Care that would allow individuals and small businesses to buy into a medical program that currently serves the poor. (This proposal would put him sharply at odds with the Pawlenty administration.)
Rhetorically, at least, there is not much discernible difference between the candidates. All three talk about keystone issues such as health care, education, and the environment in similar terms; all three profess to share a vision for the future of Northeast that includes more small businesses and more tax relief for homeowners.
It is especially difficult to pin down Loeffler and Taylor on sharp distinctions. In Loeffler's view, it is mainly a matter of priorities. She points to Taylor's emphasis on food-safety issues. In joint appearances in which the candidates were asked what committees they would like to serve on, she notes, Taylor has mentioned that he would like to serve on the agriculture committee--a natural extension of his participation in the organic foods movement.
"Of all the thousands of doors I've knocked on, I've never had anyone raise an issue that that committee would have lead jurisdiction on," Loeffler says. "I want to serve on education, health care, and tax committees."
As is often the case in local campaigns that lack conspicuous ideological contrasts, the 59A race will likely come down to the first principle of politics: Which candidate do the voters know best and like most?
By the easiest barometer of such things--lawn signs--Taylor looks to be in pretty good shape. Currently, he has about 400 signs planted, mostly in the district's less affluent corners. It's an impressive showing, especially considering that most of the homeowner endorsements came as a result of Taylor's door-knocking.
"I don't know if all these people with signs will vote, but if they do, it's going to be a close race," notes Walt Dziedzic, the former City Council member, current park board commissioner, and unofficial mayor of Northeast. But, Dziedzic adds, signs don't vote. He recalls a campaign in the early '60s in which a candidate planted over 2,500 signs in Northeast.
"You know what," Dziedzic laughs. "He only got 200 votes."
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