The Other White Meat

McLaughlin: "Tell me you don't think there are serious problems in this city"
Craig Lassig

When Peter McLaughlin first won a seat in the state House of Representatives 20 years ago, he was considered by many to be a rising star in Minnesota politics. But in 1990, McLaughlin did something unconventional and ran for an office--a place on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners--that was more of a sidestep than a step up. Fifteen years later, the 55-year-old McLaughlin has begun the chase for an even more local--though more visible--office: mayor of Minneapolis.

From the start, there's been the nagging feeling that differentiating between McLaughlin and Rybak--two middle-class, middle-aged white guys with nominally liberal streaks--is like trying to tell the difference between two scoops of vanilla. So, too, McLaughlin initially seemed disorganized and detached on the stump, leaving many observers around town to wonder why he was running at all.

In recent weeks, however, both candidates have started swinging, and in a phone interview last Friday, McLaughlin sounded practically angry. "I wouldn't be running for mayor," he said, "if I didn't think there were serious, serious problems in the city of Minneapolis."

City Pages: How do you feel about the mayor's position on the ballpark debate?

Peter McLaughlin: To me it embodies why I'm running against this guy. [Sings] Flip-flop-flip. Flop-flip. Flop-flip. I hear this morning he's equivocating on his equivocation on the ballpark. The thing about being mayor is standing up and saying what you want. If you don't want it, fine, say so. If you do want it, then say you do want it. Even if it's going cost you delegates.

CP: The ballpark proposal that you're behind could go beyond the wishes of the people of Minneapolis.

McLaughlin: This proposal doesn't unduly tax the people of Minneapolis. It's only a third of the people of Hennepin County. So this tax is spread across the entire county. Lots of people will be paying for this regional and state asset. And people come from all over the state to Minneapolis for it.

CP: Why not make the state pony up some money then?

McLaughlin: I live in the real world, okay? I don't live in the world of pretty words and photo opportunities. That's how we got the LRT done, by living in the real world and building a real coalition around a real proposal. That's what we're doing with on this ballpark. And we're providing leadership. Real leadership, real world. Not vacillating in our fantasy world.

CP: You've spent however many years on the county board. It's a pretty powerful position without a whole lot of scrutiny. Why would you want to put yourself out to be a mayoral candidate, or why would you want to be mayor?

McLaughlin: My adult life has been about community service. It isn't about careerism; I didn't dream about being mayor of Minneapolis since I was 13 years old. What I've done on various nonprofit boards of directors, in my jobs, with various community organizations, and in my time as an elected official--it's about community service. This city needs a higher-quality leader, and that's why I'm running.

CP: There's talk around town that you're only running because the old-guard DFL establishment wants you, and some delegates want you to block the endorsement of Rybak.

McLaughlin: Oh, okay, who's supporting him? Walter Mondale? There's a whole list of DFL establishment types supporting him. They're just making that stuff up. I mean [long pause], you don't think there are problems with this city? Tell me. Tell me that you don't think there are serious problems in this city.

CP: That wasn't really the question, I think there are problems with any city, but you could...

McLaughlin: No, no, no. Serious problems.

CP: Well, what are some of those problems?

McLaughlin: Are things better than they were four years ago? The violent crime rate is up. The gap in unemployment between the city and the suburbs is up. Fewer houses are going to get insulated [to muffle airport noise] now. When the mayor started, that was his big issue, remember?

CP: With all due respect, I saw that first debate, and I've been watching your campaign...

McLaughlin: Did you see the second one? Did you? Go watch the second one.

CP: Well, this is the most energized I've heard you be thus far.

McLaughlin: Go watch the second debate. It's on KFAI, I believe, on their archive. I really urge you to listen to it before you write this story.

CP: Is it fair to say that your campaign got off to a slow start?>

McLaughlin: No. It's hard to run against an incumbent who does 12 photo ops a day.... His whole campaign has been designed to paper over any difference between us. We're both the same, we're both the same. And when I raise any substantive differences, it's called negative campaigning. "Oh, that's terrible. You're picking on the poor mayor."

CP: What are some...

McLaughlin: Substantive differences? On education, the mayor is AWOL for three years. For two and a half years, until he figured out I might be running against him, because I was mad about education. That's a huge difference between us.

This mayor has a failure to support NRP [the Neighborhood Revitalization Program], the neighborhoods, community involvement--all that stuff that he talks about so well, and so much.

CP: Another theory about why you're running is that these NRP advocates drafted you to save NRP. Is that a fair assessment?

McLaughlin: I was the chair of the Minneapolis delegation in the Minnesota House of Representatives when that bill passed. I participated in the negotiations that created NRP. So I have a major interest in and commitment to it. I don't need to be drafted by the neighborhood people. A lot of those people supported him last time, by the way. I do know how to count. It's the constituency that he betrayed and the promises that he broke.

CP: So you think you can pick up those votes?

McLaughlin: Sure. You bet. That's one issue. You've portrayed it as a sort of crass political calculation on my part. And I'm trying to tell you that I have a commitment to neighborhoods since before I was in the negotiations that created NRP.

CP: You've got the DFL endorsing convention two weeks away [May 14]. You said you would honor the DFL delegates' wishes that if you don't get the endorsement you won't run.

McLaughlin: No, it's if he gets endorsed I won't run. If there's no endorsement, that's a win, man. That's a win, man. That's a huge win for the challenger.

CP: Final issue...

McLaughlin: No, no, let me talk about one more thing. This is about getting stuff done. It's not about pretty words and press conferences and all that. Being out there is a part of the job, and that's great. Being a cheerleader for the city is great. But it's not the whole job. And it takes some real skill, some real focus, to actually get tough stuff done. And I have done that. It's not about the mayor's visibility [but] about the livability of the city. I'm for the people of the city.

CP: So this is a serious campaign?

McLaughlin: You're damn right. I didn't get into this to lose. I've never lost, okay? Go listen to that second debate. I think his nose is still bleeding from that one. He's made this bogus argument that somehow it's harmful for two DFLers to actually be fighting with one another. The people of Minneapolis deserve a debate on the issues, and that's what I'm going to give them.

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