The Life of Brian Herron

Wing Young Huie

Three-fourths of a turkey sandwich is staring up at Brian Herron from a clear plastic pod. He keeps eyeing the food, reaching toward it, and then pulling his hands back to the edge of the table.

The morning's meeting still knots his brow. It was standing room only in City Council chambers as dozens of angry citizens--many of them constituents or longtime friends of his--spoke in protest of a revision of the city's civil rights ordinance.

It's moments like that, Herron says, that make him dislike elected office. If he votes the way the mayor and a number of his colleagues want him to, he'll help punch holes in a 15-year-old rule that requires companies doing business with Minneapolis to file an affirmative action plan, clearing the way for Dayton Hudson Corp.'s new downtown Target store. If he votes the way the angry citizens want him to, he'll incur the wrath of politicians who hold de facto veto power over projects he has meticulously pieced together for his economically depressed ward: "Maybe I don't need Target," he says. "But I need things done on Lake Street."

Today, Herron has not been forced to cast a vote; the council has agreed to take up the matter another day, perhaps with less public scrutiny. But an hour after the meeting, the tension still has a lock on his craw. "I don't blame people for being skeptical," he says. "It's a dangerous political climate. I don't blame them for thinking that this change in the civil rights ordinance is the first step and the first change of many to come."

He picks up his sandwich, gets it halfway to his mouth, exhales before putting it back down untouched. "I'm not naive. In my heart, I know what's going on here."

Another day, a later hour, and the council member is listening to a different assortment of friends, neighbors, and constituents. His workday is nearly 14 hours old, yet miraculously his dry-cleaner-crisp suit has failed to collect a single speck of lint. The gold cross he often wears in place of a tie still hangs at the center of his chest, precisely the same distance from each lapel. He's 43 and looks a decade younger. He is taking meticulous notes.

But under the table, his right leg is jiggling manically. He's tired and hungry and has doubtless reminded himself that the complaints parading before him are all too real to the people who air them. At the moment, about a dozen residents of the 10 blocks stretching south from Lake Street between Nicollet and I-35W are venting about what the city has and hasn't done for them lately. Arrayed around the tables are bureaucrats from several state and city agencies whom Herron cajoled into attending.

A woman from the Department of Solid Waste and Recycling has just finished a Twin Peaks-ian spiel on the karmic value of organizing litter brigades, and Herron is trying gently to guide the meeting to its close. A retiree in the audience says she has one more topic. She's the archetype of the well-meaning neighborhood busybody, and Herron is trying not to giggle.

There's a single mother on her block getting evicted for complaining that her kids are being eaten by fleas, the woman says. The landlord doesn't want to pay to fumigate or to haul away a roll of rotting carpet recently torn out of the duplex, so it's sitting in back of the house.

"Oh, God," says Herron, repeating the address. "Can we get someone out there tomorrow?" The garbage lady asks where exactly the carpet has been dumped. If it's inside the fence, it's a job for the city's Department of Inspections. Conscious of the embarrassment creeping across the face of an inspector at the table, Herron doesn't remonstrate, but simply presses the man to fit a visit into his morning schedule.

The meeting is identical in theme and tone to the gatherings with block clubs and neighborhood associations Herron attends several nights a week throughout his ward, a chunk of the city that runs from Lake Street to the Richfield city line, and from I-35W roughly to 11th Avenue. Its northern neighborhoods are among the poorest in the city; crime and housing are persistent problems. The southern portions are mostly well-off and have concerns centering on transit and airport noise. In 1990--the most recent year for which census data were available--about half of Herron's 29,000 constituents were white; more than 10,000 were black, more than 2,000 were Asian, and nearly 1,400 were Native American. (Hispanics were not counted separately.)

As the lone person of color on the City Council, Herron might be a major media presence, perhaps even a political rising star like his predecessor, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. In fact, the bulk of the ink he has earned in nearly six years in office has been the result of an ongoing murmuring campaign on the part of a few anonymous cops who seem to want to paint him as some kind of Midwestern Marion Barry. The image is laughable in contrast to the mild-mannered man Herron's friends and colleagues describe; if anything, some concede privately, he may not be confrontational enough for the cutthroat environment at City Hall.  

