The Education of Sharon Sayles Belton
THE MAYOR ORDERS A JACK Daniel's on the rocks. Then, bellied up to the bar at the Polish Palace, she surveys the room with no small sense of caution. It's just after 10:00 on a Saturday night, the last night of business for the northeast Minneapolis landmark, which is ending a run of 23 years. The place has been drunk dry. All that's left is fuzzy memories, empty bottles, and drunken patrons who aren't quite ready to go home.
"I'll get a drink," Sharon Sayles Belton says confidently. "I'm the mayor."
She's right, of course, and soon she's sipping her whiskey and awkwardly chatting up groups of people squished into red vinyl booths. With just five weeks left before Election Day, the mayor of Minneapolis is barhopping with former city council member Walt Dziedzic. She insists that in her previous two mayoral races, she ran citywide campaigns, but surprised reactions to her stint in Nordeast tonight proves that those campaigns were low-profile, to say the least.
Which is not to say that folks aren't happy to see her. As she meanders around the bar, she's swarmed by elderly ladies and thirtysomething working-class men, all clamoring to shake her hand or have their picture taken with her. Sayles Belton is tiny, and since this is a campaign stop and not an official mayoral activity, there is no security with her. At times the crush of people is intimidating, but Sayles Belton doesn't bat an eye.
She smoothes her royal-blue blazer, which tops a black blouse and black pants. An ever-present string of pearls circles her neck. She takes another sip of her JD, turns, touches someone's forearm, and asks, "Are you having fun?"
Sayles Belton asks this question a lot, to many of the people she meets. It's almost a conversational tic--except that the question seems genuine. It's preceded and followed by a pause and usually accompanied by some sort of physical contact. And in countless meet-and-greets, the question never fails to yield some sort of earnest answer, often one that traps her into listening to a lengthy personal tale. It's a gift for building support that many politicians would kill to have, but lately it hasn't been enough.
In the men's room, a 30-year-old man in a ball cap is pontificating. "I've never been a big fan of the mayor's until tonight," says Johnny Herlofsky, who has lived in Nordeast all his life and sells emergency sprinkler systems to building contractors. "But she took my heat as soon as she came in. She is very impressive one-on-one."
As Herlofsky zips up his jeans, he says Dziedzic asked him to spin a little bit on the mayor's behalf. He's known Dziedzic, an ex-cop and current member of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, since Herlofsky was a kid. And around here whatever Walt asks of folks, they do.
"I told her when she came in that she didn't look Polish," Herlofsky chuckles. "It's a lose-lose situation for a black person to come in here. I've never seen her here. It takes a lot of guts for her to come to the Polish Palace. We don't like most black people up here. Usually I can't stand her, but she seems cool tonight."
A half-hour after entering the bar, the mayor has made her way out the door. When she is safely outside, a female patron shouts out, "Don't raise our taxes, you bitch!" Then a drunken man follows by calling out to Sayles Belton, "You're a lesbian!" There's a shudder of laughter in the bar, but Sayles Belton doesn't hear any of it. She's already riding shotgun in Dziedzic's gold Oldsmobile 88 Royale.
FOR A WOMAN WHO skated to reelection in 1997, it's been a remarkably tough year. In the spring, R.T. Rybak rallied a surprising amount of support from delegates at the DFL caucus, in what was generally considered to be a crushing blow to Sayles Belton's campaign. The convention ended with a virtual deadlock, and the party failed to endorse a candidate.
In July Brian Herron, the council member who filled Sayles Belton's former Eighth Ward seat, pleaded guilty to extortion, casting something of a pall over all municipal incumbents seeking reelection. Plus, the city's bond rating was downgraded, bolstering Rybak and other critics who argue that Sayles Belton has been too supportive of downtown development. Finally, there was her second-place finish in the September primary.
The buzz from city hall to block clubs was that the mayor was out of touch. Or, more precisely, out of sight, too tethered to the hidden powers at work in city hall to really do any good for the constituency at large.
