Would-be political Comeback Kids can be compelling journalistic subjects. It’s not just that their bids for office involve familiar names and records, though that helps when pitching their stories to editors.
It’s also that “formers” make themselves visible and vulnerable in a quest for something that’s nearly universally desired yet not often available — a second chance. Readers can identify with such bids and admire the courage that they require, even in candidates they don’t otherwise support.
Knowing that, I scratched my head twice last week about Jackie Cherryhomes, the former Minneapolis City Council president who is running for mayor after leaving office in defeat 12 years ago.
My first puzzlement was about this newspaper’s decision to omit Cherryhomes from a series of five profiles of mayoral candidates. Her sixth-place showing in a Sept. 8-10 poll conducted for the Star Tribune plus comparatively lackluster fundraising meant that she didn’t make the newsroom’s cut. But given the poll’s statistical margin of error, she was nearly tied with two others who were profiled, businessman Cam Winton and former Hennepin County Board chair (and another potential comebacker) Mark Andrew.
The second time she gave me pause was when I asked about her attempt to revive her political career.
“I don’t necessarily think of it as a comeback, because I never left,” she said.
She elucidated: Since 2002, she’s been the principal in Cherryhomes-Tyler Inc., a consulting firm that helps developers and other businesses navigate government regulatory processes. Many of her projects have involved doing just what she tried to do for her Fifth Ward, on the city’s near North Side, for 12 years on the City Council and for a decade before that as a community organizer and development director of the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council. She’s still trying to bring jobs, affordable housing, more transit and opportunity to the least advantaged parts of Minneapolis.
But she works more directly with businesses, and has acquired deeper appreciation for the positive role they play in city betterment, she said.
Further, she said, a mayoral bid is also not a comeback because the job of mayor and council member are quite different. “You elect a City Council member to represent you. You elect a mayor to be a leader.”
Those points are well-taken. But the reality for 59-year-old Cherryhomes is that she has struggled to be seen among the front-runners in the humongous, 35-person mayoral race. Hers is no longer a familiar name. Her involvement in recent city activities has been largely invisible to those who remember her. A whole generation of city voters has come of age who don’t.
Voters who witnessed city politics in the 1990s may remember that when she led the City Council, it wasn’t known for sweetness and harmony. An editorial published the day after she and her political ally, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, went down to defeat said that too often in dealings with the 13-member City Council they “counted to seven votes and stopped, opening a rift that came back to haunt.”
But those close votes led to accomplishments that have lost their controversial taint. Few city voters today would argue that it was wrong to use a city tax break to adhere Target’s corporate headquarters to downtown. Cherryhomes deserves more than passing credit for North Loop redevelopment, keeping the Federal Reserve headquarters downtown, refinancing Target Center to keep the NBA Timberwolves in Minnesota, and saving three aging downtown theaters — including moving one of them — so that the city today can boast about a theater district on Hennepin Avenue.
The team that ran City Hall in those years is together again in Cherryhomes’ campaign. Sayles Belton and then-City Coordinator Kathleen O’Brien are strong Cherryhomes supporters. So is Walter (Rocky) Rockenstein, a council member in the 1970s and 1980s. But their endorsements in 2013 don’t pack the political punch they would have a decade or two ago. That illustrates the dilemma of a comeback candidate. The people who can best vouch for you are as unknown as you to the voters you most need to reach.
It hasn’t escaped my attention — nor Cherryhomes’ — that one of the other “formers” in the mayoral race does not seem to be as much defined by his history in elected office as she has been. Cherryhomes notes that she is invariably introduced as a former City Council president, not as the business-owning consultant she’s been for 11 years. Mark Andrew’s 16 years on the Hennepin County Board gets mentioned, but he’s more often mentioned as the green-energy business consultant that he’s become since leaving the county post in 1999.
Cherryhomes is 59; Andrew is 63. But she has been portrayed as “dated” and “from the ’90s” more often than he has been.
Why the difference? Feminists report that their sexism antennae are buzzing. But the difference might also be backhanded recognition that the post Cherryhomes held in the 1990s was and is more powerful than the County Board position that Andrew filled from 1983 to 1999. One could argue that her past office is mentioned more often because it’s more relevant to the office she’s seeking.
Another difference: Andrew left elective office voluntarily. Cherryhomes’ defeat in 2001 was a bigger surprise than Sayles Belton’s loss to R.T. Rybak that year. That puts a different color on their two comeback bids this year. Andrew is seen as a guy with a hearty appetite for public service. Cherryhomes is suspected of seeking vindication.
She has a ready response to such talk. “This isn’t about personal gratification,” she said. “I’ve got all of that … Life isn’t a popularity contest for me. I’m a happy, centered person.” Rather, she said, she offers the city steady, experienced hands and a more patient and open heart than she possessed a dozen years ago.
Cherryhomes is asking voters to believe not only in second chances, but also that people — including politicians — improve with age. In this cynical age, that’s proving a hard sell.
Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.