Of course, many politicians start out this way--claiming to despise the political game, only to become masters at it. What distinguishes Herron is that while he has learned to play, he has never begun to like it--and that now, a mere five years after beginning his political career, he is considering dropping out. "The political arena is a difficult arena, especially when you are the only person of color on a council of 13," he says. "It's difficult to be a part of that, difficult to watch things happen and be a part of them happening and know they're not in the best interest of the public.

"Very little of what we do in government is on behalf of the common person, the poor person. I am part of that hypocrisy, even in the middle of trying to inspire change."

The son of the pastor of Zion Baptist Church is no stranger to confrontation--in fact, he was raised in the middle of it. One of Minneapolis's most influential black churches, Zion has a long history of political and social activism. It played a key role in the election of mayor Hubert Humphrey in 1945, and in the subsequent passage of the city's civil rights ordinance, one of the first in the nation. Ever since then, its leaders have been prominent spokespeople on topics including discrimination, segregation, and police brutality.

"From the infancy of the Black church, the role of the Black minister has been dualistic," Willa Grant Battle, herself a minister, wrote in her 1979 University of Minnesota master's thesis Black Churches in Minneapolis. "Sometimes the preacher spent more time fighting injustice and trying to improve the living condition of the Black community than he actually spent preaching the Word. Black ministers, for the most part, have felt the need to minister to the 'whole person,' recognizing that man is both spiritual and has basic human needs outside of the church circle."

In 1970, the pastorate of Zion Baptist had been vacant for nearly two years. After hearing guest sermons from a number of candidates, the congregation elected Curtis Herron of Kansas City, Kan. He packed up his wife Viola and four kids, Yolande, Brian, Dedra, and Dana, and moved to Minneapolis.

The family arrived during a volatile time in the history of both Zion and the city. The nation had enjoyed several decades of slow progress toward legal racial equality and integration. But most black families were still desperately poor and had few opportunities to get ahead. In 1967 those unfulfilled promises exploded into race riots in cities including Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In Minneapolis, police bought World War I-style helmets, painted them black, and conducted riot training. Violence eventually erupted along Plymouth Avenue; buildings along the commercial strip were burned, stores were looted, and a handful of people were shot. Gov. Harold LeVander sent in 600 National Guard troops to quell the disturbance.

Throughout this period Zion was seen as an "integrationist" church, its official history (published in 1992) notes. Curtis Herron, fresh from divinity school and sporting an afro, "represented the prevalent mood of the country, which had moved from the 'Negro' Civil Rights period to a new mood--the Black Revolution."

The Rev. Herron soon took positions on the boards of a number of community organizations, including the United Way and NAACP. He opened his church to activists in search of meeting space. The NAACP lawsuit that forced the desegregation of Minneapolis's public schools was organized during meetings at Zion. Brian Herron, then in his late teens, recalls a father who "wasn't afraid to challenge the system on injustices and wrongs. Part of me wants to be like him, and part of me says I could never be like him."

Neither man remembers exactly what year it was, but both point to an incident--possibly in 1972--at the Aquatennial's Torchlight Parade as an example of the events that helped shape Brian Herron. The festival was controversial at the time, with different racial and ethnic groups picketing it throughout the late '60s and early '70s. "The Aquatennial, for as big as it was and as much as was spent on it, it had a lot to do with white folks and not much to do with black folks," recalls Curtis Herron.

To this day, Brian Herron says he has no idea how he ended up getting arrested. A group of black children ran out into the street to walk behind the parade, he recalls, as he was starting back toward the bus stop to go home. He saw a sea of flashing lights. "The next thing you know, I was out in the street and the cops were swinging and I went down."  

