THE SMOKE STILL hasn't cleared from a turbulent opening weekend to Minneapolis's local election season. Conventional wisdom took a beating in the two contests that mattered most; the tally stands at one surprise, one near-historic upset, and a lot of conspiracy-mongering. And that's just the start to what promises to be a major City Council shakeup.

In a one-party town, ward-endorsing conventions are powerful affairs, capable of sealing an election eight months ahead of the actual ballot. Yet they usually don't make headlines, and for good reason. DFL party discipline practically requires delegates to nominate incumbents unless they've made complete fools of themselves. For open seats, the nod typically goes to whoever made the best case to clubs of party insiders.

But by the time delegates gathered at Martin Luther King Community Center to choose a candidate for the 10th Ward--which encompasses much of the area around Lakes Harriet and Calhoun, runs all the way to Lyndale, and takes in the Wedge--it was clear something was brewing. Somewhere else, neighborhood activist Niel Ritchie's challenge to first-term City Council member Lisa McDonald might not have been a big deal. But in the 10th, where you can't throw a rock without hitting the remodeled three-bedroom of a political pro, it was serious business. Ritchie, who serves as budget director at a think tank called the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, started his campaign in 1995; it was in full swing by the time delegates were chosen in last year's precinct caucuses.

Three ballots into the convention, Ritchie's cohorts--many of them veteran organizers--had 54 percent of the votes. They might have reached the 60 percent needed for endorsement as the day dragged on, though a deadlock seemed more likely. But right then, McDonald pulled an extraordinary maneuver, leading her delegates in a mass walkout. A seldom-used technique, walkouts are designed to strip a convention of the quorum needed for endorsement. But, notes City Council member Jim Niland, a student of party procedure, "it only works when you can count." In this case, McDonald's leaving left Ritchie with a near-unanimous endorsement and a place in history as the first challenger to deny nomination to a sitting City Council member in 20 years.

A lot of theories have been advanced to explain what happened; McDonald's supporters in particular say it was a dirty victory, fueled by distortions of McDonald's record and by a damaging Star Tribune story that appeared the morning of the convention (see news item, page 3). A simpler theory holds that McDonald just annoyed too many people.

McDonald, who entered office with a "grassroots" mantle, had no sooner furnished her office at City Hall than she began running into trouble with many of the same activists who had supported her. Early in her term, she refused to take a position on the proposed widening of Lyndale Avenue; the neighborhood effort mounted in opposition to it created the core of Ritchie's coalition. There were also public spitting matches with community groups, and a series of intense, if small-scale, fights over things like outdoor seating for an ice-cream parlor and the redevelopment of an apartment building. "It wasn't what she did, but how she did it," says Joe Barisonzi, who heads the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. "She would often vote right on the issues, but it took forever to get her to do it." Another resident calls McDonald "almost constitutionally unable to listen."

On the same day the 10th Ward delegates handed McDonald her walking papers, the 7th Ward convention refused to nominate Chris Bacon, the heir-apparent to retiring council member Pat Scott. On the surface, that result runs exactly counter to the one in the 10th Ward. Lisa Goodman, who got the nomination in the 7th, belongs to the same segment of the DFL as McDonald, and most of the people who supported Bacon were Ritchie allies. But the two events had one thing in common: In both cases, delegates did precisely the opposite of what they were supposed to.

And that, perhaps, was the point. The 1993 election cycle made clear that traditional Minneapolis political schemes (north side/south side, conservative/liberal) no longer held, and that front-runners could not count on walking to their endorsements. This year, if the past weekend is any indication, things are even more volatile. Only six of the City Council's 13 members are headed for safe re-elections. Three are retiring, and one more, Dennis Schulstad, is pondering it. A tough primary battle looms for the 11th Ward's Dore Mead, and council gadfly Steve Minn faces a DFL challenge in his 13th. The hottest contest of all could yet erupt if McDonald reconsiders her convention-day announcement and chooses to run in the primary.

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