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Chapter Twenty-four: Lessons Learned from the Landlord Group

 

Coming to the unexpectedly fruitful end of a chapter in the annals of the landlord group, I had time to reflect upon the lessons of this experience. It seemed that Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee constituted a new model of political activity. Few recognized our achievement, for landlords as a group came under the radar of self-respecting political types. City liberals continued to view us as “exploiters of the poor” - translation: we provided housing for poor people in exchange for rents, we made money off this function. Suburban conservatives perhaps considered us a part of the urban mess, unworthy of their attention. The Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, City Pages, and other newspapers never said a thing about our role in knocking off the city’s most powerful political leader, Jackie Cherryhomes, or even mentioned the group in their post-election coverage. Ironically, Cherryhomes herself gave us grudging credit when, in an interview with WCCO-TV following her defeat, she referred to that horrible group of landlords who had picketed her home the previous summer.

Even if the newspapers did not, we knew who we were and what we had accomplished. Thinking it over, I concluded that we had followed the right strategy in getting politically involved with limited hopes of success. Our goal was total change, and that was what had happened. While we may not have been among the mainstream elements supporting Rybak’s victory, we had played a significant part in producing the victory. We were a feared player on the political scene. We had teeth.

The Property Rights group had begun with a class-action lawsuit against city government. It had tried its hand at lobbying the state legislature. It had formed a political committee to promote candidates for elective office. All these ventures had failed. The lawsuit was thrown out of federal court. Our bills introduced in the state legislature stalled. The committee formed to promote candidates was ineffective. Judged by conventional political standards, our group had failed. In fact, it was a big success. Representatives of a reviled occupation within the city, we had turned city politics around. We had stumbled upon an alternative model of politics which worked quite well.

The old model was based on solutions of force: Force the city to do something by court order. Pass laws which force people to comply. Elect candidates to offices with coercive powers of decision. The new model was based on changing public opinion. We had stood up for ourselves against forces that tried exploit us. We had testified to our own experiences of city government. We had shown those who would intimidate and divide us that we could endure. We did not try to curry favor with our tormentors; we hit them over the head with a 2-by-4, we beat them into submission. The fact that many of the winning candidates in the 2001 city election sought our support indicated progress toward a more substantial end than gaining power: introducing new values into the city’s political culture. We had demonstrated that action can be as powerful as passing laws.

One of the sweet ironies of this election was that we inner-city landlords, often called “racists” by our liberal critics, had provided critical support to the only African American elected to the City Council, Natalie Johnson Lee. Johnson Lee was given no chance to win. The black establishment of the 5th ward, heavily in debt to Cherryhomes for political and economic favors, was supporting her opponent. I was the only white person present at Johnson Lee’s campaign-strategy session several weeks before the election. It was a grim situation. Yet, when Johnson Lee called for a protest demonstration at the scandal-plagued site of “Heritage Park” along Olson highway, at least half of the protesters were members of our group. We provided help on election day. Travis Lee, Natalie’s husband, told me that had his wife not won the election, they probably would have “had to move to Missouri”. (Cherryhomes had a reputation for personal vindictiveness.) I could relate to this. We were all comrades in arms, black and white, down there at Lucille’s Kitchen, the same place where a race riot provoked by our signs almost took place during the city election campaign four years earlier.

I began to savor the ironies. A year earlier, we landlords had a major falling out with the people from ACORN when they conducted their “slumlord tour” for the media. I wrote in a flier which we passed out this statement: “When you need a place to stay, you go to landlords, not politicians or poverty pimps.” ACORN’s leader, a candidate for the Minneapolis City Council, objected strenuously to that statement. I agreed to apologize for the “poverty pimp” comment if they would stop referring to us as “slumlords”. We never did resolve the argument. A year later, ACORN activists were distributing the anti-Cherryhomes literature that our people wrote. So we were comrades with them as well. Politics is a strange business. If it can occasionally reconcile antagonistic extremes, there may be spiritual value in it as well. My wife, whose family suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution, has often quoted her father’s opinion that politics is “dangerous”. She personally disliked political activities though, as a good trooper, she would support me. I, however, found politics personally exhilarating.

Another thing that I learned from the landlord group is not to be judgmental. We were frequently being told that, because the public viewed us as slumlords, we had to work extra hard to clean up our image. We needed to position ourselves as a “responsible” landlords’ group. We needed ethical standards for our members. That’s how the smart professional groups work, we were told. I always rejected that advice because it was playing into the “divide and conquer” strategy of our enemies.

