Fifth Ward's Jackie Cherryhomes had a key role in shaping big developments in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes sat in the stands at Target Center and watched the Minnesota Timberwolves one December evening, more than a month after losing her reelection bid.
As she enjoyed the game, a sense of pride came over her. "It hit me that had I not provided the leadership I had, the Timberwolves might not have been there," Cherryhomes said.
The council president played a pivotal role in the city's decision to buy the Target Center in 1995, a move aimed at keeping the NBA team in Minneapolis. By all accounts, Cherryhomes was a driving force in putting together the complicated, $84.6 million deal.
That project is one of many Cherryhomes played a role in during her 12 years on the council - eight of them as council president.
Cherryhomes represented the Fifth Ward, which includes the Warehouse District downtown and the near North Side, but her impact was far broader. She was behind the biggest and some of the most controversial projects of the past decade.
She pushed the Block E retail-hotel-entertainment complex on Hennepin Avenue, the Nicollet Mall Target store, the rejuvenation of the State and Orpheum theaters and the redevelopment of the near
North Side housing projects.
"I think I brought assertive leadership on behalf of the community that's the Fifth Ward," she said.
More than anybody else at City Hall, Cherryhomes seemed to love being a player. She did the big-time negotiation, then peddled the finished product to her council colleagues.
Throughout it all, Cherryhomes cut a crisp, polished figure around City Hall, usually in blazers and skirts and often wearing her favorite color, red, if only on her manicured nails. She wasn't prone to chitchat and kept a persona that leaned toward icy.
Cherryhomes knows she had a reputation for hardball but said she viewed the deal-making as building consensus for a plan. She wonders aloud whether her style might have been described in less derisive terms if she were a man.
"It's become larger than life in some respects, by people who don't know me," she said. "Maybe it comes because I make decisions. I am not a wimpy sort of person. I don't waste a lot of time. I don't waste a lot of words."
Her squeaker of a loss - by 72 votes - to upstart Natalie Johnson Lee was the shocker of the November election. Rather than sulking, Cherryhomes appears energized by the unexpected turn.
She smiles more now. She's eager for the annual family trip to Hawaii this month. "I feel very relaxed. I'm looking forward to the future with excited anticipation," Cherryhomes said.
And so is her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, who reportedly is thrilled that her 47-year-old mother will no longer be tied up in evening meetings.
Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, a Cherryhomes ally who also lost in November, credited Cherryhomes with staying focused on her priorities.
"Her roots were in housing and economic development. She wanted more housing and economic development in the Fifth Ward, and there are," she said.
Lobbyist Chuck Neerland calls Cherryhomes a "get-things-done person" but noted that that comes with a reputation for not caring about nuances. "That's the price you pay for being the ramrod, and
it's a good thing she was around, otherwise nothing would have gotten done," he said.
Randall Bradley, city Planning Commission vice president and Fifth Ward resident, said Cherryhomes was in a tough position trying to meet housing and economic development needs.
"I think she fought hard for the whole ward to move to a positive place," he said.
Along the way, Cherryhomes earned the respect of adversaries, including Council Member Lisa McDonald, who often said, "I never underestimate Jackie."
Even as Cherryhomes leaves office, her detractors choose their words carefully. If they speak at all, it's in a mixture of the respect and fear that surrounds Cherryhomes.
Roberta Englund, executive director of the Folwell and Webber-Camden neighborhood associations, said Cherryhomes worked hard, but didn't work well enough with neighborhood groups.
Cherryhomes would be a great elected official if she ran again, but "She would have to resist the temptation to force-feed concepts as opposed to encouraging cooperation," Englund said.
Criticism seems to come with the turf. Former Council President Louis DeMars was credited with shaping downtown when he left office in 1980. But he also was known for an imperious style that led some to call him "King Louie."
Former Council Member Steve Minn, who often sparred with Cherryhomes, calls her smart and savvy. "If she was with you, your project was going to succeed. If she was against you, at best you were going to have a tough time," Minn said.
Minn's criticism was that Cherryhomes often would get only the seven votes she needed - and often from the same members - rather than seek broader consensus on the 13-member council.
But he also called her a fair fighter. "You could count on Jackie working the floor very hard. She would beat you by selling her version of the issue and lining up votes," Minn said.
A reliable vote for Cherryhomes often came from Council Ways and Means Chairwoman Joan Campbell, who lost a reelection bid in the September primary. Campbell said she, Cherryhomes and the mayor shared a philosophical commitment to government. "It's a vehicle to make people's lives better," Campbell said.
Cherryhomes's reputation took a hit in the summer of 2000 when unflattering details about her 1997 purchase of a freshly renovated two-story colonial on Sheridan Avenue N. came to light.
The arson-gutted house had been rehabbed by Northside Neighborhood Housing Services at a cost of $150,000. Cherryhomes and her husband, F. Clayton Tyler, paid $95,000 for the house. A
$33,675 subsidy from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) helped bridge the gap.
Michael Norton, then acting city attorney, urged her to publicly declare a conflict of interest because she sits on the NRP board. She didn't do so because she said the advice was never relayed to
In her farewell speech at the City Council meeting, Cherryhomes dabbed away tears for the final 1 1/2 hours and shared a couple of long hugs with the mayor. "We did good things for people and we
left the city a better place for our service," she said in closing her speech.
But in an earlier interview, Cherryhomes admitted the political environment and the one-dimensional view of public figures wore on her. "We have complicated lives and it's not just about the politics of the moment," she said.
She walks away with some regrets for things she would have liked to have seen through, including the redevelopment of W. Broadway and the Near North Side projects site and adding businesses and housing along the Bassett Creek valley.
Cherryhomes remains supportive of the downtown Target store but regrets the way it evolved with the council - being approved in bits and pieces and with a growing price. "It grew like Topsy and
didn't come to us fully formed, like I would have liked it to be," Cherryhomes said.
For now, she's going to take a breather and begin pursuing a master's degree in public or nonprofit administration. She'll announce her work plans in February.
"I'm not looking to work for anybody," she said. "I probably would not be a good employee."
She's ruled out a run for office this year, but nothing beyond that. "I'd love to be governor," Cherryhomes said, but quickly added that she hasn't started taking steps to run.
Regardless of what others may say of her work, Cherryhomes can stand on her front steps, look across the street at Farwell Park and be reminded of her public service by the new playground
"If I didn't do anything, my daughter will remember I built a park," Cherryhomes said.
Rochelle Olson is at firstname.lastname@example.org.