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Why MPRAC Died

by Bill McGaughey

   

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee had three successive incarnations under three successive leaders. The first and most dynamic period was between 1994 and 2001 when Charlie Disney led the group. Then, between 2001 and late 2005, Eve White was the group’s leader. Finally, between 2006 and 2010, Jim Swartwood and I kept MPRAC going, though on a reduced scale.

Charlie Disney, Frank Trisko, Bob Anderson, and others spearheaded the growth of the first organization. It started as a group of people who wanted to sue the city of Minneapolis for inspections abuse. When our class-action lawsuit failed, the group focused on communicating with the public through a monthly meeting that was broadcast on cable television. This mainstay activity was supplemented by a free-circulation newspaper begun by Jim Jacobson and by protest activities designed to draw media attention.

Although Charlie Disney called me the group’s “chief writer”, I was actually the architect of several of the protest activities including the card table press conference on the corner of 19th and Portland, the event in the mayor’s anteroom to protest the city’s response to Ann Prazniak’s murder, and the disruption of a Minneapolis City Council meeting in November 1998. I was less involved with the televised meetings and the “crack tours”.

Some of us urged Charlie Disney to run for Mayor of Minneapolis in 2001. He did but then was severely disappointed that the group did not rally to support him as a candidate. During that time, Charlie had a massive heart attack, perhaps related to his disappointment. I stepped in as a mayoral candidate, doing quite poorly. Eve White, whom we had met at the event at 19th and Portland, took over as MPRAC’s leader. She, like Charlie, had a winning personality.

In my opinion, Eve did a credible job in leading the group although Charlie criticized her for losing focus. It was under her leadership that a hostile city leadership was ousted from office in late 2001. We did have monthly meetings (at theElks Club at 25th and 25th and at the Holiday Central near Seven Corners) that had interesting speakers and were reasonably well attended from the middle of 2001 until the end of 2005. Jim McCauley assisted Eve as the camera operator at those meetings. However, it cost more than $10,000 to have an hour-long spot on the regional (metro-wide) cable channel, Channel 6. Several pledges of money did not come through. The group disbanded under those circumstances.

In the middle of 2006, I revived the group. At that time, the focus of protest had shifted to St. Paul where Jim Swartwood owned several properties. Frank Steinhauser and several others from St. Paul who were suing that city attended our first meeting. We decided to rename the group “Metro Property Rights Action Committee” in deference to the St. Paul contingent. Although we could not afford a spot on the regional channel, we did produce shows for the Minneapolis cable-access station, MTN. Jim Swartwood’s girl friend, Loretta Mattson, operated the camera. He also published the “Watchdog” free-circulation newspaper, circulated mainly in Minneapolis. Jim and I were co-hosts at the meetings.

Where Charlie’s organization was able to draw 50 to 60 persons to its meetings, Jim and I ran meetings at the Martin Luther King park in south Minneapolis that attracted perhaps a dozen persons. Also, the MTN show did not have the viewership of the show on the regional channel.

When Charlie was running the group, a professional video man, Bryan Olson, operated the camera and produced the tapes for cable television. Under Eve White, Jim McCauley, a fellow landlord, provided the same function but was not paid. In the group’s third incarnation, Loretta Mattson did the camera work and Jim Swartwood produced the tapes for MTN. But then Jim and Loretta broke up. Jim had to try to juggle the camera work with being a host for the show. It became more difficult to continue the operation.

Charlie, who died in 2014, lived through the period of Eve’s leadership but did not want to be in a subordinate role. He seldom came to the group’s meetings. Likewise, Eve, who had feuded with Jim Swartwood, came to one meeting of the successive organization and then stayed away. The reason may have been that she and Frank Steinhauser had had an angry exchange of words at this meeting. Frank, too, never returned to the MPRAC meetings. So Jim and I were left alone.

So why did MPRAC die? I blame myself partly for that unfortunate event. If Eve lost focus, I lost it even more. I owned fewer rental properties than some other members and did not have as strong an interest in being a property owner. I had fewer contacts for potential speakers. I did have an interest in political affairs, especially after running unsuccessfully for mayor. After the turn of the millennium, my interests shifted more in that direction.

I believed that it would be hard to sustain a landlord “movement” at the level of intensity that existed in the period between 1997 and 1999 under Charlie Disney’s leadership. We were up against a city bureaucracy and DFL political infrastructure that had staying power. It could outlast us and then retaliate. What we had to do, I thought, was build a political structure that also could endure. However, the landlord occupation is too narrow to sustain a political movement or party that could win elections. We had somehow to be incorporated in an organization of greater breadth in terms of interest and membership.

I eyed the Independence Party of Minnesota for that role. Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota on the Tuesday after we shut down the Minneapolis City Council. There was a common spirit of rebelliousness. The Independence Party could be the party of small business, which MPRAC also represented, plus whatever other interests might be engaged.

And so I affiliated with the Independence Party of Minnesota. In 2002, I challenged the party-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in the primary, winning 31 percent of the vote against his 50 percent. In 2008, I was the party’s candidate for Congress in the 5th district winning 22,000 votes or 7 percent of the total.

However, I think my political activities were detrimental to being a leader of MPRAC. First, it may have seemed that I was using MPRAC to further my personal ambitions. Second, many of my ideas and interests differed from those of other MPRAC members. Some members believed that I was too liberal. In any event, I was straying from landlord themes. One of Charlie’s core principles was “stay on message”. I violated that prescription and made some enemies within the group.

My forte was not running a televised meeting but planning protest events and, by default, representing the group at the state capitol. On December 12, 2011, Frank Trisko and I carried out a small demonstration in the chambers of the Minneapolis City Council when the council met to revoke the rental licenses of a landlord, Ron Folger, who was not a member of our group. Our “heartless” signs and vocal accompaniment made both the local television news and the Star Tribune newspaper. (See account of this event.) Earlier that year, I had met with the chair of the Minnesota Senate’s Judiciary committee, Warren Limmer, to discuss possible legislation that might benefit landlords.

What really put the nail in the coffin of MPRAC, however, was personal problems that I had at the time when this group folded. Literally, I was working at the computer in my office on materials for Senator Limmer when my wife took my checkbook, bit me, called 911 and had me arrested for domestic assault. I was then under a no-contact order which meant that I had to live away from my home for the following month. Then, in March 2011, my wife filed for divorce. For the next two years I had to work on the divorce case, dealing by myself with a hostile judge. To deal with the domestic-abuse charges and paperwork connected with the divorce consumed much of my time. (See http://www.billmcgaughey.com/legalchallenges.html.) I simply did not have the leisure and resources to devote to landlord activities. I was now having to fight the courts.

Despite the city’s attempt to condemn my home in March 2011, my own relations with the city have improved somewhat in recent years, especially after a new City Council representative was elected in 2013. By myself, I have done what I could to help private-sector landlords in writing letters to the editor and maintaining this archive of MPRAC memories at www.landlordpolitics.com. But the group itself is defunct except for occasional luncheons attended by old members at a Chinese restaurant. And, Charlie Disney, Mel Gregerson, and Nancy MacGibbon have died. You can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

I tend to see MPRAC as a model of what can be accomplished politically under the type of leadership that Charlie demonstrated fifteen years ago. Yes, you can successfully fight City Hall if you have an authentic group of people who are properly motivated.

 

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