Occasionally, in discussions with hostile groups, someone would say to soften me up: “I’m not talking about you personally, of course. I’m sure you’re a good landlord. I’m talking about those other, bad landlords.” To that, I would respond, “I’m a certifiably bad landlord who has been denounced by my neighborhood association for coddling criminals.” That would always shut the other person up. Dividing and conquering the landlord community would not work in my case. We did not try to tell our fellow landlords how they should run their businesses. We were more like a union. I will always remember a conversation with Sean Rice, a former judge who had been disciplined by a judicial ethics committee, while I stood with my sign outside the 1997 DFL city convention. He said that, from his experience, those who serve on ethics committees are the most unethical persons of all.

This attitude extended to our videotaped meetings. We might have tried to control and polish our image so that people would see us as “the good guys”. Instead, we hosted a free-speech forum. Anyone could come to the meeting. Anyone could stand up before the microphone and say anything he or she wanted to say. Some individuals, especially when they had been drinking, would make statements that came off as racist. It did not matter. The public, used to slick public-affairs shows, began to recognize that our meetings were authentic. Real people were up there speaking their minds. Our reputation for tolerating free speech became a source of strength. Black people, tenants, and others of diverse background started coming to our meetings. Political candidates, wanting free air time, were not ashamed to be seen on our show.

We could survive being called “slumlords”. We could survive all the slanders attached to our name, even the free-circulation Property Owner newspaper which contained lots of typos and printed off-color jokes. After Natalie Johnson Lee was elected to the City Council, I was horrified to hear that one of our members, dead drunk, had ridden around with her in the limo on election day telling stories about picking up underage boys in Brazil. Natalie took it in stride. At our next meeting, she wryly referred to “Mr. Brazil” when he stepped up to the mike to ask a question. Where she could have been huffy, I was grateful that she instead showed restraint.

Freed of the need to defend our respectability, I felt that the group was strong. We had a cohesive group of individuals with diverse talents who worked unselfishly together. We did not have ideological quarrels because we were an action group. Unlike some, we were also a group whose members had resources. Our annual “dues” of $55.00, supplemented by emergency contributions from the group’s heavy hitters, covered the cost of retaining the hour-long time slot on Channel 6 and what we paid Bryan Olson to produce it. This show appeared twice on Fridays and several times more on the Minneapolis cable-access station during the weekend.

In truth, the Property Rights group had become a media operation. Our “meetings” were staged cable-television events. In addition, the “Property Owner” newspaper, published by Jim Jacobsen, gave us a monthly presence in the print media. Another member, John Penterman, set up a web site for the group at www.propertyrights-mn.com. In the name of the group, I submitted an application for a license for a low-watt radio station. However, our license never came through. Congress imposed restrictions on use of adjacent frequencies which crippled the FCC initiative in large cities such as Minneapolis. But that was enough: a cable-television show, a web site, and a free-circulation newspaper, plus whatever publicity we could generate in the large commercial media. As a political operation, we were firing on all cylinders.

After its City Hall reporter Kevin Diaz moved to Washington, D.C., the Star Tribune stopped reporting our activities except once, in a story on Rybak’s housing policies, when it referred to us as a “rump group of landlords organized around the banner of property rights”, and again in our 2002 demonstration at City Hall against Joe Biernat’s remaining in office. The same was true of City Pages. We had numerous protest activities which sometimes attracted commercial television crews and reporters from other newspapers, but never from City Pages or the Star Tribune.

I suspected that this might be because Charlie Disney and I had threatened to sue the Twin Cities Reader while a man named Claude Peck was its editor. Peck may have first taken a dislike to me when I bugged him for permission to reprint an article. Perhaps I was too pushy: I had called him back several times one afternoon while I was racing to finish certain business before leaving town. When we finally made contact, Peck shouted insults at me over the phone.

Peck, as editor of the Reader, then wrote a derogatory column about Disney and me after we and other landlords spoke out at the Minneapolis “Town Meeting” in September, 1996. “A number of these apartment-owning malcontents, woe-is-me City Hall haters, these politicking whiners, hogged a lot of mike time at last week’s Town Meeting,” Peck wrote. “After hearing their pain, it’s clear that you can put half-glasses and a sport coat on a problem landlord, you can give him a clipboard and perch a peak cap on his noggin, but you just cannot get the dunderhead to shut his pie-hole.”