He was taken to the downtown jail along with several other teens from Zion, then released to his father. As the Herrons were riding home in their car, the reverend blew up. How could Brian get caught up in a fracas like that, he demanded to know. "But Dad, I didn't do anything wrong," Herron says he protested. "I know that," came the angry reply. It was a long time, Brian Herron says, before he understood what his father was talking about.

Meanwhile, he was getting angry himself. Having graduated from Washburn High School, he enrolled at historically black Clark Atlanta University in Georgia; he quit after two years and came back to Minneapolis to marry a young woman who had a child from a previous relationship and was pregnant with his daughter Nicole. The couple later had a son, Brian Jr.

Herron is vague about the specifics but says that during this time of his life he hurt a lot of people, many of them "strangers who didn't deserve what I did." Hennepin County courts have no records of anything but traffic violations under his name, but he says that at 22 he spent a night in jail on assault charges that were eventually dismissed. Herron says he was arrested after instigating a fist fight with a group of young white men who had been taunting him and his friends.

"There was a time when I had a deep-seated hatred for white people," he says. "My sick mind had made me hateful to white people. I used to get angry when someone would say something to me."

For years after he left college, Herron drifted from job to job, working briefly for firms like North Star Steel, where he was the only African American in the billet-handling department, feeding hot steel into giant machines. "Most of the guys weren't friendly; they were very hard-core white men," he says. "They were badasses and we got along just fine after a while." Eventually he was sidelined by an injury.

After his recovery, someone at Zion told Herron about an open job at Sperry Corp., the former defense contractor and precursor to Unisys. He ended up as a computer operator and, as he puts it, "really began to discover I had a brain." He was quickly promoted to a different department where he tested PCs.

Things weren't going so well at home, however. His marriage was breaking up, and the friction following the separation from his wife (they didn't actually divorce for 10 years) along with a job transfer to Houston kept him from seeing much of the kids. "That started my downhill spiral," he says. "I missed my kids; my life was just not right. I was still working long hours, but it got to a point where my boss was accusing me of things I hadn't done. I ended up quitting. I thought I could just go get another job."

During the next year--a time he spent without any job prospects or unemployment benefits--Herron's mind often became clouded with what he calls "the madness." Then 32, he had constant thoughts of illicit ways out of his jam. He tried crack cocaine once ("I inhaled," he quips now). "I climbed in and out of garbage cans, collecting cans. I would sell the cans and put gas in the car and go look for a job. And then the madness would come. I would think, 'You could sell drugs, you could stop that lady with the purse.' Every time I heard voices, I would stop at the nearest church. I wanted to be a good father, and I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I did a lot of soul-searching and agonizing. I thought I'd end up dead or in jail."

One day, the madness raging in his brain, Herron cruised past Pleasant Greater Baptist Church in one of Houston's dilapidated neighborhoods. If he could get inside and pray, he thought, maybe he could vanquish the menacing thoughts. "I ran to the door. It was locked. I kept trying doors, but they were all locked. I said, 'God, have I been so bad you'd lock me out?'" It was, he was sure, the end.

As he prepared to drive off, he noticed a back door he hadn't tried. It opened into the sanctuary. "I lay there on the floor with my face pressed into the carpet. I was crying and pleading." He asked God what he wanted of him.  

Instead of a celestial response came a tap on the shoulder from an old man who asked what was wrong. Herron says he just kept blubbering. "The man looked at me and said, 'Son, stop running. God has something that he wants you to do, and you're not going to have any peace until you do it.' Then he said, 'How did you get in here?' And I said, 'Through that door.' And he said, 'I just used my key to come through that door.'"

Shortly after that, Herron got a job dismantling a steel mill. The three black men already on the job were cowed by the foreman, he says; they would shuffle and call every white man "boss man."

One day the supervisor came up to him: "Boy, get your ass over there and..." Herron didn't hear the rest of the instructions. "I said, 'Sir, I'll do whatever you want me to do, but I'm not your child. My name is Brian Herron and all you have to do is tell me what you want.' He said, 'Brian, would you go over there and help so-and-so,' and then he gave me a dollar raise." Herron lasted longer on that job than the foreman, not leaving until the mill had been completely disassembled.

