Former council member is still a key player at Mpls. City Hall

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 - 6:11 AM

Ten years after being voted out of office, former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes is a go-to lobbyist.

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Jackie Cherryhomes, at home with husband, F. Clayton Tyler, once spoke up frequently at City Hall. Now, she works behind the scenes, frequently coaching clients on what to say.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special to the Star Tribune

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Dominium Development knew that its $100 million proposed conversion of the historic Pillsbury A Mill complex into apartments hinged on big commitments from the city of Minneapolis.

And it didn't want to leave anything -- from the permission of a historic preservation panel to the award of millions in public financing -- to chance.

So the Plymouth firm called on former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes to help, giving her a contract to "strategically make sure that we're getting to the proper channels and getting in front of the right people to make sure that we have the best chance possible to get our project approved," said Owen Metz, senior development associate for Dominium.

Ten years after voters said no to another term for Cherryhomes, she remains an influential player in City Hall. Cherryhomes, 57, has leveraged the political connections and know-how of city bureaucracy she honed over a dozen years in office into a consulting and lobbying business for those seeking advice on winning city approvals and neighborhood backing. Her client list includes garbage haulers, construction companies, local shop owners and big developers.

Her role, while familiar to political insiders, is far less visible to the average citizen. Instead of marshaling votes on the dais, she accompanies developers and other clients to meetings with officials and community groups to make their case. Rather than speaking up in public forums, she coaches clients on what to say. Once she called a council member's aide to talk about a client's city contract and mentioned their wish to make a campaign contribution.

Two weeks ago, Cherryhomes sat in council chambers as an economic development committee approved pollution cleanup grants for the Pillsbury A Mill project. Unlike in her council days, when Cherryhomes rarely shied from speaking up, she was silent, slipping out after the measure passed.

Later, she explained, "I sort of stay in the background."

Staying in public life

Within days of her council defeat in 2001, she met with developer and former Council Member Steve Minn for lunch at downtown steakhouse J. D. Hoyt's.

Minn recalled telling her that, as council president, she had been effective in bridging gaps between government, business, and the community, and "I said, 'You should keep doing it.'"

Under Cherryhomes' council leadership in the 1990s, the city acquired Target Center, opened the redeveloped Block E and moved the Shubert Theater.

She said that some expected her to leave public life -- and the city, where she lived with her husband and daughter in Willard Hay -- after her loss to political newcomer Natalie Johnson Lee by 72 votes.

But she took Minn's advice and picked him up as a client.

"I think when she first made the conversion from council member to lobbyist, people raised their eyebrows and said, 'Oh really, how is that going to work?' ... but I don't hear that nowadays," said Thomas Streitz, the city's director of housing and development, who has worked with Cherryhomes on the Pillsbury A Mill and other projects.

One longtime client: Minneapolis Refuse Inc. (MRI), the consortium of 15 garbage haulers that has held a city contract for almost 40 years.

Doug Kruell, general manager of MRI, said the organization has used Cherryhomes "because the workings of the council members and City Hall may not be readily accessible and a lot of it we just don't understand ... so we have used someone to go between."

With Cherryhomes' aid, MRI has sought to build ties with council members.

Robin Garwood, an aide to Council Member Cam Gordon's, recalled receiving a call from Cherryhomes several months ago in which she wanted to schedule a meeting between Gordon and MRI to talk about the garbage business. She added that her client was interested in making a campaign contribution, Garwood said.

Gordon does not accept contributions from entities with business before the city, according to Garwood, but he met with MRI and Cherryhomes recently.

Cherryhomes said MRI doesn't haul garbage in Gordon's ward "and we had these guys, they had no relationship with [Gordon], but they wanted to meet with him so he would know who's performing the big contract."

"The garbage folks had never done a fundraiser for Cam Gordon so they were interested in doing that, and Cam said he wasn't interested, and that's fine."

Former foes now friends

City Hall figures say Cherryhomes commands respect for her knowledge of how things get done in a city known for its confusing and diffuse power structure, spanning neighborhood groups, the interests of 13 council members and a weak mayoral system.

For Cherryhomes, yesterday's adversary is today's friend. She and Minn feuded on the council; they and their spouses are now close friends. North Minneapolis businessman Dean Rose, whose family sued Cherryhomes while she was on the council, recently partnered with Minn to hire her for a North Sde project.

And nearly 10 years after backing Mayor R.T. Rybak's opponent in his 2001 race, she supported his unsuccessful bid for governor; she said she sends him joking e-mails when seeing him on "The Ed Show."

City development chief Chuck Lutz said she is plugged in to City Hall politics and represents her clients well, although some of his staff complain of her "heavy-handed" approach.

Cherryhomes has received contracts to represent M.A. Mortenson Co. and Legacy Management and Development Corp. in their construction of the new city schools headquarters.

She also serves as a consultant to Covanta Energy Corp., which operates Hennepin County's trash incinerator, and helps find work for felons in her work for nonprofit Network for Better Futures. Additionally, three small businesses recently hired Cherryhomes to monitor how the planned Southwest light-rail line around Royalston Station could affect them.

Her disclosure forms to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board don't say how much she is paid for her work, in what Common Cause Executive Director Mike Dean said is an indication of the state's weak disclosure laws. Cherryhomes said she earns more now than she did as a council member, a post that paid her about $65,000 a year.

One of her stronger interests is in seeing the betterment of the struggling North Side, where she has lived for more than 30 years. She recently met at the Avenue Eatery on West Broadway with Council Member Don Samuels, who represents her old ward, to talk about the plan by Minn and Rose to revitalize the tornado-battered intersection of Penn Avenue N. and West Broadway.

But it is the Pillsbury A Mill project that will be occupying much of her time in coming weeks, as Dominium prepares for presentations before the Heritage Preservation Commission and the company seeks $65 million in federal housing revenue bonds and $2.9 million in tax increment financing from the city.

Cherryhomes' team has met with numerous council members, as well as Mayor Rybak.

"I just don't believe in leaving anything to chance," she said.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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