Her poor showing in the primary served as a dramatic wake-up call, though. Up until the primary, Sayles Belton had been stumping on such esoteric issues as her work with suburban mayors and the Metropolitan Council to look for help in tackling the metro area's affordable-housing problem, or her management of revitalization projects in the historically downtrodden Phillips neighborhood. Equally problematic is that Sayles Belton truly sees deals like the downtown Target store or the Block E development as evidence that she can bridge the divide between government and the private sector--and brags about them.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to her campaign, however, has been her seeming discomfort when it comes to talking to large audiences. By most accounts, when she's talking to supporters or to just a handful of people, Sayles Belton comes across as sharp, caring, and even visionary. On primary night, for example, Sayles Belton watched the election returns in a room with 60 people, most of whom she called by their first name. "The mayor," Dziedzic notes, "one-on-one, is very, very good."
But when she's faced with a large or potentially hostile group, that charisma too often gives way to wooden detachment. And this year, that's made it all the easier for her flamboyant opponent to distinguish himself from Sayles Belton and to tap some of the wealthy liberals who once supported her.
"There have been come-to-Jesus meetings with Sharon," says outgoing Second Ward council member Joan Campbell, a close friend. "You can't be home cooking every night at six o'clock for your family and still be running for mayor. You have to get up there and be making your campaign right."
Former state Sen. Carol Flynn concurs. "She has not been as visible as many people would have liked, and I understand that, but she isn't ever going to be controversial or flamboyant," says Flynn, who has worked on all three Sayles Belton mayoral bids, the first two as a campaign co-chair. "She has to stop playing mayor and start playing candidate. She'll be gone for an hour and a half talking about the city budget. I've tried to be very blunt with her that there is no tomorrow now. She won't get to go over the budget unless she gets out there."
In the weeks since the primary, Sayles Belton seems to have undergone a profound transformation, albeit one brought on by desperation. Now, with her political career on the line, she has finally come out swinging. Suddenly, she's everywhere. She's quicker to swat back at her fiery opponent. She sounds like she's firmly in charge. The question remains, though: Did the mayor reinvent herself in time to secure a third term?
IT'S 7:30 ON A SEPTEMBER MORNING, AND Sayles Belton and R.T. Rybak are sitting at adjacent tables in a basement conference room at the Nicollet Island Inn, going head to head at one of the many "mayoral forums" they will attend by the time the campaign is over. Today's breakfast is sponsored by the Jefferson Center, a Minneapolis think tank that deals with various social issues. About 75 people are in attendance, including state workers, local businesspeople, Minneapolis landlords, and various city and neighborhood activists.
Both candidates are remarkably flat. Sayles Belton stands stiffly behind the podium reading from notes, her voice alternating between a whisper and a piercing tone. "I have never been a mayor that pits Minneapolis against St. Paul, downtown versus the neighborhoods, or blacks versus whites," she says. "But the thing I am against is the cycle of poverty that has hit the city. The city has never been better in some regards, and now we are at the point where we must deal with poverty to make things better." She goes on to sound an even flatter note, citing a study that listed Minneapolis as "the nation's second-hippest city after San Francisco," and then ends by concluding that she wants to make this city better for children. There is polite applause.
Rybak grabs the microphone, strides out in front of the podium, and begins speaking perhaps a little too confidently. "As mayor of Minneapolis," he begins, before catching himself. "As candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, I want to let you know that I know this city moves outside of city hall. It moves in rooms like this."
He goes on to disparage what he calls a "deeply divided city hall" that should "be divided--or rather united." Rybak takes digs at the downgrading of the city's bond rating, and the mayor's record on affordable housing. "Our city has destroyed more housing than it has built in the last five years," he rails. He concludes by praising the mayor for her leadership while adding that it's time for a change. He gets the tepid applause Sayles Belton received.
