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From the moment he sued his own school district for painting over a controversial senior class mural, Gary Schiff has taken his causes to the public.
The censorship of Schiff's 10-foot-long, politically charged artwork in western New York spurred a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and transformed the 18-year-old into a progressive activist. He lost the case, but it propelled Schiff on a path that brought him to be one of the most outspoken and polarizing figures at Minneapolis City Hall.
Now, after losing a bitter battle with Mayor R.T. Rybak over subsidizing a new Vikings stadium, the three-term City Council member says he'll decide by the end of the year whether he'll run for the city's top job in 2013. "I'm exploring it," said Schiff, 40, who represents a diverse ward surrounding East Lake Street.
After 10 years on the council, Schiff's more brazen style of politics stands out and sometimes creates tension on a body that often settles its differences behind closed doors. In recent years he has emerged as the mayor's chief antagonist on the council, siding with laid-off firefighters, challenging department heads and ripping stadium supporters for avoiding a vote of the people.
"You give Gary a microphone and he sounds like he's running for something," said Joyce Wisdom, executive director of the Lake Street Council, who has known Schiff since his days as a political activist.
As chair of the city's influential zoning and planning committee, which signs off on nearly all development projects in Minneapolis, he is also one of the most powerful forces in local real estate. The committee, which Schiff has chaired since he entered office in 2002, can often make or break development deals.
His legislative work is difficult to miss on the streets of Minneapolis, particularly in the area of regulation. He was a lead author of the city's smoking ban, which passed in 2004. He pushed changes to encourage more pedicabs and forced taxicabs to take credit cards. He has also worked to nix liquor restrictions.
"He's well-versed in issues of rental licensing and business licensing, taxicabs, sidewalk cafes," said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who encouraged Schiff to run for the council. "He's worked hard and brought a lot of stuff forward in [the regulatory services] arena."
Professional relationships are considerably icier with some other members of the council. Several council members complained privately that Schiff has a habit of swooping in and becoming the public face of initiatives that are the product of other colleagues' work. They also accuse him of being erratic and difficult to work with.
Council President Barb Johnson, who regards Schiff as "very bright" and a "master" of zoning and land-use issues, acknowledged some of that building tension.
"He is a little unpredictable. He tends to bring stuff in at the last minute. ... He doesn't always fully vet stuff with people before he does that," Johnson said. "And then that produces some consternation."
Schiff defended himself, saying the incidents that might be perceived as taking credit for others' work might be more a function of miscommunication. And, he added, it might also be because he is more willing to return phone calls from reporters.
"I've got tensions with my colleagues. We all have tensions with each other," Schiff said. "But bottom line, when it comes to building a coalition to get policy passed, I've shown I can do that again and again and again and again."
Some developers also bristle at how Schiff wields power at the helm of his committee.
"If Gary likes your project, or likes where you're headed, he is a phenomenally strong advocate. And he is razor-sharp smart," said developer and former council member Steve Minn, who sued the city in 2010 over a rejected project. "If he doesn't like your project or if he's looking for a way to kill your project, he sometimes loses his perspective."
Schiff called that "more sour grapes from a developer who didn't get his way."
Stirring the pot
Gary Schiffhauer grew up the youngest of six children in the small town of Youngstown, N.Y., a stone's throw from the Canadian border between Buffalo and Toronto. During his senior year of high school, he painted a provocative mural inspired by pop artist Keith Haring, with slogans like "Fight the Power," "Silence = Death," and "Just Say Know."
The school superintendent ordered about a third of it painted over. As the incident snowballed into a local spectacle, Schiff was forced to tell his family he was gay to prevent his father from filing a slander suit. "It wasn't the timing that I expected at the age of 18," Schiff said.
He then left Youngstown for college in Minnesota, and shortened his name to leave behind the bullying that he said made his childhood "an act of survival."
Schiff quickly became a prominent voice on campus, accelerated by acts such as standing up and kissing a man for several minutes during a Board of Regents meeting to protest gay and lesbian discrimination in the ROTC and the military. He was co-chair of the school's LGBT umbrella organization and formed a night patrol for downtown Minneapolis to prevent anti-gay violence.
After graduating, Schiff worked for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., organizing student trips across the country to fight state anti-gay ballot initiatives.
When he returned to Minnesota in the late 1990s, Schiff pushed for two Minneapolis ballot initiatives while working for the group Progressive Minnesota.
One gave the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission authority to investigate discrimination by police. The other prevented the city from spending more than $10 million on professional sports facilities without a public vote. Both measures passed in the 1997 election.
A semester away from receiving his master's from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, Schiff chose to pause his education and double-down on a run for council. The incumbent, Kathy Thurber, dropped out of the race. Schiff won the DFL endorsement and then the election.
Schiff says he is talking to people about whether to run for mayor, but will make a decision "independent" of Rybak's re-election plans. He began with praise when asked about the mayor's job performance.
"I think Rybak really helped change management at the city," Schiff said, noting that a new focus on collecting and using data "has really helped us as a team to make policy-based decisions."
But Schiff also thinks the city should do more to force contractors on public works projects to hire Minneapolis workers and wants reforms in job training programs. His sharpest criticisms surround cuts to public safety.
"We're now in a position we have to rebuild the fire department and the police department," Schiff said. It is time to start hiring more in those departments and "stop managing by attrition," he said.
During the recent stadium debate, it occasionally seemed like the campaign between Rybak and Schiff was already underway. Schiff became the loudest voice of populist opposition to Rybak's Vikings stadium plan. He publicly pointed out flaws in the deal, many of which Rybak addressed on the day of the final vote in a "Busting Myths" news release.
When a deeply divided council approved the deal by a one-vote margin, Schiff said it was a "betrayal of the citizens." "I still think it's the worst thing I've seen the City Council do in over a decade," he said recently.
Schiff said he decided to become more outspoken a year and a half ago, partly because he was inspired by Gov. Mark Dayton's unabashed tax-the-rich campaign message.
"People will always know where I stand," Schiff said. "I'm not one to sit on a fence. And I think that just comes from knowing your values."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper