Top talent joining Minneapolis campaigns in race to succeed Mayor R.T. Rybak

Ranked-choice voting could alter the nature of the election.

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In December, Mayor R.T. Rybak announced that he will step down. His wife, Megan O’Hara, and kids Grace and Charlie were at his side.

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Political strategists who have helped Democratic congressional candidates eke out narrow victories from here to New Jersey, mailed campaign ads for Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and helped defeat both proposed Minnesota constitutional amendments last fall now are turning their attention to a new battleground: the Minneapolis mayoral race.

Candidates for the city’s first open mayoral seat in two decades are hiring strategists and raising money in preparation for a long fight that promises to be the most-watched political race in the state this fall. It’s attracting added attention as one of the first major tests nationally of ranked-choice voting, under which the winner could be many voters’ second preference.

The field to replace Mayor R.T. Rybak already includes City Council Members Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels and Gary Schiff; former council President Jackie Cherryhomes; former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, and attorney Cam Winton. Others are considering a run.

Their first test of strength is a little more than three weeks away, when they will vie to elect delegates at the city’s precinct caucuses, a precursor to the DFL Party city convention in June, when all but Winton — who is running as an independent — will seek the party’s endorsement.

Five of the six candidates will meet publicly for the first time this week at a University of Minnesota debate, where they will discuss the details of their platforms.

The strategizing around the ranked-choice voting was a draw for some of the political heavy-hitters coming to town to run the campaigns.

“There was a lot of interest in doing this race just because it’s new territory, it’s a new problem, it’s a new challenge,” said Andrew O’Leary, campaign manager for Hodges.

Experienced help

Hodges, the council’s budget chair, has assembled the most high-profile campaign team so far, with several consultants based in Washington, D.C., and a finance director who held the same job with last year’s multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat the proposed marriage amendment. O’Leary himself was executive director of the state DFL Party and worked for the Democratic National Committee during the 2012 election cycle.

Candidates will not have to report any fundraising numbers until September, so staffing is a key early indicator of who has amassed the most resources. Attracting national-level talent indicates that the campaign has “got enough money in the bank that they’ve convinced that person, ‘Come here and we’ve got the resources that you can run a really first-rate campaign,’ ” said Brian Melendez, an attorney who has chaired the state and Minneapolis DFL.

Samuels’ team is led by Patrick Layden, who worked on Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s campaign. The campaign’s polling and direct-mail firms, Global Strategy Group and Mission Control, have been involved in mayoral races from Atlanta to Kansas City.

Andrew’s campaign manager, Joe Ellickson, was deputy campaign manager of the 2012 effort to defeat the photo ID amendment. The campaign’s political director, Cara Letofsky, was a Rybak policy aide who ran Linda Higgins’ successful campaign for Hennepin County commissioner last fall. Mail is being handled by a D.C.-based firm that worked for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s campaign last fall to defeat U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District.

To manage his campaign, Schiff has brought in Mark Warren, who spent years fundraising and managing campaigns in New Jersey and was candidate services director and an independent contractor for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was a senior adviser on Nolan’s campaign.

Cherryhomes’ campaign is being managed by Eric Reichwald, who was field director on the Higgins campaign.

Ranked choice

Like most of the staff members for the mayoral candidates this year, Warren hasn’t worked in a ranked-choice voting campaign — and he said he thinks that dynamic will change the tone.

Under the new system, a winner is selected by factoring in citizens’ second or third choices until a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes. Minneapolis used it once before in 2009, on a smaller scale, as have a handful of other cities.

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