For the next 25 minutes, the candidates take questions from the audience. Sayles Belton goes into great detail about various topics, while Rybak mostly shares anecdotes about problems he's noticed since he's been on the campaign trail. He usually wraps up these anecdotes by describing a need for "a climate of change around city hall."
The issue of the new central library in downtown Minneapolis comes up. Rybak wonders aloud what will happen if the city doesn't get the facility fast, saying it worries him to see groups of black youth loitering downtown. "Think of the 12-year-old African-American kid in this city," he urges. "Follow him around and think about where he belongs."
Belton begins her turn by saying, "Oh, I'm so excited about this question," but misses the chance to pounce on Rybak's logic, instead launching into a lecture on the library's financing. She concludes by softly saying, "I was that African-American 12-year-old girl walking around downtown Minneapolis, and me and my girlfriends used to go to that library," she says. "I want a new library for this city."
Later she will admit that she was taken aback by Rybak's anecdote. "It was offensive," she says. "But I couldn't think that I could just stand there and say that. I assume that everyone in the room took offense at it. To me, it was patronizing and racist."
SAYLES BELTON IS 50 YEARS OLD, THE married mother of three, but she giggles that she feels 35. She grew up in the mostly black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, the third of five girls born to Bill and Marian Sayles. When she was a child, much of the neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94. "The State of Minnesota killed Rondo," she recalls. "And as I kid I watched them do it. I was about eight or ten, and I remember friends' houses getting torn down and households being divided."
It's a rare, reflective moment. Sayles Belton is nibbling on a taco salad and sipping half a glass of cabernet at a burger joint called the Lake Street Garage near her home. It's 9:00 on a mid-October weeknight, and her conversational tone glides from street tough to meandering policy wonk to cautious idealist. She asks, as she often does, to not be quoted directly if she curses, which she manages to do only once in a number of appearances and interviews.
Sayles Belton's father was the first black car salesman in St. Paul. Her grandfather, Bill Sr., was a neighborhood activist. "I think that's where a lot of it came from," she says, lighting up at the chance to talk about her upbringing. "I always remember my grandfather going to a neighborhood meeting here, and another meeting downtown, and another meeting over there."
When Sayles Belton was a ninth grader, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Richfield. She was the only black kid in East Junior High, a situation that she says "wasn't very pleasant." One time, she recalls, a group of students were to join hands for an experiment about electrical current, and one boy wouldn't hold her hand. "There were all kinds of affirmations of racism there for me at that time," she says without bitterness. "And it's just stupid and hurtful. You think, 'How dumb.' That's how you react to it."
The following year her mother relocated to Cleveland, so Sayles Belton and one of her sisters moved to south Minneapolis to live with their father and stepmother, a strict woman with the improbable nickname Fluffy (which still reduces Sayles Belton to fits of laughter). When she was 15, Sayles Belton announced that she wanted to look for a job. Fluffy told her she had all of her life to work; during high school she might want to be a volunteer of some sort instead. So Sayles Belton filled out an application to be a candy striper at the now-closed Mount Sinai Hospital while she attended Central High School.
"I learned about loneliness, hurt, and kindness at the hospital," she says. "You don't take pay and you don't take tips, so you do nice things so people say nice things back. In that situation, it's all about human frailty and compassion."
From there Sayles Belton went on to work as a nurse's aide and spent some time in Mississippi as a civil-rights worker. In 1973 she graduated from Macalester College, where she had studied biology and sociology with an eye toward becoming a pediatrician. After a stint as a parole officer, she worked with victims of sexual assault, eventually co-founding the Harriet Tubman Shelter for Battered Women.
Meanwhile, she had become active in neighborhood politics. In 1983 Sayles Belton ran for city council in the south side's Eighth Ward (which stretches roughly from 25th to 50th streets between Interstate 35W on the west and Chicago Avenue on the east) and won. Once in office, she enjoyed a close relationship with Mayor Don Fraser, and she garnered a reputation as someone who could unite disparate factions. In 1990 she was elected council president--a powerful position in Minneapolis, which has a weak-mayor, strong-council form of government. She wasn't content to stay in that post for long, though; in 1993 Sayles Belton announced she was running for mayor of Minneapolis, a position never before held by an African American or a woman.
