Candidates vying for Minneapolis' only open mayoral seat in two decades debated for the first time Wednesday afternoon, offering competing views on stadiums, taxes and government reform.
The packed debate at the University of Minnesota, the first of the 2013 campaign to replace outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak, fell less than three weeks before candidates will vie for delegates at the city's DFL caucuses. The five candidates, all current or former members of local government, largely split their time between highlighting past achievements and criticizing the status quo at City Hall.
Minneapolis City Council Members Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels and Gary Schiff, as well as council president-turned-lobbyist Jackie Cherryhomes and marketing executive Mark Andrew, formerly a Hennepin County commissioner, took part. The other candidate in the race, independent candidate Cam Winton, was excluded because he is not vying for the DFL nomination.
Some of the sharpest contrasts between the candidates centered on the city's $309 million — or $675 million accounting for interest — subsidy of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium on the Metrodome site. Hodges and Schiff voted against diverting city sales taxes to the deal, while Samuels voted for it.
"We'll have the opportunity to elect a mayor this November who will speak up for the taxpayers of Minneapolis and make sure that Minneapolis gets a better deal," Schiff said. "To make sure that we find more progressive ways of funding a stadium."
Samuels noted that the stadium will be a job creator, and was going to be built regardless of the city's involvement. "Minneapolis was going to get run over or get on board," he said.
Hodges said given the failure of electronic pulltabs to generate expected revenue for the state's share, she worries that the city could be asked at some point to kick in more to bail out the stadium project. "When I'm mayor, the answer to that question will be no," she said.
Andrew said he opposed the stadium's Metrodome location and financing plan, particularly the use of gambling revenues. But he will embrace the facility because of the jobs. "As mayor, it would be lunacy to advocate presiding over a hole in the ground," he said.
Cherryhomes agreed that, while she also wanted to build it elsewhere, the stadium will be "an opportunity to put our brothers and sisters in labor back to work again."
Property taxes, which have risen dramatically during the Rybak administration, are likely to be a pressing issue for Minneapolis homeowners this November. Cherryhomes made the strongest commitment when candidates were asked if they would pledge to hold the line.
"I am not the least bit interested in raising property taxes. It's not an option for me," she said, arguing that the focus should be on growing the tax base and reforming city services. "I think we need to look at other things."
Samuels said the city needs to "draw a line" on property taxes without compromising basic services, but he deferred on a pledge not to raise them. "The pain is now at a 10. And we can't pile on any more."
Hodges, who chairs the City Council's budget committee, said her efforts on pension reform averted $20 million in potential property tax increases in 2012. Local government aid cuts from the state, however, continue to put pressure on the city's government, she said.
Andrew, the only non-Minneapolis politician on the panel, criticized City Hall for cutting programs and raising taxes. "The city is behind on innovation," he said. "It is behind on service redesign. These problems have festered for a long time."
Schiff said the city was saddled with debt when he came into office because of "giveaways" done before he arrived — a veiled dig at the Cherryhomes era. He said the city needs to grow its population by developing housing stock that can accommodate a doubling of the senior population in the next 20 years.
Several candidates agreed that the city's regulatory apparatus needs to be reformed. "It's an absolute nightmare to try to locate your business in the city of Minneapolis," Cherryhomes said.
Schiff, who chairs the city's zoning and planning committee, highlighted the city's wine inspectors, who he says cite wine bars if they do not serve bread before wine. "We need to comprehensively look through our liquor codes, look through our regulatory codes, and work to make sure we have the rules on the books that make sense," he said.
Contemplating City Hall reform, Andrew focused on the number of top city officials who have their own "fiefdom." "It's really hard for all of those pieces to be knit together in a way that results in efficiency," he said.
The tone of the debate was largely mellow, except for several impassioned speeches from Samuels. Referring to crime problems, Samuels said, "You can hold me accountable because we're going to wrest this brute and strangle him! The brute of violence and injustice must be stopped. Our citizens must be safe."
Following the debate, Winton observed to reporters that he is the only candidate in the race who doesn't have a background in government. "I would ask what prevented my opponents from achieving all these grand ideas in their [collective] 54 years in government?" said Winton, senior counsel for Duke Energy.
He added that his priorities will be providing essential services, such as police, fire, plowing and paving, with less of a focus than his opponents on "bells and whistles" like streetcars.
The university is expected to hold another forum focusing on Winton's campaign.