Eventually, however, he was laid off, and the madness came again. He went back to the church where his personal miracle had occurred and again found it locked. This time he ended up in a nearby field shrieking at God: "What do you want?" A breeze came up and Herron says he heard a voice say, "Go ye therefore into the world preaching the gospel." Herron weeps as he tells the story. He stood there in the field and bargained with God. Fine, he says he eventually replied. He would minister, but not in a church.

He called home and asked his father if he could come stay. "I know you all have heard this before," he said, insisting he was ready to rebuild his life. "I said I had money for a bus ticket if my father would only come pick me up. He said, 'Son, I'm sending you a plane ticket.'"

Curtis Herron says his son exaggerates the extent of his youthful misdeeds. "He's so much more mild than I am, he's so much less strident than I. At my age I am a reconciler. But in my youth I was not. I was a polarizer, I was angry. I don't see that in him. I think that's remarkable, and I often tell him that he has a wisdom I admire. Maybe he got it from his mother, but he didn't get it from me.

"Brian is able to get a lot more done. He's not an assimilationist, but he's not confrontational."

Back home, Herron married Pilot City Health Center intake worker Lisa Wilson and began considering himself a father to her son and her young brother, who lived with the couple. He quickly landed two jobs, one as a hall monitor at Minneapolis's South High School, the other at a plating company. But the job he really wanted was with the Minneapolis Police Department's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit. His application was turned down.

"They said I needed experience," he explains. "The old me would have said, 'See, white folks don't want me.' The new me said, 'How do I get experience?'" C.C.P./SAFE suggested a $5-an-hour internship; he didn't blink at the figure, still impressed that "I'd get paid to get neighbors to talk to each other." In 1990 he was offered a job replacing C.C.P. specialist Jim Niland, who left his position to take a seat on the City Council.

Not long into the job, Herron says, his supervisors suggested that he was going out too much without his uniformed partner, and that they were concerned about his safety. But he lived in the neighborhood, Herron says he patiently explained, and it was important for him to be seen without police.

At the same time, he adds, he gained an appreciation for how hard it is to be a cop: "I went from hating the police to understanding what they do and how they operate. I saw my role as a bridge between the police and the community. I always felt like I was in the middle."

Retired MPD Ofcr. Steve Revor, one of Herron's C.C.P. partners, recalls that he and Herron often "put across a kind of good-guy, bad-guy" image when dealing with troublemakers. "I think sometimes when people would say, 'I'm never gonna deal drugs again,' he'd actually believe them," he says, and adds that Herron was never able to let go of a case. "He'd be on the telephone talking to one individual who had a problem and he'd sit there for an hour listening to one person on there bawling," says Revor. "The job was his vehicle for being able to go out and help people."  

In 1993, Herron's third year with C.C.P., Sharon Sayles Belton announced she would vacate her 8th Ward council post to run for mayor of Minneapolis. "We needed somebody good in that seat. We couldn't let just anyone take it," says Wizard Marks, a longtime neighborhood activist and founder of the recently shuttered Chicago Lake Safety Center. She and other community workers approached Herron. "He's sweet-tempered, very personable, he's got a dimple--which never hurts," she grins. "People genuinely like the man because he's straight-up. He doesn't make outrageous promises."

At first Herron resisted the idea of running. Friends told him he "dressed too black," that he cared too much what people thought of him. "My wife said, 'You know they're going to look into your past.'" And Herron knew it wouldn't be hard to find his transgressions. "But I said, 'I want young people to see that you can make mistakes and rebound from them.' We always talk about what great people Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were, but we never talk about the mistakes they made getting there."

Marks recalls election night 1993. Herron's people were assembled at the Johnnie Baker American Legion Post on Fourth Avenue. At about 9 p.m. the early-return numbers hit critical mass: Herron was beating neighborhood activist Alice Anderson by a landslide. "We were all jumping around hooting and hollering and screaming. Brian looked like a deer caught in headlights," she remembers.