IF SAYLES BELTON IS CAMPAIGNING IN some new neighborhoods this year, politically she is on familiar ground: In 1993 she faced many of the same challenges she does today. There were five open city-council seats. The economic picture was uncertain. Safety was a pervasive fear, with growing gang violence and rising racial tensions. Mayor Fraser and the city council were widely perceived as beholden to big development, and the city had just lost a $31 million lawsuit brought by a developer who had pulled out of a deal to put a glass dome over Nicollet Mall.
The 1993 election started as a four-way race between DFLer Rip Rapson, chief aide to Don Fraser; Richard Jefferson, a DFL state representative from Minneapolis; council member Steve Cramer; and Sayles Belton. "Rip Rapson was courting the progressive wing of the DFL like Rybak is now," recalls Peter McLaughlin, the Hennepin County Commissioner who has co-chaired all three of Sayles Belton's mayoral runs.
Though Sayles Belton was an early favorite and led the pack in fundraising in what was then the most expensive mayoral race in the city's history, by the time the DFL convention came around, her campaign had stumbled. In the wee morning hours, the party's delegates could not make a clear decision after several ballots between Rapson, who like Rybak had never held an elected office, and Sayles Belton. Neither candidate earned the endorsement.
Just before the filing deadline in July, John Derus, who had lost a bid to be reelected to the Hennepin County Board the year before, joined the race. He and Rapson quickly became the favorites to survive the primary; most people figured Sayles Belton would come in a distant third. But she had money and a relatively sophisticated campaign that consisted of three phone banks and a staff of ten. She also had support from both political insiders and interest groups.
"Her race then was a cause because she was a woman," recalls Carol Flynn, who recently retired after 11 years of serving south Minneapolis as a state senator. "There was a remarkable excitement around her. I know one friend who delayed a trip to Japan at the time just so she could contribute to Sharon's campaign." Sayles Belton jockeyed hard to take gay and lesbian supporters away from Cramer, and she wooed black voters away from the fading campaign of Richard Jefferson, the race's other black candidate.
But most important, she won Don Fraser's endorsement. Perhaps hoping to ease racial tensions, Fraser turned on Rapson, his former aide, and helped Sayles Belton lobby for support among those Flynn calls "the rich people who live around the lakes." Sayles Belton won the primary with 28 percent of the vote. Derus placed second with 20 percent. A few weeks later, she won the election just as handily. Strong showings in the Fifth and Eighth wards, home to many poor minorities, helped put her over the top. Suddenly, the black girl from Rondo was making national headlines.
IN THE HIGH-NOON SUNLIGHT OF A clear autumnal Sunday, Sharon Sayles Belton strides up the concrete driveway of a stark-white stucco home overlooking Lake Harriet. As a bespectacled, college-age kid opens a storm door onto a gracefully decorated foyer, a couple of campaign staffers converge, one taking the mayor's purse. Sayles Belton continues inside to the home's sunken living room.
Inside, Hadassah Lieberman, wife of former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, is putting in an appearance at a fundraiser for Sayles Belton. Assembled are some 50 DFL stalwarts, among them outgoing council member Campbell, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, former MCDA head and U.S. Senate candidate Rebecca Yanisch, former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe, and Peter McLaughlin. Guests are sipping white wine or sparkling water and helping themselves to a spread catered by D'Amico that includes caviar, kiwi, and various cheeses.
Lieberman's appearance has made this a media event, and she and the mayor embrace, then chat, arm in arm, for the cameras. Lieberman, an angular blond woman, talks vaguely about what Sayles Belton has done for Minneapolis, including "making it one of the six cities in the country that is a 24-hour city, and that's huge," she says. Mostly, though, she talks about all the hard work Sayles Belton did as chair of the Democratic presidential campaign in Minnesota, thanking Sayles Belton "for positioning the Gore-Lieberman ticket" locally.