For me, worse than the rhetoric was that Peck’s article had repeated a false statistic - that my apartment building had registered 290 police calls - after the Twin Cities Reader was informed of its falsity. (A malicious staff person from Harrison Neighborhood Association had fed that statistic to Reader reporter David Schimke. I pointed out the error in a letter to the editor which the Reader published a week or two before Peck’s column appeared.) Then, in a later issue, his newspaper published an anonymous letter to the editor continuing the attack on us which, after an investigation, we strongly suspected was written in house. Our threatened lawsuit against the Reader forced a public apology for that stunt. After the Twin Cities Reader was merged into City Pages, Peck went over to the Star Tribune. He became the features team leader in the paper’s Metro section.

In that position, I imagine that Peck might have been able to block proposed stories about Minneapolis landlord groups if he wished to do so, but more likely he needed some help. Peck had, I believe, an additional capability. He was an out-of-the-closet gay man. I know this because a subsequent column in the Reader written by Peck referred to that fact. The Star Tribune, like most other U.S. newspapers, has demographic lobbies in the newsroom, presumably including one for gays and lesbians, which influence news coverage. Such lobbies give members “instant friends” in scattered parts of the organization. Sharing each other’s political values, they may act as a team, enlisting support not only from members of their own group but from other demographic groups comprising the cultural left. All this is, of course, opaque to readers of the newspaper; we see only the biased result of the reporting. I can therefore only hypothesize whether what seems to me to be chilly treatment of our landlord group and, perhaps, of me personally by the Star Tribune is due to Claude Peck’s influence, alone or reinforced by cultural lobbies in the newsroom.

Kevin Diaz once described the Minneapolis DFL party as a coalition embracing three principal groups: feminists, members of public-sector unions, and gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgendered (GLBT) individuals. Was the Property Rights group burdened by animosity from Peck or others in the gay community directed at me? Were gay men reacting negatively to something in my personality? My suspicions increased when a newly elected, openly gay member of the Minneapolis City Council, Gary Schiff, refused to shake Eve White’s hand at a public meeting, commenting that, now that he was elected, he “did not have to be nice to landlords any more”. We asked a City Hall insider about this. The response was that Schiff did not like Bill McGaughey because “he (McGaughey) does not speak the king’s English”. In my plain-speaking, aggressively male way, I had pressed police officials too hard to justify their policies at a public meeting which this Council Member-elect had also attended.

It would serve no useful purpose for me to pick a quarrel with the gay community even if a connection could be established between a “gay mafia” in the Star Tribune newsroom and the paper’s treatment of me or the landlord group. Gays and lesbians do face real discrimination in society. I may be entirely off base in my suspicions of Claude Peck. The issue here is the influence of individual journalists with an ax to grind and of hidden groups in the newsroom. No one knows what personal agendas its editors and reporters may have in covering a story or in deciding whether or not to run a story. If the media are consistently biased in a certain respect, that poisons the atmosphere for the whole community. At a meeting of the Property Rights group, I once likened advocacy journalism to a basketball team which was also allowed to record the game’s official score; if the team found itself a point or two behind, it could simply erase several of the other team’s baskets and win the game that way.

The news media, setting the agenda of public discussion, is like a fourth branch of government. As such, it is the only branch in private hands. That means that media employees are shielded from public criticism to a great extent. You cannot fire a reporter or editorial writer with whose policies you disagree as you can vote a government official out of office. Hostile journalists at the Star Tribune could be “in office” for decades. When such a dominant newspaper exhibits consistently biased reporting, this becomes a political problem for the community. The problem is compounded when the newspaper’s articles and editorials are published anonymously, without a byline, or when unseen editors behind the scene control point of view. I would respect these journalists more if they came forth as individuals and said, “I hate you,” or “This is my opinion.” But to practice attack journalism while hiding behind an institutional facade is like scribbling obscene messages on a bathroom wall. Greater public disclosure is the answer.

The principal lesson that I have learned from my experiences with the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee is that a political organization, or indeed the political community as a whole, cannot function effectively without media support. Especially in cities with newspapers like the Star Tribune, you cannot depend on the large commercial media to do the job. The trick is to bypass these people. As political actors, you need your own media. You need to amplify the image of what you are doing and thinking to reach the larger community. Otherwise, the realm of politics will be too large for individuals to affect events. You wil not be able to “fight City Hall”.

We did fight City Hall successfully because we had our own pipeline to community opinion. However small the pipeline was, its content was within our control. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people regularly watched our cable-television show, and thousands more read the newspaper. This may not seem like much competition for the Star Tribune, but its authenticity made up for size especially when the public was fed up with bias in the mainstream media. We were on to something important. It may be that media coverage, or lack thereof, will be a critical battleground of politics in the future.

