Keeping Minneapolis safe while nurturing trust between police and residents was the signature challenge of Sharon Sayles Belton’s tenure as mayor, and she said Tuesday the goal for any mayor in any city must be to “keep lines of communication open with all sides” of the debate.
“You’ve got to be able to talk to the loudest and the angriest voice and you have to do that with integrity. And then you’ve got to figure out a way of bringing that harsh and angry voice together with the men and women who are committed to protect and serve the community,” she said in an interview. “If you don’t do that, you’re never going to really get started to reconcile and find common ground. The truth of the matter is that there is common ground, but you have [to] go find it.”
Sayles Belton, the first female and first black mayor of Minneapolis, was honored with a bronze bust at City Hall on Tuesday, as a crowd of about 300 packed into the balcony on the third floor, where the statue will stand next to busts of two former City Council members — Van White and Brian Coyle.
Mayor Betsy Hodges spoke, noting their kinship as the only two women who’ve served as the city’s mayor, and the fact that the chief challenge they have both faced is public safety.
“It’s a monument to who you are as a person,” Hodges said, nodding to the bust. “As strong as this metal is, as strong as this bust is, it is not as strong as you.”
Sayles Belton was mayor from 1994 to 2001, a time of national prosperity, downtown development, rising population in Minneapolis for the first time since the 1940s, and a dramatic spike in crime that she says was the most difficult challenge of her time in office.
When she ran for mayor, gang violence was a huge concern and the city was sinking toward the notorious nickname “Murderapolis.”
“There were some years where crime was at an all-time low and there were times when it spiked and it spiked dramatically and people were fearful and they were looking for solutions,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure to act immediately, and we were smart to be thoughtful. We were smart to ask critical questions. We were smart to find partners.”
Sayles Belton grew up in St. Paul and Minneapolis, graduated from Minneapolis Central High School and went to Macalester College. She served as a council member for 10 years before running for mayor in 1993, and said she was “very conscious” that she could be the first black and first female mayor.
“As I went door-to-door in some neighborhoods, people made their views pretty clear. Some people said ‘I don’t think this is a job for a woman,’ some people said, ‘I don’t vote for your kind,’ ” she said. “There were some wonderful epiphanies that people had once they had a chance to meet me and to hear my story and understand my hopes and dreams for the community. They were some of the same hopes and dreams that they had.”
Her proudest accomplishments change depending on her mood, she said, but the revitalization of the riverfront and the Sears building — now the headquarters of Allina and the home of the Midtown Global Market — and a campaign to get people to move back to Minneapolis from the suburbs came to mind on Tuesday.
The blocks along the Mississippi River used to be littered with abandoned buildings and vagrants, she said. Now they’re a vibrant scene.
“There are bike paths, there’s a museum, there’s walking paths, there’s music and concerts at the Guthrie. There’s housing,” she said. “People are amazed and delighted. That’s one that’s really kind of visible.”
A volunteer group of former colleagues, community leaders and friends co-chaired by Josie Johnson and Reatha Clark King has been raising money since 2016 to honor Sayles Belton. The sculptor of the bust is Ed Dwight, a Denver artist.
Sayles Belton is now a vice president for community relations and government affairs at Thomson Reuters and head usher at Park Avenue United Methodist Church.