There has been speculation that much of the lethargy of Sayles Belton's current campaign had to do with the possibility that she had moved on, at least mentally, to Washington. Sayles Belton denies this, although in reflective moments she admits that she expected to be tapped for a post in a Gore administration. "That's something that happens when you are mayor of a city like this," she says, noting rhetorically that she's a black woman, something that naturally thrusts her onto the party's national radar. Still, she says, she always planned to run for a third term.
"Everybody was making a big to-do about me and the Gore campaign," she complains, forgetting her modulated public tone and allowing her irritation to show. "Everybody was saying that Gore's gonna get elected and telling me, 'The mayor's gonna go to Washington.'
"It's nice to be highly thought of and all that stuff," she continues. "Look, I've been on this list before. I got a call from the Clinton administration to consider running, I mean, consider being secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I filled out all the FBI applications. But nothing was promised to me at any point. Nothing was promised to me with a Gore victory. I already learned you can't bank on that. My only objective has been to run for a third term, and that's it."
She does concede that she'd consider running for statewide office, and then she segues on to an opinion many have floated about her in recent months: "Gore," she opines, "couldn't turn it on en masse."
Back at the Lake Harriet fundraiser, that criticism seems particularly ironic. Sayles Belton is quite obviously in her element here: She calls nearly everyone by first name. Her voice is loud but resonant, a far cry from the shrill pitch that too often comes out in front of larger crowds. She rattles off her résumé firmly and clearly, occasionally raising her right thumb.
Sayles Belton talks about her response to the city's 1995 crime wave and about her stance on affordable housing. And then she talks up her leadership on something called the Clean Water Partnership, a somewhat controversial project that thus far has cost $2.4 million but led to cleaner lakes. Clean water is an issue that Rybak has recently latched onto, and the mayor is swinging back. "R.T.," she barks into a Minnesota Public Radio microphone, "are you listening?"
"People have said that Sharon Sayles Belton doesn't brag on herself," she concludes to a smattering of laughter. "And that's true. But this campaign, I will." There's fervent applause in the living room. It is the most impassioned speech of the campaign, and possibly a turning point for her and her stump-speech rhetoric. Too bad she's given it to a roomful of die-hard supporters.
THE MAYOR'S REELECTION CAMPAIGN in 1997 was, in the words of Randy Schubring, "on autopilot." Coasting on a receding crime wave and a good economy, Sayles Belton won the DFL endorsement uncontested. Independent Barbara Carlson, a former city-council member and radio talk-show host, emerged as the only real challenger. Carlson pounded on Sayles Belton's lack of visibility but never really created problems for the mayor. Sayles Belton won by a comfortable margin, 55 percent to 45 percent.
But in retrospect, Carlson's showing foretold some of this year's problems. Carlson, who actually fared slightly better against Sayles Belton than John Derus had four years earlier, carried the First and Third wards, underscoring Sayles Belton's historic lack of support in the city's northeast quadrant. (Carlson also carried the 12th Ward along the city's south side and the far-north Fourth Ward.) More than that, Carlson had been more than 19 points behind in polls in July, suggesting that some of the energy around Sayles Belton was waning.
Since then, Jesse Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial upset has shown that there was growing dissatisfaction with the DFL. And over time Sayles Belton has come to represent that DFL machine, one that many have concluded is not progressive--or fiscally responsible--enough.
More recently, Ralph Nader's presidential bid as a Green Party candidate has put chinks in the Democratic Party's armor on a national level. And perhaps nowhere in the country has that been more apparent than in Minneapolis, where Nader pulled more than ten percent of the vote. The Greens have made a strong showing this year in city politics, with four candidates going on to the general city council election.
