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Candidate Debates in the Summer of 2009

Metro Property Rights Action Committee, a landlord group committed to bringing information about the practices of city government to the public through its televised meetings on the third Wednesday of each month, devoted its meetings in July, August, and September to presentations by candidates for Minneapolis City Council and Mayor. Originally, the idea was to host candidate debates, including all candidates running for an office, but that wasn’t possible. Incumbents were unable or unwilling to participate.

The meeting in July (July 15) was to have been a debate between candidates for City Council in the 4th ward. Council President Barb Johnson accepted the invitation in a telephone conversation with the event’s organizer, Bill McGaughey. So did her principal opponents at the time, Marcus Harcus and Troy Parker. McGaughey sent out an announcement of the prospective debate. Then, on July 14, he received an angry telephone message from Johnson’s campaign manager accusing him of saying that Johnson would participate when he never had contacted the campaign. Eventually, this misunderstanding was corrected when the candidate herself called McGaughey to say that she had not been clear on the date and she now had three other commitments for the same evening.

So July’s event had fallen through. McGaughey promptly sent email messages to a number of candidates saying that there would be free air time for any candidate who came to the meeting place, Martin Luther King community building in south Minneapolis, at 6:30 p.m. Four responded. There were three half-hour segments of programming available on MTN (Minneapolis Television Network), the local public-access station.

Hosts Jim Swartwood and Bill McGaughey gave the first half-hour segment to Marcus Harcus who had originally been scheduled to debate his fourth ward opponents, Troy Parker and Barb Johnson. (Parker, too, had a scheduling conflict for this time.) Harcus, affiliated with the Green Party, is a community organizer in north Minneapolis. He spoke of his personal experiences with racial profiling by the police and called for new representation on the council to replace a family dynasty.

The next half-hour segment went to Kris Broberg, an Independent candidate for city council in the 13th ward (also endorsed by the Independence Party) who is running against incumbent DFLer, Betsy Hodges, and another candidate. This is perhaps the most conservative (or non-DFL) ward in the city. Broberg, who has a business background, stressed the city’s financial crisis and thought his background equipped him well to deal with those challenges.

The third segment was divided between Kenya McKnight, a candidate for Minneapolis city council in the 5th ward (20 minutes) , and DeWayne Townsend, a candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation (10 minutes). McKnight, who is running hard against incumbent Don Samuels, has held several positions with nonprofit community organizations in north Minneapolis and enjoys broad grassroots support among 5th ward residents who feel that Samuels pursues policies hostile to racial minorities and the poor. Townsend went over the duties of the Board of Estimate and Taxation and stressed his own familiarity with issues that might come before this body. (Ironically, voters will decide in November whether to support the City Council proposal to eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation and give its powers to the Council.)

After this meeting, Bill McGaughey sent out email messages to all candidates for Mayor, City Council, Park Board, and Board of Estimate and Taxation, inviting them to participate in candidate forums to be held in August and September. (October’s meeting comes too late in the month to guarantee that the segments will be televised before the November 3rd election.) There was a potential conflict of interest here in that the two cohosts were themselves candidates for city office this year: Bill McGaughey for mayor and Jim Swartwood for Board of Estimate and Taxation. These individuals pledged to run a fair program, recusing themselves in debates involving their office.

More than a dozen candidates responded. Mayor Rybak declined the invitation as did Carol Becker, a DFLer on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, who expressed concern about the “conflict of interest”. Two Park Board incumbents, Annie Young and Bob Fine, pointed out that the Park Board also meets on the third Wednesday of each month at the time when the forum would be held. Bruce Lundeen, a 6th ward candidate, had to work at the time of the meeting. Another candidate in the 6th ward, Mike Tupper, pointed out that a debate between the 6th ward candidates would be held at the Whittier neighborhood center on the third Wednesday in September. None of the incumbent City Council members responded to the MPRAC invitation.

The candidate forum in August could not be held at the usual place of MPRAC’s meetings - the Martin Luther King neighborhood center - because this and other park buildings are closed for part of the summer. Instead, a landlord formerly active in MPRAC offered use of a meeting room at the Walsh Title Company in Edina, just off Highway 100. For this month, the group scheduled presentations by candidates in two of the city’s most hotly contested wards, the 5th and the 7th, as well as a debate among candidates for Minneapolis mayor. The sessions were structured so that five minutes or so of each segment would be given to two-minute presentations by candidates from another segment, allowing them each to appear on successive weeks. As previously stated, none of the incumbents was interested in participating in this landlord-sponsored event.

The 7th ward candidate who showed up at the forum on August 19th was Michael Katch, a resident of downtown who has attended numerous hearings and events related to city government. A former member of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, he now makes a living as a currency trader. City finances were Katch’s strong suit. Of interest, too, was the fact that the City of Minneapolis was being sued by Bradley Hoyt of Continental Property Group who claimed that Katch’s opponent, Lisa Goodman, had blocked a development project of his in favor of another developer. Hoyt was seeking damages of $23.6 million from the city. Although Katch had attended several of the court sessions, he did not have specific comments on the case. (More recently judge Stephen Aldrich ruled against the city.)

