Two for the Road, part 2

Mike Wohnoutka

The ethics complaint filed last week by DFL officials against Independent City Council member Steve Minn has many of the earmarks of a classic smear. There is the timing, less than two weeks before voters will decide between Minn and DFL candidate Karen Wilson, in a race most view as too close to call. There is the fact that Minn tried to get the Council to outlaw the very thing he is now being accused of, and that he voluntarily reported the information that is the basis for the complaint, going beyond the mandate of current law.

The complaint alleges that Minn failed to disclose the potential conflict of interest arising from his wife's ownership of 300 shares of stock in Browning Ferris Industries, a garbage-hauling giant whose clients include the city of Minneapolis. The complaint also alleges a separate conflict over the rental properties Minn and his wife own in the city.

Ironically, Minn two years ago sought to have the Council extend the city's conflict-of-interest guidelines to assets held by spouses and other close family members. But other Council members wouldn't even let the bill out of committee. Compounding the irony, when Minn included his family's holdings on his financial statements anyway--a level of disclosure far beyond the normal behavior of his colleagues--it was used as the basis for the complaints.

The BFI stock and real-estate holdings may indeed have at least the appearance of a conflict of interest with respect to some of Minn's Council votes. But does the DFL really think that all of its officeholders--including Council president Jackie Cherryhomes and her city-connected lawyer husband F. Clayton Tyler--could withstand similar scrutiny if they decided to divulge their entire financial portfolios? And will Minn's bill get a hearing in the Council now?

Unfortunately for Minn, his opponent Wilson is too smart to get drawn into any gloating or finger-pointing on the issue. "Frankly, I'd prefer the race focus on issues instead of sideshows," she says. "I certainly don't want to talk about it."

What Wilson does talk about is a ward that favored the Minneapolis schools levy by 73 percent in the 1996 referendum. Minn, she notes, refused to vote on the matter because he felt the presence of his son in the public schools represented a conflict of interest. By highlighting how Minn pushes a principle to its irrational extreme on a meat-and-potatoes issue like education, Wilson hoists him on his own petard far better than her party apparatchiks can with their hypocritical ethics complaints.

Wilson also knows she's got a relatively sympathetic electorate to recruit: The 13th Ward went 61 percent for Wellstone against Boschwitz last year. Many of the residents here are relatively wealthy people who choose to still live in the city, the kind of folks who retain some genuine empathy for the hoary concept (if not the reality) of Minnesota Nice. Thus, Wilson has made her candidacy as much about Minn's abrasive style and willingness to cause a scene (remember the bugging accusations at City Hall last year) as about his positions on the issues. She accuses Minn of an isolationist mind-set when it comes to the ward's place in the city, and stresses that she would "get along better" with the other pols downtown.

For his part, Minn doesn't mind being cast as the feisty outsider. He scoffs at the idea that he can't get along well enough to get things done, pointing to his organization of the fiscal moderates as an effective corrective to the tax-and-spend DFLers--who, after all, get a hefty percentage of their dough from the affluent 13th Ward. "Karen Wilson is the DFL machine candidate," he says, adding that "the two parties have drifted to the hard left and the hard right" while he, the Reform Party endorsee, remains "the loyal opposition in a one-party town." Trumpeting principle yet again, he says, "My opponent has the unions and the special interests. Voters know I take no PAC money, no special-interest money, and that I am committed to a two-term limit." Whether he gets that far is still up for grabs.

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