In hindsight, Marks says the moment seems prophetic. Given everything that's happened during Herron's five years in office, his supporters shouldn't have considered their duty done when the polls closed. "I never understood this when Sharon was down there [City Council], that it's not enough to get him elected. We needed to stick by him every step of the way, because they were going to try to tear him apart."

The year Herron took office, the murder rate in Minneapolis hit an all-time high, and suddenly the names of the first-termer's neighborhoods were common currency in living rooms from Eden Prairie to Crocus Hill. In August 1994, at the end of the summer when the New York Times declared the city "Murderapolis," MPD gang-squad members invited a select handful of reporters to tour an apartment building at 36th Street East and Clinton Avenue South. The cops wanted the media to see graffiti that they said indicated the Bloods gang was staking a claim to an area bounded by Lake and 40th streets, I-35W and Chicago Avenue.

"Tonight's top story: Frightening evidence a gang war may be about to explode in Minneapolis," KSTP-TV (Channel 5) began its 10 p.m. newscast that night. The next day's Star Tribune echoed the cry.

Herron, who owns a house on the 3100 block of Clinton, called a press conference. He and other community leaders decried the police tour as a sensational misrepresentation of the neighborhood. The graffiti was old, they said, and probably the work of youthful wannabes. Gangs were a real problem, but if police really were worried about a turf war, why were they publicizing one gang's territorial claims?

The police chief at the time, John Laux, later publicly conceded that cops didn't really think any such war was imminent. But Police Federation President Al Berryman blasted Herron for not helping the police. The two sparred via the pages of the Star Tribune for weeks before declaring they'd made peace.

The tension lingered. A year after taking office, in January 1995, Herron told some 100 people at a public meeting that he'd been warned by officers that the police were out to get him. "Be careful who you pick up" in your car, Herron says one cop told him during a visit to his office. "You're going to be set up." Another called him at home with a similar warning.

The officers who allegedly warned Herron never came forward with evidence of such a conspiracy. But Hennepin County court files hold an interesting document, the transcript of a 1995 interview conducted by Ofcr. Tom Hussman with a police informant named Johnny Edwards. Hussman asked Edwards whether a series of people who were not being investigated for any crimes--including Herron--smoked crack. Edwards, whose testimony was later deemed less than credible by several juries, said yes each time. (Herron says he never tried crack after that one time in Houston.) Hussman has since left the MPD and could not be reached for comment about why he asked the question.

It was Herron's support for Reggie Ferguson that sparked the first public blowout between the council member and his detractors on the police force. Herron had known the Ferguson family for years--ever since, as a C.C.P. officer, he was asked to document neighbors' complaints about Reggie, his mother Helen, and his brothers Alonzo, James, and Obuatawan Holt. (Police believed all of the young men had gang affiliations; Reggie was later accused in court of being the leader of the Rolling 30s Bloods and is serving a sentence for attempted murder. At about the same time, Alonzo was convicted of murder in a separate incident. James had already begun serving a life sentence for an earlier murder conviction.)  

Back then, Herron says, he'd told the Ferguson kids that if they ever wanted out of "the life," he would be there for them. But Reggie says he distrusted the man he'd seen riding around the neighborhood in a police car. "I thought he was just somebody who had an office who didn't care," says Ferguson, reached at Stillwater Prison last month. That changed when 15-year-old Torrey Milon was gunned down in the neighborhood where both Herron and Ferguson lived, in 1994. "I saw Brian Herron at the scene of the crime and there were tears in his eyes and he said, 'Reggie, when is this going to stop?'"

One Sunday morning not long after that, Ferguson showed up at Herron's house. The two say they quickly found they had much in common. Both had struggled with fatherhood; both were unsure anyone would trust their efforts at redemption. "I looked at him and thought, 'He's been where I've been,'" Ferguson says. "He's been to the gutter and lived in the street with his clothes in a plastic bag. He's not just some guy from some neighborhood."

Ferguson got a job, but in 1995 he was charged with the attempted murder of a man who had been harassing his former girlfriend. Bail was set at $375,000. Ferguson called Herron from jail and asked for help.