I must report that the year following the 2001 city elections has been difficult for the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. Membership has dwindled. Attendance is down at the meetings. We had barely enough money to continue the cable-television show through the year. As Charlie Disney carped from the sidelines, Eve White valiantly tried to hold the group together. She and we have made some mistakes. One mistake was to let politicians and political candidates take up too much time on our cable-television show. Besides winners such as Attorney General Mike Hatch and State Auditor Pat Awada, there have been Green Party candidates for assorted positions, unelectable Republicans running in heavily DFL districts, and, yes, a nonendorsed Independence Party candidate for U.S. Senate (me) taking up precious air time. We need to return to our core themes of housing and crime. Why should landlords underwrite free media exposure for political candidates unless they benefit from it?

Personal rifts have also appeared within the group - between Charlie and Eve, between me and Keith Reitman, between Eve and Jim Swartwood. The last was especially serious because it signified a rift between the group’s cable-television operation and the new Watchdog newspaper founded by Swartwood and Frank Trisko. Such a small group of people associated with a much-reviled occupation cannot afford rifts.

Our reputation for political potency took a drubbing when, running for Greg Gray’s vacated House seat in district 58B, attorney Keith Ellison was elected with 67% of the votes, running against four other candidates. The candidate whom we supported, Duane Reed, finished third in the voting. The DFL party ran an ad in Insight News during the last week of the campaign attacking Reed for his association with us. We were called “an anti-community group”. Disk jockeys on radio station KMOJ spread rumors on election day that voters were being turned away at the polls because they had UDs (unlawful detainers) on their rental-history records. Those evil landlords were at it again! Ellison and Reed were both African American men with substantial community support. It was a shame to see Reed, the superior candidate, lose the election due to hateful messages directed at us.

Early in the year, I recognized that the Property Rights group faced two new problems. First, since the 2001 city elections had gone our way, we no longer had the bogeymen in city government (Cherryhomes and Sayles Belton) to hold up before the landlord community when we sought financial contributions. We did twice protest the fact that Joe Biernat remained in office after federal prosecutors went after him for crimes related to free plumbing work on his house; but that was a less compelling event than our protests the year before. Even though Biernat qualified as a certifiable villain from our point of view, this was too much like kicking a man when he is down. Some accompanying us to City Hall shouted insults at our friends in city government. We were at risk of coming off as a pack of mad dogs.

Second, our membership was declining, in part, because property values were rising in the city. Landlords who were trapped in sour real-estate investments once desperately joined our group. But now we were receiving notes from former landlords who had cashed in their Minneapolis real estate. Good luck, the notes would say, but I have moved on to other pursuits. I thought it might be time for me to move on as well. Seven long years of intense, unpaid work on behalf of the city’s landlord community was enough. I would continue to support the group but channel my main energies in another direction.

The new direction led to a rather nutty venture called “Orange Party”, another of my ideas. The Orange Party, sounding like a rival to the Green Party or some such organization, was not intended to be a political party at all but an instrument for political action. My “Orange Party” was, in fact, a generic version of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. What we accomplished in the city of Minneapolis for owners of rental property might be accomplished for any political interest group that followed the same methods. The key was to have a media capability. The Orange Party, as I saw it, would be a coalition of interest groups, ranging across the political spectrum, which would have its own cable-television show and free-circulation newspaper. The constituent groups would, of course, have to work out the financial arrangements to support that enterprise. They would have to work out the details of organization. But it could be done. We Minneapolis landlords had shown that a successful political organization could be built upon those principles.

I produced literature for the Orange Party, which was printed in two sides on bright orange paper, and also created a web site at www.orangeparty.org. The next step was to take the idea to persons of known political interest. One could find such people at political parties’ state conventions. Since I planned to be in China during the DFL state convention in early May, I asked two of my landlord colleagues, Bob Anderson and Frank Trisko, to pass out Orange Party literature at this convention held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. They distributed one thousand pieces. It was my turn, then, to hit the Republican state convention held at the Xcel Center in St. Paul. I spent the better part of a day there on June 14th, passing out several hundred pieces of literature.

While running into old acquaintances and having some interesting conversations, I also realized that the concept of an “Orange Party” was too subtle to gain acceptance. It sounded too much like an ordinary political party; and what was I doing soliciting people who were committed Republicans? I was tilting at windmills again. I was again being that isolated writer with ideas to save the world who came off as a bit of a kook. No one responded to the web site. I received just one telephone call expressing interest in the project. The Orange Party would have to be put on the shelf.

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