A lawsuit was also filed against the city and a City Council member from the 5th ward by a rental-property owner, Morris Klock, who claimed that Council Member Don Samuels physically pinned him against the wall and threatened him at the Butter Roll Bakery on West Broadway in July 2007. (This case will not be decided before the election.) One of Samuels’ five opponents, Lennie Chism, who was later joined by the Independence Party candidate Roger Smithrud, talked about economic development in north Minneapolis. Chism was the new owner of a condemned building that once housed Uncle Bill’s Food Market. Both candidates stressed the need for fair treatment of property owners in north Minneapolis as a way to revitalize the area. Two other 5th ward candidates, Natalie Johnson Lee and Kenya McKnight, did not attend because of competing obligations.

The third half-hour segment featured a debate between three mayoral candidates: Papa John Kolstad (endorsed for mayor by both the Republican and Independence Parties), Al Flowers (who runs under the banner of “Truth to the People”), and cohost Bill McGaughey. (McGaughey at first said he would sit out this debate and watch from the audience but the other two candidates asked him to participate.) There was little disagreement among the three candidates that the city has deteriorated on the watch of the current mayor, R.T. Rybak, because of unfriendly policies directed at property owners and city residents, especially the poor.

Candidate Flowers was distinguished by the fact that in July the city condemned the home in which he lived for alleged lack of water service even though service was maintained. (In fact, Flowers said he learned of the condemnation shortly after stepping out of the shower.) The city later said the condemnation was a mistake due to a malfunctioning “stop-cock valve”. Presumably, the fact that he was running for mayor had nothing to do with this.

As in the case of the previous event, the competing candidates were cordial toward each other and urged that their supporters list other candidates at the forum as their second or third choice under Ranked Choice Voting. There was a lively informal discussion that carried on well after the program was over. Out of one such discussion, for instance, came plans for a community celebration in September at the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth avenues to promote Lennie Chism’s vision of a “sidewalk cafe”, similar to ones in Uptown, where Uncle Bill’s Food Market used to operate.

The third candidate forum, held on Wednesday, September 16, brought together the remaining City Council candidates from other wards. As it happened, all three of the candidates in the 10th wards other than DFL-endorsed candidate Meg Tuthill appeared together. They included Kim Vlaisavljevich, an Independent candidate; Matt Dowgwillo, an DFLer, and Dan Alvin, endorsed by the Independence Party. Dowgwillo is a computer consultant; Vlaisavljevich, a financial advisor; and Alvin, a chef. All three stressed preserving the ”Uptown” style of living, building on what Ward 10 already had. Dowgwillo wished to bring more young people into politics. Vlaisavljevich, daughter of a mayor of Eveleth (MN) from the Iron Range, stressed her financial expertise. Alvin suggested that the city accept an offer from public-employee unions to deal with the pension shortfall.

In the second segment, one of the two scheduled guests did not appear (perhaps due to a misunderstanding) so the entire half hour was left to a Ward 4 candidate for the City Council, Grant Cermak, an Independent. No agreement could be reached this month on Barb Johnson’s attending. Troy Parker, who had earlier agreed to attend, backed out because Johnson was not participating. Marcus Harcus had already had his half hour of air time in a previous month. So it came down to Cermak this month.

Cermak criticized problems with policing on the north side. He brought along a friend, Ricky Jones, who had a story to tell. Jones was a free-lance photographer who covered the bar scene downtown. For some reason, perhaps racial, the police resented his work. His camera was taken away from him and the film destroyed. Another time, his car was boxed in by squad cars as he attempted to leave. Jones had a lawsuit pending with the city. Evidently, Cermak and Jones felt that Barb Johnson offered little assistance in resolving such problems.

Because the three Ward 10 candidates had had to share a half hour, they were invited back for another fifteen minutes or so in the last segment. Dowgwillo had leave, but Alvin and Vlaisavljevich, stuck around for additional discussion. A candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation, R. Michaels Maertens, was sitting in the audience. Although BET candidates had not been scheduled to participate, he agreed to come up to the front table and say something about his candidacy, sitting next to Jim Swartwood who was also a BET candidate. As the session ended, Bill McGaughey was announcing the forthcoming community event on Saturday, the 19th, in north Minneapolis, put together by Lennie Chism, to create a new business on the site of the old Uncle Bill’s Food Market.

The meetings of Metro Property Rights Action Committee are open to the public. A microphone is placed to the left of the podium so that audience members can directly engage guests. Normally, ten to fifteen MPRAC members attend the monthly meetings. In this case, the candidates and their guests added to the throng, creating a lively interchange. No one was drawing a salary for this kind of work. It was an example of “civic engagement” at a level of vigor and spontaneity beyond the usual practice.

 

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