In August 1995, Herron wrote a letter to Hennepin County District Court Judge Jack Nordby, saying that he believed Ferguson was working at turning his life around and could safely be freed pending trial. It was one of many pleas received by Nordby, who lowered Ferguson's bail to $25,000.

The letter soon found its way to the newspapers, launching the only flurry of headlines to mark Herron's tenure in office. "How can the office of the City Council be used to influence judicial decisions?" Ofcr. Hussman asked in the Star Tribune. "Is that ethical? I don't think so."

Herron says he suspected the letter was going to cost him politically. He knew, he says, that he could have avoided the whole brouhaha by calling the judge instead of writing him. But he wanted Ferguson to know he'd kept his word.

Ferguson, who was convicted in November 1996 and sentenced to three years in prison, says he noticed. "It meant a lot to me, for him to be in the position he is [and] to sit down and write that letter," he said. "It didn't say I was innocent or I didn't commit a crime. It just said, 'This young man is trying to change his life and I believe he is trying to change.'"

He still hears comments, he adds, about how far out on a limb Herron went for him. "That's another reason why I've got to continue doing what I'm doing" to straighten his life out, he says. "Because this cost him so much." Ferguson is scheduled to be released next summer, and Herron says he's already trying to think of whether anyone he knows may offer him a job.

The ominous incidents continued. In April 1996, Herron received a letter on MPD stationery signed by the "KKK Kops." The Star Tribune reported that the hand-lettered note warned, "KKK Kops gonna put a gun in yo pocket an a dope bag in yo otha pocket. Don go out alone." Herron turned the letter over the to FBI. (In 1992 similar letters were sent to some 30 black Minneapolis officers. The department accused Ofcr. Alisa Clemons of writing the letters but couldn't provide any evidence to bolster its claims and ended up settling a suit she brought for a reported $400,000.)

Last February shots were fired near the home of Herron's niece while he was visiting her. A young man ran into the house--to escape the crossfire outside, Herron says. According to Herron, the police showed up just as they were reaching to dial 911.

Five days after the incident, KSTP-TV reported that Herron was "once again caught in the middle of controversy." Reporter Jay Kolls quoted unnamed MPD sources who noted that Herron had failed to call police and claimed he appeared "nervous" when officers arrived. "The shooting has not resulted in charges for anyone, including council member Brian Herron," the report concluded.  

"What am I going to be charged with? There was nothing inappropriate about my being there," Herron told reporters the next day, calling the report "a thought-out attempt to malign my character." An MPD representative later said the department was looking into the leak; Herron says he never heard the results of the investigation.

All that notwithstanding, Herron's public assessment of police is almost pure Officer Friendly. Cops' performance comes up at nearly every community meeting he attends, and he regularly defends the MPD: "We're judging police on what a few of them are doing," he says. "I would dare to say that the majority are good officers. [But] you have a few who let their prejudices show.

"After I got elected, one of the things young African-American men would say to me was: 'Look at you--you've got a position, you are someone, and look how they treat you.' I try to teach folks in the community, it doesn't matter how you are approached, this is how you should respond."

Herron has also mediated several highly charged public exchanges between residents and police--including the time, last year, when a coalition lead by activists Spike Moss and Randy Staten accused the MPD of covering up errors in the case of Lawrence Miles Jr. (The 15-year-old was shot in the back by police while running from his home with a pellet gun.) "It would have been easier for me to take a position against the police," Herron says. "But I wanted people to be calm, so I took a position in the middle." The Police Federation's Al Berryman praises Herron's role in the debate following the Miles shooting, noting that the council member worked around the clock to gather information before saying anything publicly.

Still, Herron admits that holding office has made him cautious. "There's places I just won't go," he offers, "no matter how legal." His father puts it more bluntly: "One of the things that whites do is to target powerful blacks. Brian has been able to maintain a low profile, and that's been helpful to him. Black people in office are an endangered species, and if you look long enough in anybody's background, you can find something."

