The Jordan neighborhood of north Minneapolis had a lot of things Don Samuels and his wife, Sondra, wanted: solid old homes, curving, tree-lined streets and stunning, hilltop views of the downtown skyline.
But their real estate agent wouldn’t show them any properties. Killings, gunshots, open drug dealing and prostitution — what the area was better known for — weren’t likely to protect the investment of a successful toy designer.
Today, Samuels comfortably welcomes guests on the expansive front porch of the tan, four-square home overlooking Hillside Avenue.
“It wasn’t too nice before,” he said of the area. “But it’s getting better.”
Best known for confronting street punks and holding vigils for murder victims, the 10-year City Council member wants to erase the racial achievement gap in public schools and make city government more efficient and business-friendly.
A normally gentle and sometimes even awkward speaker who can also stir an audience with a forceful speech, Samuels uses a counterintuitive style of politics that has irritated many in his own ward but also served to set him apart on a day-to-day-basis and in the mayoral field.
Many of those who know Samuels use the same terms to describe him: courageous, honest, caring and respectful.
“He is one of the least political politicians I’ve met,” said outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak. “He’s unbought and unbossed and willing to look at unconventional solutions.”
On the North Side, critics have accused him of grandstanding and being out of sync with the poverty in the mostly black neighborhoods. Even in City Hall, current and former colleagues say he has not paid close attention to the details often required in making city policy.
Samuels, 64, has been chairman of the public safety committee for seven years and been instrumental in closing three North Side convenience stores that were crime magnets.
His own campaign staffers, concerned about creating a sense Samuels might be trying to score political points on crime, advised him against a vigil following the 2003 gang-related murder of a 16-year-old boy at a North Side bus stop.
But he went ahead. Vigils, he said, “return some dignity to the most hopeless situations.”
It’s the same with owning a home in Jordan, he said. “I’m going to be mayor living in the worst neighborhood of the city,” he said. “I’m saying, ‘I’m not ashamed to live there. I’m not afraid to live there.’ ”
Samuels describes himself as an introvert — an unlikely trait for a politician.
On the campaign trail, Samuels has been emphasizing the need for educational reform, in order to raise test scores and graduation rates for minority students. Although the mayor has no direct official role in the schools, Samuels argues that improving educational success and opportunities are linked with economic development.
Samuels grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, but with a creative streak. By 19 he was the frontman for the Don Sam Singers, who Samuels said made him “the most popular kid in Jamaica.”
But, Samuels said, the experience showed him that fame was fickle. And he had a gift for drawing. So with $83 he went to New York City, where he ultimately got an industrial design degree. By 1980, as a single dad with full custody of a son, he was working for Lakeside Games in the Twin Cities. He then went to work for Hasbro in Rhode Island, where he became a senior director. He moved back to the Twin Cities in 1990 to work for a game-design firm, Red Racer, and moved to his current home in 1996.
Current and former council colleagues said Samuels can take credit for getting the Minneapolis public schools to build new headquarters along West Broadway, and for developing a supportive relationship with the Police Department. City Council President Barb Johnson added that he was the primary force in boosting the city’s rental licensing and enforcement, which greatly reduced the number of problem landlords.
For all of Samuels’ efforts, north Minneapolis remains riddled with crime and poverty, something critics point out.
“You can say not much has changed on the North Side,” said former City Council President Paul Ostrow, who is now managing Stephanie Woodruff’s mayoral campaign. “But the fundamental dynamics in that part of town are so challenging.”
On the North Side, Samuels is still vilified for saying “burn North High School down” in a magazine article in 2007, because so many male black students were failing to graduate.
The Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, said Samuels’ background simply sets him apart from many of the poorer African-Americans who have long called the North Side home but live on the outside of the political and economic establishment.
“Don’t confuse pigment and skin with mind-set and mentality,” McAfee said. “He just doesn’t understand African-Americans.”
Samuels has apologized for the North High remark, saying his point was that taxpayers shouldn’t continue to support a school that, by many standards, wasn’t educating kids.
As for the notion that he can’t relate to African-Americans, Samuels swats that away as part of a game he won’t play.
“Some say the first way to define yourself might be that you are black,” he said of himself. “For me, I define myself first as a human being.”