A letter to former MPRAC members on the email list (September 21, 2015)
You may or may not know that the archives of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee are posted on the web where they will remain indefinitely. The web site is found at http://www.landlordpolitics.com. Traffic has remained stable at around 250 visits and 500 hits per day.
I have recently started to look at some papers from 20 years ago that Frank Trisko gave me and typed up an article from the Twin Cities Reader about our group to add to the collection. (See http://www.landlordpolitics.com/forcedout.html) The web site has more than 200 articles of various kinds. Also, I ran into Robert Woods at the Government Center who was an active supporter of Natalie Johnson Lee when she defeated Jackie Cherryhomes in the 2001 municipal election. He reminded me of several things I had forgotten. I think we should do more to celebrate this “miracle in the 5th ward” that our group was instrumental in producing.
If you have time, you may want to take a look at landlordpolitics.com to get a sense of the history of our remarkable organization. As you know, Charlie Disney, Frank Trisko, Bob Anderson, and several other landlords founded the group in 1994 for the purpose of suing the city of Minneapolis over inspections abuse. After the suit was thrown out of federal court, Minneapolis Property Owners Committee, as it was then known, reinvented itself as a political-action group with a media capability. We met once a month in Ed Johnston’s office on Blaisdell Avenue and then at Bryant park, Whittier park, the Elks club at 25th and 25th, the Holiday Inn near Seven Corners, and finally at the Martin Luther King park on Nicollet Avenue. The meetings, which drew around 50 persons in the late 1990s, were videotaped and later shown on cable television.
Charlie Disney was “executive director” of the group from 1994 to 2001, when he ran for mayor and promptly had a heart attack. Then Eve White took over as executive director from 2001 to early 2006. Several months later, Jim Swartwood and I resurrected the group and kept it alive through early 2011. The heyday was under Charlie’s leadership but the group still had well-attended meetings through Eve’s tenure as the group’s leader.
Although we were involved in several spectacular protest activities, the key to our success was media - not commercial media which tended to be hostile, but our own media. We had our own hour-long show Friday evenings on the Metro Cable Network (channel 6) that reached the entire Twin Cities area. Bryan Olson was the cameraman and show producer in those days. Later, Jim McCauley assumed that role on a volunteer basis when Eve White presided over the meetings.
Typically, the shows consisted of our monthly meetings. The group’s leader, Charlie or Eve, would moderate discussions featuring outside guests with vocal participation by MPRAC (Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee) members. In later years, Jim Swartwood and I presided over meetings less well attended whose tapes were shown on the Minneapolis cable-access station, MTN.
We also had a free-circulation newspaper to spread our message. Jim Jacobson started it with the “Property Owners” newspaper which published for several years. Later Jim Swartwood brought out the Watchdog which was distributed through news stands on Minneapolis streets. The Watchdog also caused a sensation in St. Paul when city inspectors there harassed old ladies in hospitals, had structurally sound buildings demolished, and caused bars to close because the owner failed to do adequate police work. His “Count Dawkins” cartoon of the St. Paul housing head with blood dripping through his teeth was a masterpiece of political carricature.
One of our main tactics was to tell the stories of landlords and other property owners who had been harassed by city officials, especially housing inspectors. (Andy Ellis, a former housing inspector who owned rental property, gave us an inside view of what the city was doing.) You can read the individual stories of around a dozen Minneapolis landlords at http://www.landlordpolitics.com/horrorstories.html. The St. Paul landlord horror stories are listed at http://www.landlordpolitics.com/stpaul.html. These stories will give you an idea of why MPRAC existed in the first place.
But it is the protest activities that are the most memorable to me. Let me mention a few events. You can also read about some of them at http://www.landlordpolitics.com/earlyhistory.html
The first event to put us on the map was a “press conference” we gave on Labor Day, 1996, on the corner of 19th and Portland in South Minneapolis, scene of the city’s worst “open air drug market”. We were protesting the fact that the city was targeting “crack houses” as drug dealing took place openly on the streets. As duly reported in the Star Tribune, gunshots were heard down the street as our press conference took place.
The municipal election of 1997 provided another memorable moment. Barbara Carlson, our friend, was running against the incumbent mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Charlie and others in our group showed up at a debate between the two candidates in north Minneapolis, carrying signs. One sign read: “A vote for Sharon is a vote for crime.” A female supporter of the mayor grabbed a sign-carrying supporter of Carlson, Donna Elringer, by the hair. Donna’s husband, Maurice, drove up in a car to rescue her. At this point, the mayor’s bodyguard, a police officer, stood in front of the car to block their escape but Maurice kept going. The bodyguard fired shots at the car pulling out of the parking lot. This could have escalated into an ugly racial incident had not both mayoral candidates urged their supporters to stay calm.
In April 1998, the corpse of an elderly woman named Ann Prazniak was found stuffed in a cardboard box in an apartment at 1818 Park Avenue. City officials, of course, blamed the landlord for tolerating crime in his building. MPRAC came to the landlord’s rescue. We staged a well-publicized press conference at City Hall - in the mayor’s anteroom - at which we grilled the landlord with questions about his role in the incident. No, he had taken all reasonable precautions. The mayor and city council representative showed up claiming to want to help landlords and tenants with their problems. We landlords insisted the Prazniak murder was not the tenants’ fault but the fault of Minneapolis police officers who had failed to control street crime. Several tenants who attended the meeting then angrily denounced the mayor for wanting to throw them out on the street. The mayor, facing a public-relations disaster, promised to show up at the building to discuss the situation on the following day. http://www.landlordpolitics.com/bannerman.html
A half year later, in early November 1998, we reached what I consider the peak of our militancy: We shut down a meeting of the Minneapolis City Council. The immediate cause was that the City Council had voted to revoke the rental license of a landlord in north Minneapolis who was not a member of our group. We first picketed a police office and then headed over to City Hall. Charlie got our members to march around the Council chambers with picket signs. Then, when Council President Cherryhomes told us to sit down because it was their meeting, someone in our group shouted: “No, it’s our meeting.” The Council did not know what to do. They dared not arrest us because it was right before an important election - the one that elected Jesse Ventura governor. We videotaped the melee and showed it on cable television, inspiring militancy among other groups. http://www.landlordpolitics.com/citycouncil.html
Equally gutsy were the “crack tours” that Mel Gregerson and Charlie Disney conducted in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. They posed as suburbanites wanting to buy crack cocaine from dealers on the streets. Charlie was the driver and Mel the guy in the front seat who made eye contact with the dealers who would then make their pitch. Unbeknownst to the dealer, a government official or other prominent person was in the back seat observing what went on. We had judges, City Council members, Met Council leaders, and even a U.S. Congressman (Jim Ramstad) as concealed witnesses to these possible transactions. Of course, the deals fell through at the last minute. The hypocrisy of city officials who blamed landlords for the drug problem was thoroughly exposed. Fortunately, Charlie and Mel remained uninjured after twenty some tours of this kind. http://www.landlordpolitics.com/cracktours.html
These were some of the highlights but they do not exhaust what we did then, about fifteen years ago, when Charlie Disney was still healthy and full of fight. Ben Carson, the presidential candidate, found out about the signs that Frank Trisko and Bob Anderson put on buildings condemned by the city of Minneapolis - they said, “another example of failed Minneapolis housing policy”. He and Frank recently had a lengthy telephone conversation about this. We also showed up in force at public meetings irritating our political opponents. We picketed City Hall, police stations, and buildings that city officials were targeting for demolition. We dogged our opponents at City Hall.
The logical end of all this activity was electoral politics - “throw the bums out” would have been the message. In 1997, MPRAC formed a “political committee” and gave it several thousand dollars to donate to friendly candidates for city office. This venture was unsuccessful. Sayles Belton was reelected mayor and none of the City Council candidates that we supported except for Steve Minn was elected. Even so, the political committee did bring new people into our movement. For example, the committee’s chair, Jim Jacobson, later published the “Property Owner” free-circulation newspaper.
Four years later, without even trying, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The year 2001 started out badly. Charlie Disney, a prospective mayoral candidate, had two heart attacks and dropped out of the mayor’s race and a leadership position in MPRAC. I stepped in as a mayoral candidate and did poorly in the primary election held on September 11, 2001.
Even so, the publicity campaign that we had waged for several years paid dividends that year. We actively supported R.T. Rybak for mayor. He came to our meetings three times. Rybak defeated Sayles Belton in November. We were also big supporters of the Green Party candidate in the 5th ward, Natalie Johnson Lee, who also came to our meetings. Amazingly, she knocked off the DFL City Council President, Jackie Cherryhomes, in the November election. Not bad for a one-party town! (In 1997, the city reporter for the Star Tribune, Kevin Diaz, called our organization the only effective opposition to the DFL machine.)
At all our meetings in 2001, we had displayed a sign listing candidates whom we favored and candidates whom we opposed. All the favored candidates won reelection. All but one of the opposed candidates left office - and the one candidate who won reelection in this group later went to prison. I would admit that MPRAC was not the only force behind those stunning results but we did play a part. The 2001 election was an objective scorecard indicating that our campaign to protest city housing policies had not been in vain. http://www.landlordpolitics.com/blowout.html
Alas, you cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again. Mel Gregerson and Charlie Disney have both died within the past two years. Without what Charlie called “thousands of phone calls” as the secret of his success, the group will not be resurrected at a level comparable to what we once had. Right now, the St. Paul landlords’ suit against that city which caused no less a person than Walter Mondale to become involved is where the action is. For us, the old ogres are gone. I think things have improved for Minneapolis landlords although we are never out of the woods.
Our last hurrah as landlords hearkening back to the old days may have been the uproar we caused in the new City Council chambers when the council voted to revoke the rental license of Ron Folger in December 2011. When the proceeding were done, we stood up, waved signs, and shouted “heartless” to the retreating Council members. This, too, prompted an article in the Star Tribune and news reports on several television stations. But it was a far cry from what we once had done and, in the end, did not save Folger. http://www.landlordpolitics.com/ronfolger.html
In the website http://www.landlordpolitics.com, you have a side of the news that was not and will not be adequately covered by the commercial media. For us, it was a heroic struggle to achieve what is often said to be impossible - successfully fighting City Hall. But we did it. Review the old documents and stories on this website and appreciate that you were there.
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