Last year, Herron says, the Star Tribune editorial board called him in for a conversation to determine whether the paper would endorse him for a second term. Mimicking his interviewers, he adopts a parental tone: "'Frankly, we're a little disappointed in you. We had hoped for great things from you and [council member Kathy] Thurber.'

"The Star Tribune wanted Thurber and I to be more like Lisa [McDonald] and Minn," he says. "More vocal, make a lot of noise." Which astounds him, given that reporters have never asked for his opinion on any issues except the police and race relations. "Not once have I been interviewed about [the redevelopment of] Sears--the mayor has," he says. "One of the first things I did when I took office was to fly to Sears headquarters [in Chicago] and ask them what they're going to do" with the shuttered department store on Lake Street.

The paper ultimately endorsed Herron with faint praise: "The soft-spoken Herron...has shown enough potential to merit a second four-year term. His priorities are good; experience should improve his performance."

Though Herron insists that the lack of attention to his work doesn't bother him, he can't quite conceal his annoyance. Given the opportunity, he'll expound at length his favorite projects--like Portland Place, a joint effort by the city and Honeywell to build 51 new housing units on two blocks adjacent to its headquarters at 26th and Portland. Honeywell executives have credited Herron's quiet persistence with making the idea reality.

But if Portland Place was Herron's biggest victory so far, it's also been the source of sharp criticism. In order to build the townhouses, Honeywell bought and razed 145 units of low-income rental housing, a commodity already in short supply throughout the Twin Cities. When tenants were first told to move, Honeywell didn't offer them relocation allowances. After the residents were gone, the company asked the city to kick in $4.2 million; since publicly funded projects require relocation benefits, Honeywell went in search of the dislocated tenants. Many, the company says, have since received the money, but some have not. Critics, including Minnesota Tenants Union head Kirk Hill, also note that while the houses were originally billed as "affordable" to families with incomes of under $20,000, the minimum family income required to buy into the development has now risen to nearly $40,000.

Herron agrees that the city desperately needs to increase its stock of low-income housing. But, he says, the Phillips neighborhood also needs middle-income housing to survive. "We tore down those houses and we have not had to do as much law enforcement," he asserts. "People should have a choice about where they want to live, and if we concentrate low-income housing in one place, we are saying, in effect, 'This is the only place you can live.'"  

Chances are the remainder of Herron's second term--he was re-elected last fall by a landslide--will find him in the news a bit more often. Council President Cherryhomes has announced plans to form a committee on health and family issues and to appoint Herron as its chair. It's a role Herron declined when he was first elected; the move startled his fellow council members, who argued that to be effective a council member must jump on such opportunities. Some say privately that Herron's obvious dislike of contentious debate has hurt his stature on the council.

"I don't have a lot of time to focus on policy stuff," Herron admits. "I'm so busy focusing on the problems of individual people." Besides, he says, if he tried to become what his critics say he should be, they'd simply outvote him. Consider the case of the civil rights ordinance revision: "Am I angry, and do I think it's wrong, and does it hurt? Yes. But I can't afford to be angry. That's the problem with being an elected official of color. You can't show anger, because then it's easy for them to put you in the box of the angry black man."

The trade-off? "I don't command the kind of respect that people who are good at posturing and positioning themselves publicly do."

It's not a comfortable place to be, and Herron says he's not sure whether he'll run again when his term ends in 2001. "I'm not on a power trip, not on an ego trip," he elaborates. "I feel like I've done what I can do in my capacity and maybe it's time for me to look at what other things I can do."

If Herron decides to leave the council, it won't surprise those closest to him. "Politics is nasty," says his father. "He likes people and he doesn't understand why politicians go through all they go through. Why not just say what they mean and do what they say?" The elder Herron even has an idea what his son should do once he cedes his office: Become a minister.

Informed of his father's suggestion, Herron nods. "I've got a calling. I've known it for years and kept trying to outrun it," he says. "I don't know where I'm supposed to be, and when I don't know, I have to be still."

Intern Dan Gearino contributed to this story.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >