A zombie issue is on the loose in Minneapolis. So a number of Nov. 5 election candidates have reported during Editorial Board interviews this month.
What are they hearing from voters?
“If there’s one issue that I’m sure all of us have heard about more than anything else, it’s the stadium,” said Chris Lautenschlager, Green Party candidate in Ward 12.
“It won’t go away,” echoed Ben Gisselman, one of two DFLers running in Ward 12. “Invariably, every night, someone brings it up.”
Somebody call Ghostbusters. The Legislature approved and Gov. Mark Dayton signed legislation to build a new palace, er, stadium for the Minnesota Vikings in May 2012. The ink has been dry for weeks on lease and development agreements between the state, the city of Minneapolis, the team and various contractors for a $975 million edifice.
Groundbreaking is expected about two weeks after the city election, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority says. “I don’t see how it’s possible to stop it at this point,” said the authority’s chair, Michele Kelm-Helgen.
It’s a done deal. It ought to be a dead issue — especially in a city that has a population spurt, aging infrastructure, high property taxes and poor student achievement to talk about in this campaign. The view ahead for the city seems a lot more colorful and compelling than the latest of Minnesota’s many stadium fights, now receding in public policy rearview mirrors.
Yet candidates say that hostility for the deal that was struck at City Hall and the State Capitol 17 long months ago is still intense, especially in parts of Minneapolis known for populist tendencies. Notably, those are also places expected to generate high voter turnout on Nov. 5. Anti-stadium sentiment looks to figure somehow in the election’s outcome.
In Ward 12, it already has. Unhappiness with Ward 12 incumbent Sandra Colvin Roy’s decision to vote for the stadium deal propelled DFLer Andrew Johnson to challenge her for DFL endorsement, which neither received at the party’s convention in April. Two months later, she opted not to seek re-election.
Gisselman related what he called a typical Ward 12 doorstep conversation this fall. A woman last week sputtered that she resents the use of public funds to subsidize big-money professional football when her taxes are high and city services less than optimal. As a smoker, this woman was angry that her funds, via what was essentially a one-time inventory tax on cigarettes, filled a funding gap for the project.
She also never believed that e-pulltab revenues would be sufficient to pay for a stadium, as the deal originally specified, and now thinks state taxpayers were subjected to bait-and-switch political trickery.
After a New Jersey judge slapped team owners Mark and Zygi Wilf with an $85 million judgment in a lawsuit over a real-estate development dispute, she doesn’t trust them to deal honestly with Minnesotans.
“But here’s the big thing: People feel they were robbed of their opportunity to decide on an issue that they believe was theirs to decide,” Gisselman said. They complain about “typical politicians, saying they care about the residents, and then somehow circumventing a rule that is meant to protect us and doing something different.”
The rule he refers to is the provision voters inserted in the City Charter in 1997 (and which will remain there, even if a simpler version of the charter is approved by the Nov. 5 voters). It says that the city may not “finance any professional sports facility in an amount greater than $10 million unless the voters in an otherwise scheduled election … so authorize.”
But the implicit caveat that applies to every provision of any Minnesota city’s charter is “unless the Legislature says otherwise.” The Legislature’s 2012 stadium bill directed the use of a state-authorized city sales tax and hospitality tax to generate $150 million in construction costs and $7 million a year for new stadium operations. It did not allow for a city referendum. Stadium backers at the Capitol knew that asking voters’ permission would imperil the project.
The City Council was required to give its blessing, though, and seven of 13 members did on May 25, 2012. Of those seven, five are seeking re-election — Kevin Reich, John Quincy, Diane Hofstede, Meg Tuthill and council president Barb Johnson. Two of them — Hofstede and Tuthill — were denied DFL endorsement and face formidable opposition that is at least in part fueled by the stadium issue.
The issue remains so touchy in Ward 12 that Colvin Roy felt compelled to urge Gisselman, whom she supports, not to feel obliged to defend her position on the issue. He doesn’t.
“I don’t believe there’s a logical reading of the charter to say there wouldn’t be a referendum. There should have been,” he told the Editorial Board. “That may have put us back at the drawing board. But the hope would be that it would have allowed for a better deal to be reached.”
Stadium second-guesses are plentiful in Minneapolis this fall — and cheap. They don’t obligate the guessers to any particular course of action if elected. They don’t require the courage that the seven pro-stadium council members showed in 2012, or subject them to the wrath of Vikings fans who stood to lose their favorite team if the 2012 deal collapsed.
They don’t even preclude city politicians from changing their tunes in a few years, when an iconic new stadium snags a Super Bowl for Minneapolis and anchors a $400 million new job-producing development in what is now a sleepy part of downtown (the Star Tribune block excepted, of course).
But when that happens, I hope this fall’s second-guessers have the decency to say a kind word about Mayor R.T. Rybak and the seven 2012 City Council members whose decision they are decrying now. City candidates who ride stadium opposition into office on Nov. 5 will already be in their debt.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.