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Chapter Twenty-three: Two (Maybe Three) Campaigns for Mayor

 

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee gave me a situation that I had never had before. I had friends who shared common experiences. I had something to talk about knowledgeably and persons willing to listen. The fact that we were a despised group in the city made us landlords feel emotionally close. At our monthly meetings, I could stand up before the group to speak my piece without having to worry about my performance or even prepare for it. This experience improved my self-confidence as a speaker. I felt better about myself at public gatherings. Not being the group’s leader, I also enjoyed the luxury of not having to do everything myself. Others also pitched in to advance the cause. On the level of city politics, it was possible to make things happen. I could personally meet the principal players in city government. It was not like tilting at windmills to affect change on a national or international level. We were showing that, united, individuals could fight City Hall.

The Property Rights group was more a political-pressure than an economic-interest group. Outsiders did not realize this. Many of us, including me, did not own enough property to make it worthwhile to invest great amounts of our personal time and energy in the landlord cause if the goal was merely economic improvement. We would then be giving free labor to the big landlords who did little to help us. They would be the principal beneficiaries of our efforts. No, we were doing this work for the same reason that any political activist does: to improve the community. Secondarily, our members derived memorable personal experiences from working with others towards a worthy end. What more can one expect from life than this? It boils down to people. The landlord group brought me together with interesting, admirable persons who shared my life. I had few regrets about spending five or six years in the “landlord struggle” with a benefit such as this.

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee was like a union for landlords. Its motto could easily have been: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” In this case, however, we were not organizing against tenants but against neighborhood groups and city government. Inevitably, we were drawn into electoral politics, which is both a scorecard for political activity and a special opportunity to be heard in community affairs. I knew that I was not a gifted political candidate. That did not matter if I was modestly well organized and had a good cause.

My first venture into electoral politics was to enter the race for Mayor of Minneapolis in 1997. Up until May, no one else stepped forward to challenge Sharon Sayles Belton’s bid for reelection. John Derus, her opponent in the 1993 general election, had not expressed interest in running again. Charlie Disney approached radio-talk-show hostess, Barbara Carlson, and received word that she would not run. So I decided to step into the ring. I sent out announcements of my candidacy and was rewarded by reporter Kevin Diaz’s generous article about my campaign in the Star Tribune which ran eight paragraphs.

For most of one Saturday, I stood in front of Sy Melby Hall at Augsburg College, where the DFL party was holding its city convention, with a picket sign announcing that I was an independent candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis. This activity produced several interesting discussions. Later that afternoon, I sought the Republican endorsement for Mayor. The group decided not to endorse, perhaps because I had revealed that I was neither a Republican nor a Christian. On Sunday, I marched in the May Day parade to Powderhorn Park. In the following week, Barbara Carlson attended our landlord group’s meeting. Soon afterwards, she made a public announcement that she was considering a run for mayor. I immediately suspended my campaign saying that I would support Carlson if she ran. She did run. That was the end of my political candidacy the first time. Carlson received 45% of the vote in the general election. I would have done worse.

Minneapolis city officials were up for reelection again in 2001. I urged Charlie Disney to run for Mayor this time. He was fairly well known in the city as a result of hosting our cable-television show. He would be supported by most persons in our organization. Unlike me, he was personally outgoing and down-to-earth. In our discussions, it was clear that no one, not even Charlie himself, expected Charlie Disney actually to win the election. He would be running for the purpose of raising issues. Being a candidate for Mayor gave him a soap box to discuss city problems from a landlord’s perspective. Charlie was evasive until the last moment. At an executive committee meeting of the group held at his house, Charlie went around the room asking people if they thought he should run. Nearly everyone encouraged him to do so. Charlie decided to do it. He would seek the DFL endorsement for Mayor.

The DFL city convention was again held on a Saturday in early May in Sy Melby Hall. This time, we were on the program and had a literature table downstairs. As Charlie’s unofficial campaign manager, I wore a college-style mortarboard hat with large mouse ears - I’m for Disney, get it? Some people thought this hat was to protest the mickey mouse spending on education. We put our literature on all the seats. We had a delegate who was willing to put Charlie’s name in nomination for Mayor and someone to second it. I gave the nominating speech. Charlie then gave his candidate’s speech. As representatives of a group which had bedeviled city officials for so many years, I thought the DFL delegates treated us quite respectfully.

R.T. Rybak, a newcomer aligned with progressive causes, edged out the incumbent mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton, to gain the most votes at the convention. A member of the City Council friendly to our cause, Lisa McDonald, finished third. Charlie received six votes at the convention, for a fourth-place finish. I had met Rybak when he came to our group for support in January. We did not expect him to do that well. Our money was on Lisa McDonald.

