Taking the Fifth

Mike Wohnoutka

Race is the perennial political topic of the 5th Ward, the place where the DFL political machine took hold in the '50s, where riots occurred in the '60s, and where the NAACP fought against gerrymandering in the '90s. Bounded by West Broadway to the north, Hennepin Avenue to the south, Xerxes Avenue to the west, and the Mississippi River to the east, the ward contains the largest minority population in Minneapolis. It also contains some of the city's most affluent white communities, chiefly in condo developments along the Mississippi and Hennepin.

Yet talking race in the 5th continues to be a dicey endeavor. "The race card has always been played in this ward," says former Urban League head Ron Edwards, "but the African American community has never benefited from it."

After the September primary, the contest for the ward's City Council seat looked like a cakewalk for Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, who easily beat her closest challenger, Thomas Johnson III. But then Johnson made an unprecedented move, teaming up with Travis Lee, a popular DJ on KMOJ-FM, to form the Unity Campaign; if Johnson is elected, he vows, Lee will be his City Council assistant. Johnson and Lee's combined primary votes put them within 300 votes of Cherryhomes. The result is a contest pitting a white woman against two black men at a time when race is back at the forefront of Minneapolis politics.

It's not the first time for either Johnson or Cherryhomes. In '89, both ran to unseat Van White, the man who made history as the city's first black Council member. White's strong union ties made him part of the North Side's old order, yet by the end of his decade-long tenure critics considered him an ineffective cog in the political machine. Johnson came into the race late and was not considered a serious threat. But Cherryhomes--then the head of the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council--marshalled many of the ward's political Young Turks to defeat White after a bitter campaign (at one point White likened Cherryhomes to a "Barbie doll").

During her two terms on the Council, Cherryhomes has matured into a consummate politician with a tendency to speak in sound bites, an easy laugh, and a new family (her husband is a lawyer with close ties to city government). But ask her about criticism in the ward and outside, and her humor develops a hard edge. "Saying that I can't represent my ward because I'm white," she says, "is like saying the mayor can't represent Minneapolis because she is black."

Johnson, by contrast, is an earnest man. Though he's never held public office he's well-known in the community as the 18-year administrator of Plymouth Avenue Medical Center, which his father founded. When he talks about Cherryhomes his voice fills with indignation that sometimes turns into barely controlled venom. "I have never totally felt that I've been running against just Jackie Cherryhomes," Johnson says. "I think that a lot of what is going on is related to trying to maintain control of the people who presently represent the DFL political machinery in the North Side. It is my opinion that certain individuals have turned their head when certain irregularities were brought to their attention."

During Cherryhomes's first term, back in '92, the 5th Ward changed. On the advice of a nonpartisan committee spearheaded by the NAACP, its boundaries were redrawn to increase minority chances of winning elections. Yet in a September 2 letter, Johnson alleges that to help Cherryhomes win the '93 election, she and city Director of Elections Joyce Swadner moved polling sites to locations that discourage black voters (the City Council determines precinct boundaries, but Swadner has the power to move actual polling sites).

"Three voting precincts in the downtown Hennepin Avenue area, consisting predominately of Caucasian residents, are found no more than two blocks away from each other," Johnson alleged in his letter to city officials. "African Americans who are in the majority in the peripheral precincts adjacent to downtown Minneapolis are forced to travel much further, transfer if using public transportation, and venture into areas identified by criminal statistics as one of the most dangerous areas of Minneapolis in order to exercise their right to vote."

Cherryhomes maintains that in many of the instances addressed in Johnson's letter, she and Swadner tried to meet the requirements of Minnesota Statute 204, a law that requires all polling sites to be handicap- and senior-citizen-accessible. "Wherever possible, we try to combine polling places with senior high rises," Cherryhomes says, "so that we can make it more accessible for seniors."

This doesn't sit well with Johnson, who notes that there is now no polling place at North High School, possibly the ward's most visible location, and that high-rise residents tend to vote along party lines. Johnson admits that his accusations are difficult to prove, and he has yet to win any of the lawsuits he's filed over the matter.  