In other words, the time was ripe for someone like R.T. Rybak, positioning himself as a progressive outsider, to tap into that disenchantment. The mayor's supporters like to accuse Rybak of being shallow on certain issues, to point to his lack of elected experience, and to claim that he is trying to be all things to all people. (Sayles Belton herself calls him "the Music Man.") But they concede that Rybak has managed to seduce away many of the same voters who put Sayles Belton into office because they perceived Fraser as too much of an insider. "R.T. has gotten those people who went to Sharon because of Fraser," admits Flynn. "He has managed to gain support without getting the core, middle-ground voters."
One of Rybak's converts is outgoing Sixth Ward council member Jim Niland, who briefly chaired Sayles Belton's 1993 campaign. "My hope initially was that she would run a progressive agenda, but it's clear her priorities involve corporate welfare, which is something neither liberals nor conservatives like," says Niland, who is now advising Rybak. "It's clear to me what a failure her administration has been, and that's put her out of touch."
It's a perception that insiders and critics alike are blaming on Sayles Belton's mayoral staff, who they suggest have hindered the best efforts of her campaign workers. "Personally you meet her and you think, 'Well, she's cool,'" opines Sarah Janacek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota and one of a number of Minneapolis Republicans who have grudgingly endorsed Sayles Belton. "But there's none of that when she is in the public as mayor. The only thing that makes sense is poor staffing. They don't know where to put her at the right times to garner attention."
For example, Natalie Johnson Lee, a Green Party candidate trying to unseat council president Jackie Cherryhomes, had hoped that she and the mayor could help each other's campaign. As a black woman running for city council, Johnson Lee assumed that Sayles Belton would be eager to take her under her wing. But so far, she says, there's "no real relationship." Johnson Lee sees this as a mistake: Sayles Belton could pick up disaffected black voters in the Fifth Ward by aligning herself with Johnson Lee. But the mayor has been reluctant to turn against Cherryhomes, who, campaign watchers say, wants a low voter turnout.
"Maybe the mayor doesn't think she needs the black votes up here," Johnson Lee grouses. "We could have a great partnership with the mayor, but she doesn't seem to want to be seen around here." Tellingly, mayoral campaign staffers curtly note that Sayles Belton always supports candidates endorsed by the DFL.
SOME OF SAYLES BELTON'S HANDICAPS are unique to incumbents. "There's a push and pull between being a candidate for mayor and being mayor," says Randy Schubring, her campaign communications director. "And sometimes being mayor wins.
"We are dealing with someone who has been in public speaking for 18 years and we aren't telling the mayor what to do," he continues. "But one thing I've learned about her is that she has a message that's worthwhile, and she wants to educate people on her message. She can go on for 20 minutes to answer one question, and it's compelling to me as a policy wonk. I love it, but people don't respond to that in campaigns like they do in small groups. We never tell her what to say--the message of results, integrity, and hard work is hers--but we urge her to talk in bullet points. We tell her she can't always educate."
He and other campaign staffers have asked her to be more concise and authoritative when she speaks. They have pushed her to speak of past accomplishments rather than simply future goals.
They have also started counting votes. "We are hitting Northeast, and the north side, going after voters that we think are 'persuadable,'" says Schubring. "There are votes that are literally up for grabs among the moderates in this city, those who are more typically conservative." (According to Niland, the Rybak campaign also sees votes in the same areas, wards that have never supported Sayles Belton.)
"We're not sure exactly what R.T. is, but this is probably the first time Sharon has run against someone who is not more conservative than her," Flynn adds. Because of this, she says, Sayles Belton has begun to play to her roots. "In order to win this one, she's got to help [voters] understand that she is working-class through and through."
The biggest change, however, is that she is suddenly willing to take Rybak to task. This was clear on October 12, when the mayor sat down with Rybak at Twin Cities Public Television's studios for an informal debate on Almanac. "There are no opening speeches, no stopwatches, and no podiums," warned co-host Eric Eskola by way of opening the debate.