Charlie Disney held a campaign strategy meeting. A man who had once run for state legislature gave a presentation on what it took to run a proper campaign. He said that we needed to raise lots of money. We needed to appoint people to certain campaign positions: a press secretary, a volunteer coordinator, a campaign-office manager, a legal advisor, etc. He and another man at the meeting urged Charlie to raise immigration-reform issues. After listening to this talk for awhile, I finally said that I thought these suggestions were ridiculous. Charlie was not a major candidate for a state or federal office. The press would not be beating on his door for interviews. He had to stick to landlord issues where he had credibility. Realistically, Charlie could expect to do most of the campaign work himself. He would have to be out there meeting people at public gatherings, discussing issues, and passing out literature. Perhaps, a few people would help him. Then, if he got lucky, the press might start to take an interest in his campaign.

I did not realize at the time that my analysis depressed Charlie. This discussion laid the foundation for his subsequent withdrawal as a candidate. I may also have contributed to the campaign’s demise when, with Charlie’s consent, I sent out a memo to the other candidates and to the press stating that Charlie’s campaign goal was to receive at least 3% of the vote in the DFL primary. I also said good things about each of the other candidates. This was later interpreted as being defeatist. My purpose was to set low expectations which would be exceeded and so enhance our prestige after the primary.

The most damaging event, however, was Eve White’s open support for Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein’s mayoral candidacy. Eve White, a former stripper who had bought several large apartment buildings in south Minneapolis, was a female landlord who had become an increasingly influential member of our group. She was politically close to Stenglein. At one of our meetings, Eve had taken a dislike to Lisa McDonald for what I thought might be rivalry between two strong-willed, attractive women. McDonald was trying to block Mark Stenglein’s candidacy because she and Stenglein would split the conservative vote. Charlie Disney was close to Lisa McDonald.

At a party in Charlie’s backyard after our monthly meeting, Eve White solicited a lawnsign location for Stenglein from a group member. Charlie was furious. This act he considered to be disloyal to him as the group’s candidate. He said we had all promised him that we would support his candidacy. That was not quite how I remembered it. I thought we should try to be on good terms with all the mayoral candidates excepting perhaps Sayles Belton. I defended Eve’s right to support whomever she wished.

After returning home to Minneapolis from a trip to Tennessee, I learned that Charlie Disney was no longer a candidate for Mayor. He was bitter at having been betrayed by the group. He thought I had stabbed him in the back. I regarded that accusation as unfair since I had spent the most time of anyone working on Charlie’s campaign. It had not been my decision to abandon the campaign. An unstated problem, I believe, was that Charlie could not bear the thought of entering a contest which he could not win. He was used to winning athletic tournaments. Anything less than victory was pesonally humiliating. Then Charlie suffered two major heart attacks. The doctor had said that he was suffering from a broken heart.

Charlie withdrew not only from the race for Mayor but from the Minneapolis Property Rights Association. He was no longer its executive director. He and his fiancee, Cheryl, were buying a house in Roseville. He would soon move from Minneapolis. The Property Rights group was in crisis. The Executive Committee selected Eve White as Charlie’s replacement.

When Charlie’s withdrawal became known, I filed as a candidate for Mayor. I would run the type of campaign that I had urged for Charlie. There would be lots of personal contact with voters. Unfortunately, I had to be out of town for two long stretches of time, once to attend my mother’s funeral in Pennsylvania and then to greet my new wife and stepdaughter arriving from China at the Newark airport and once to visit my wife’s sister in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I would have to use the remaining time efficiently.

For my party or issues affiliation appearing on the ballot, I chose the title “Affordable Housing - Preservation.” I prepared a green-colored sheet of campaign literature, 8 1/2” by 11”, double-sided. The front side gave biographical information and a general statement of issues. The back side presented landlord “horror stories” involving city abuse. I also had a picket sign left over from my 1997 mayoral campaign. My standard mode of campaigning consisted of distributing literature as I walked about town or stood in certain places with my sign. My favorite places for campaigning were the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, the Uptown area near Hennepin and Lake, and the downtown Minneapolis loop. In all, I gave out about 4,500 pieces of literature.