Barely two weeks after its formation, the Unity Campaign got a major boost when the African American newspaper Insight ran an endorsement that began, "The opportunity for launching bold new Black leadership is at hand." That brought an angry response from Cherryhomes's husband, F. Clayton Tyler. "As a Black man, I find it extremely troubling that a publication such as Insight would endorse a candidate solely on race," he wrote in a letter to the editor. Tyler also charged that the Unity Campaign was illegal: Minnesota law, he argued, prohibited Johnson from promising a job to Lee in exchange for campaign support. On October 24 the Cherryhomes campaign filed complaints with the Hennepin County attorney general's office against Johnson as well as Insight (for violating an obscure state law that requires endorsements be placed on the editorial page) and the city's other African American newspaper, the Minneapolis Spokesman (for allegedly not charging Johnson for advertising).

Johnson, however, says he has not done anything inappropriate. He is also quick to point to Cherryhomes's Council assistant Brett McNeal, a star basketball player from North High School who went on to play at West Virginia and whose presence in Cherryhomes's office is widely considered a political boon.

"I asked Lee to join me because of what I saw in the primary," Johnson insists. "It only made sense to me that the person who was eliminated, but who had almost as many votes as I had in the primary--that person who had a great potential to pull the young people who make up the bulk of the demographics in our ward--should join our campaign. It would be stupid of me not to do so."

Interestingly, the same Insight issue that contained Tyler's letter also featured one from William McGaughey, a North Side landlord. It expressed a concern echoed by many Johnson supporters--that the debate over race and legal matters may distract from the issues that could convince voters to unseat Cherryhomes. "I'm White and am not attracted to Black candidates per se," McGaughey wrote. "I do, however, prefer Johnson because I think he is a better candidate... I started out liking Cherryhomes but, in substantive dealings with her, soon discovered she was a bully who plays politics with important issues such as crime."

Cherryhomes stands by her record. "I'm running because there are projects in the works that I would like to see to completion," she insists. And then she lists them rapid-fire: increasing home ownership, creating a strong industrial base along Washington Avenue, making neighborhoods safer.

Critics, however, claim that Cherryhomes has changed from the woman who ran back in '89, that she now believes in paternal rather than populist governing. She opposes public referendums on bond issues and spearheaded the City Council move to buy the Target Center. "I do not support referendum government," Cherryhomes says. "But I don't believe in using the city's tax dollars for the stadium. I'm waiting for the Legislature to decide that issue, but if they decide to build it, I want it in Minneapolis."

Cherryhomes is also drawing criticism for supporting Brighton Development Corp.'s riverfront project, where luxury homes sell for approximately $300,000 a pop. "That's like comparing apples to oranges," Cherryhomes says. "We have done more preservation of low-income rental units in my ward than in any other part of the city. I take pride in helping people who don't have housing options."

Johnson, however, claims the money could have been better used in developing businesses along West Broadway, the ward's main commercial artery and the focus of another longstanding controversy. Early in her tenure Cherryhomes initiated the West Broadway Avenue Land Use Study, and a development moratorium was imposed for its duration from September '91 to March '95. "There was a waiver process for businesses that wanted to open," Cherryhomes says, adding that the study was begun because "the people from the community felt we had too many used-car lots in the area." At that, Johnson scoffs: "Jackie is always hearing some voice from the community--some voice from the sky."

Chances are Johnson and Cherryhomes both will hear the voice of the community when residents vote November 4. Ward observers say that while the race has developed some punch, a Unity Campaign victory would come as a surprise, especially if the feeble mayoral contest results in a low turnout. Either way, Cherryhomes has publicly announced that this is the last time she will run for office in municipal government. "I think 12 years is long enough for anyone to be on the City Council," she says. When asked about rumors that she'll run for Congress next, Cherryhomes unleashes a full-throated laugh. "I think it's interesting that people are always wondering what I am going to do," she says.

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