Minneapolis Mayor’s Memo: Busload of Candidates and Debates, Not Many Clear Answers

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(This is the second in a weekly series of memos from The UpTake about the 2013 Minneapolis Mayoral Election)

Story for The UpTake by Kathryn Nelson

Last week’s Minneapolis Mayoral race was heavy on debates but light on insights into which candidate might survive a 35-candidate Battle Royal to actually win the Nov. 5 election.

Last week, the Star Tribune released a mayoral poll that ranked eight of the 35 candidates according to who was most likely to be chosen by voters if the election occurred now. “Not Sure” may have been the big winner, especially in a Ranked Choice Voting election where second- and third-preference votes almost certainly will come into play before a victor is proclaimed.

“Not Sure” was selected by 16 percent of poll responses, tying for first place in a dead heat with City Council member Don Samuels, a DFLer, and Dan Cohen, a Republican who served on the City Council four decades ago and ran for mayor in 1969. Both Samuels and Cohen also finished with 16 percent of the poll preferences.

Many observers have thought that DFLers Betsy Hodges and Mark Andrew, who battled to a non-endorsement standoff at the city DFL convention in June, might be leading the parade. But Hodges, with 14 percent, and Andrew, with 10 percent, trailed the iconoclastic Samuels and Cohen. Maybe the real winner, at this point, is “Summer.” Perhaps most voters have not yet turned their attention from beaches and golf courses to the task of selecting the city’s next mayor.

With no clear outcome, the candidates spent the week debating and jockeying for attention to try to stand out from the crowd of other candidates. Last Monday, half a dozen of the leading contenders (Samuels, Hodges and Andrew, plus DFLer Jackie Cherryhomes, Independent Cam Winton and the Independence Party candidate, Stephanie Woodruff, tangled in an education forum at the Mill City Museum.

Sponsored by a handful of education reform organizations, the event focused on several charged topics including race issues, low-performing schools, classroom discipline and out-of-school suspensions, the relevancy of standardized testing, increasing flexible hiring practices and improving cultural competence training.

In general, the candidates agreed on key issues. The majority thought that schools should limit or erase out-of-school suspensions, reduce standardized testing, be more flexible about hiring and firing teachers, support partnerships with Teach for America and encouraging additional cultural competence training and diversity with employees and teachers.

Monday’s debate was overshadowed by a same-day MinnPost interview with out-going three-term Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, in which Rybak provided advice for the future mayor of Minneapolis as well as doled out some scathing comments about a certain DFL candidate.

In the interview, Rybak said that during his 12 years as mayor, he was most remorseful about not doing more with education policy stating that, “I could have played a larger role back then, and it is one of my largest regrets as mayor.”

Calling the mayor’s role in education policy “absolutely essential,” Rybak said in the interview that he’s worried his successor “won’t be brave enough” or “act with enough urgency.”

Drilling down to individual candidates, Rybak said in the MinnPost interview:

Samuels has an “extraordinary passion for his work” as well as the “guts to be able to stand up and say very uncomfortable things if it’s going to help kids in need.” Rybak also said Samuels has the “boldest plan for addressing the achievement gap” but worries he may not have the “discipline and focus to sustain his passion in a comprehensive, strategic way.”

Winton has been “very aggressive” on education issues, Rybak said, but added that education is, “about political leadership in a city,” and not just about mayoral control — an idea Winton has suggested.

Jackie Cherryhomes “has the potential to do more,” Rybak said.

Betsy Hodges has “the most comprehensive approach for youth in our city,” Rybak said, praising her support of early childhood education. But, Rybak said, her “neutral position” toward education policy may hurt her in the end and that “sometimes you need somebody who is going to pound their fist and be irrational in the name of kids who aren’t succeeding. I think she’s got to demonstrate that.”

Saving the most cutting comments for Andrew, Rybak said that though his “impulses are right,” Andrew’s thoughts on charter schools were unsophisticated and his controversial comments during a union meeting were “reckless” and “deeply stupid.” “Throwing around language that gets applause at a union meeting and is going to get you no traction in the collaboration you need is wrong,” Rybak said in the interview.

Another mayoral debate last week was a semi-private affair held at the swanky Minneapolis Club and moderated by Minneapolis Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer. There were only a limited number of tickets for the event — $25 for non-members — and the debate wasn’t recorded or taped.

According to tweets from the event, candidates covered topics such as recycling and the downtown garbage incinerator, ranked-choice voting, the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium, financial transparency, and racism within the Minneapolis Police Department.

The final debate of the week was held Thursday evening at Pepito’s Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. Hosted by the Hale-Page-Diamond Lake Community Association and moderated by the League of Women Voters, the debate featured 10 rounds of questioning with a wide-ranging set of topics. This time, Cohen was invited to the discussion, as well as the Usual Half Dozen “leading” candidates.

MinnPost reporter Marlys Harris and Southwest Journal reporter Sarah McKenzie boiled the event down to these highlights:

* Though Harris called Samuels “inexplicably languid” during the entire debate, Samuels did emphasize the importance of making Minneapolis streets safer and said he wanted to help change the culture of bad behavior by some police officers.
* Hodges promoted an increase in mass transit, encouraged closing the gap between whites and nonwhites in Minneapolis and building relationships between police and their community.
* Cherryhomes said she wanted to use the “mayor’s bully pulpit” to improve schools, that she also supports community policing partnerships, she believes neighborhoods are the strongest asset for Minneapolis, and that she wants to develop 120 surface parking lots in downtown Minneapolis.
* Winton said he would save taxpayer money by consolidating “bloated back-office functions” and not replacing retiring baby-boomer city employees. He also said he wants to install cameras to monitor police officers and reduce misconduct as well as create “form-based zoning” – a modern urban planning technique that encourages unified building regulations instead of the current hodgepodges of normal zoning codes.
* Cohen said he would stop “foolish spending, starting with the Vikings stadium”, and that badly behaving police officers should be fired. Cohen also argued that downtown Minneapolis needs a casino.
* Woodruff said the Minneapolis Police Chief needs more authority to hire and fire officers. She also said she wanted to develop the waterfront.

(To comment, complain or suggest a story, write Executive Editor Nick Coleman at: nick.coleman@theuptake.org)

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