Public attention centered upon the four major candidates: Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, R.T. Rybak, Lisa McDonald, and Mark Stenglein. Many of the debates included only those candidates. Because of an out-of-town trip, it was too late for me to participate in the Elliot Park debate on crime which included all the candidates. Like other minor candidates, I had two minutes to make my case at the MICAH-sponsored debate on affordable housing. My only real opportunity was the candidate debate on the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NPR) which I had not originally planned to attend. I leafleted this event outside and then sat down to listen to the candidates for City Council. As I was about to leave, Mark Stenglein intercepted me at the door. He said that the four major mayoral candidates had agreed to allow the two minor candidates who were still at the meeting, Leslie Davis and me, to participate in this debate with them. So I sat at the front table between Lisa McDonald and R.T. Rybak, trying to answer the questions without much knowledge.

My strategy, to differentiate myself from the other candidates, was to tell the audience of NRP activists that I thought the NRP program was mostly a waste of the taxpayer’s money. The city could not afford to continue to fund this “experiment” until its budget situation improved. At one point, I offered Rybak the first twenty seconds of my response time so he could finish an amusing story. This brash, lighthearted approach seemed to work. One or two people told me I had made some good points. Even the Mayor greeted me with a warm smile and hand shake after the meeting. However, the Star Tribune article about this event in next day’s newspaper neglected to mention that Leslie Davis and I had participated in the debate. I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that admission. It was printed.

Media coverage was always a problem. I wrote an opinion piece for the Star Tribune about the bribery scandal involving a City Council member. It was not accepted. I also wrote an article about the religious coalition for affordable housing, suggesting that housing was a business rather than a charity. The community newspaper, Pulse, first said it would print this as a letter to the editor but then decided that to do so would favor a particular candidate. Such policies, by no means confined to the Pulse, actually gave political candidates less opportunity to present their views than if they had not been candidates. My best shot at publicity was to participate in a 10-minute candidate interview by Kathy Wurzer on Minnesota Public Radio. Station KFAI-AM also gave mayoral candidates two minutes of air time to make statements. The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota newspaper, published an article about my candidacy which included quoted comments from one of my tenants, mostly favorable.

The biggest coup was to persuade three of the Twin Cities commercial television stations, public radio, the Pioneer Press, and other media to cover a last-minute event at Peavey Plaza involving all the minor mayoral candidates. My press release began, with a slightly bitter edge, “You may not have been interested in our political ideas but perhaps you’d like to hear us sing.” Five of the minor candidates present at the NPR debate had said they would participate in such an event. Only two, Leslie Davis and myself, actually appeared. As the journalists stood by, I tried feverishly to round up a few extra voices from persons on the street. Two men agreed to join us. So it was that a duo of minor mayoral candidates and two others, holding pages of sheet music, serenaded Twin Cities television audiences with our personal rendition of patriotic songs on local news programs of Monday, September 10th, the evening before the primary election.

None of this mattered when, on the following morning, terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania farm field. I, like the rest of the world, was stunned. When the vote totals were tabulated that night, R.T. Rybak and Sharon Sayles Belton were the two winners. The votes tapered off sharply after the four major candidates. I finished twelfth of twenty-two candidates, winning just 143 votes citywide. Frankly, I had expected to do better.

Rybak and Sayles Belton slugged it out for another two months. The eventual winner of the 2001 mayoral election by a landslide was R.T. Rybak. I had distributed literature with him in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood on the Saturday before the November 6th election and then did my own precinct for him. Rybak had made two post-primary appearances at televised meetings of our landlord group. He had met with us again at his campaign headquarters to go over a list of issues.

We could not have imagined how sweet the general election would be for our group. All year long we had set a large poster sign at the front of our meeting place. This poster gave the names of four incumbent City Council members whom we supported and four whom we proposed to defeat. On election night, the four Council members whom we supported all won reelection. Three of the four whom we opposed were either defeated or, in one case, did not seek reelection. The fourth person on our hit list, Joe Biernat, who was reelected, resigned from office a year later after being convicted of a felony. As for the replacements, Dean Zimmerman, Natalie Johnson Lee, and Robert Lilligren, who were nonincumbent candidates winning City Council seats in the general election, had also appeared at our meetings.

Natalie Johnson Lee’s dramatic upset of City Council President, Jackie Cherryhomes, was especially satisfying. We landlords had played an active role in her campaign. I was a poll watcher for Johnson Lee’s campaign on election day. Other landlords held up her campaign signs on street corners, drove voters to the polls, or circulated through the northside neighborhoods in a black limousine promoting her candidacy by loud speaker. ACORN, a group previously unfriendly to us, distributed literature throughout the 5th ward written by a member of our group. It asked Cherryhomes twenty-one pointed questions. That night, we landlords and our friends whooped it up. Our political efforts had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

To next chapter

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