Rybak began by arguing that the city has lurched from "crisis to crisis" under the mayor's leadership; Sayles Belton calmly assured viewers that Minneapolis has never been more stable. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks, she pointed out, she has put in long hours behind the scenes to assure a high level of public safety.
Rybak raised the downgraded bond rating; Sayles Belton cut him off. "Minneapolis is a billion-dollar corporation," she said, claiming that she's brought businesses back to the city. The mayor didn't quit there, however. She dissected Rybak's claims about his public-service record. "Bringing Chez Bananas and a couple other restaurants downtown as president of the Downtown Council pales in comparison to my record," she insisted. "Pales!"
The mayor deflected barbs about the Brian Herron scandal, declaring, "Brian Herron's behavior is Brian Herron's behavior." Rybak questioned the lag in bringing on an independent attorney to investigate other possible misdeeds at city hall, but then quickly retreated. "I don't believe that Sharon was directly involved in the scandal in any way at all," he added.
When asked what her favorite job was, Sayles Belton replied that it was when she was a parole officer, when, she jokingly added, she could "supervise men." She and co-host Cathy Wurzer snickered, but Rybak and Eskola shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It was her first clear victory in countless forums with Rybak.
Along with other recent appearances, the televised debate suggested that the aggressive characteristics that gave Rybak an early lead could backfire, says Bill Hillsman, the local political advertising guru who helped U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura pull off surprise upsets. "R.T. doesn't really hit her deficiencies, since they are alike on many issues," Hillsman opines. "He hits leadership, leadership, leadership. It's very dangerous to just assume that people are just tired of her. It's dangerous because Sharon has plenty of supporters out there." Hillsman worked on Sayles Belton's campaign in 1993. Both campaigns contacted him about this election, but he says neither signed him up.
Still, he can't help watching the campaign and at this point he believes it's a tossup. "R.T. has certainly done a better job than Sharon in getting his type of voters--those that are politically active--to latch onto his campaign," he observes. But "in the past, when push comes to shove, [Sayles Belton] has been a very good candidate. She's a very good closer--I'll give her that."
LATE IN THE CAMPAIGN, SAYLES BELTON spent an evening at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on the University of Minnesota's West Bank, giving a speech to student DFLers. About 16 students sat in a classroom, rifling through three pizza boxes from Papa John's. The mayor brought a prepared speech and rambled for about 30 minutes on her record, her goals, and how the mayor's job is mostly "consensus-building." Though impressive in its attention to detail, it felt like a college lecture.
When she was done, a black woman, a 22-year-old senior by the name of Alicia Bennett, wanted to know how the city could be shutting down elementary schools if the mayor's record on children and education was so strong. The mayor explained that while she has no direct control over the school board, it's an area where she seeks to have some influence. For about ten minutes, she explained that some schools will close but others have opened.
Bennett seemed less than pacified, and when the question-and-answer period was over, the mayor walked right over to Bennett. "I've met you before," Bennett said. "You don't remember me? You owe me an apology."
Mayor and student scurried out to the hallway, where Sayles Belton listened as Bennett complained that she had contacted the mayor's office to find out how to work for her campaign, to no avail. Sayles Belton, genuinely chagrined, took down her name and phone number.
Bennett wasn't done, however. "Your campaign, it's depressing," she scolded. "I know you. You are warm, and you are focused, and you care. But you have an inability to convey the human element in your campaign. And it's sad. R.T. does it, and everything he talks about, he just picks up from you. It makes him look like he cares more than you. To me, it's sad."
Sayles Belton, perhaps reminded of herself 30 years earlier, did not recoil. "I hear you," she said quietly, looking at the floor. "I hear you."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Richfield cop shoves, hits Somali teen [video]
- Buy your family season tickets at the new Vikings Stadium for a mere $17,000
- Landon Steele's anti-hipster, anti-Black Lives Matter rant goes viral