It was 2001, and neighborhood activists and political newcomers were shaking up the old guard DFL in Minneapolis City Council and mayoral races.
An indictment of a sitting council member triggered a purge mentality. In the mayor’s office, Sharon Sayles Belton had orchestrated downtown business developments, such as Block E and the Target store on Nicollet Mall. But their cost of more than $100 million irked city taxpayers — even before Block E became a disaster.
A political novice with mismatched socks was joking about “tackling old ladies” to get their votes for mayor, and national heavy-hitters such as former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley were stumping for candidates.
A headline in this newspaper read: “With four main contenders and no front-runner, next week’s primary has experts stumped.”
Hamline’s David Schultz was one of them, and he sees a similar pattern emerging this year, as the DFL heads toward a rough game of musical chairs at Saturday’s convention.
Minneapolis will have a new mayor this year, the first since R.T. Rybak won that 2001 race. Candidates span the spectrum of throwback party stalwarts to novices. With new ranked-choice voting, none seems to have the traction to capture the needed 60 percent of votes. That means a messy campaign.
Three challengers for the council are endorsed over incumbents, and a fourth wasn’t endorsed at all. Three seats are open because those members are running for mayor, meaning the council might see six or seven new faces.
Who’s on first?
Even longtime DFLers, such as former City Council Member and Park Board Member Walt Dziedzic, need scorecards and can’t guess a winner.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Dziedzic. “Usually you go into November with it figured out. Not this year.”
“In 2001, Rybak was criticizing Sayles Belton for putting too much money into downtown development,” said Schultz. “It was all about focusing on neighborhoods. Now Rybak has kind of come full circle [with plans for developing the area around the new Vikings stadium], and the new candidates are coming from neighborhoods.”
Schultz says the shift is part political, part demographic. “It is almost like a generational shift,” he said. “We are changing from baby boomers to the millennials.”
The three endorsed council challengers underscore the trend.
Jacob Frey is an attorney and community activist. Lisa Bender founded the Minneapolis Bike Coalition. Abdi Warsame is a Somali immigrant and neighborhood activist. All are young.
“Twelve years ago, Somalis had no power,” said Schultz. “But they’ve gotten organized.”
The wild card
With ranked-choice voting, in which voters choose their top three choices, all bets are off because the diluted pools of voters could mean unsuspected results. In the council races, the endorsements of newcomers might not have the clout they used to have.
“With no primary, you can now say, ‘I can bypass the endorsement process,’ and still win,’ ” said Schultz.
The displaced candidates have noticed. Despite losing party endorsement, all four seemed to miss the hint that their time was up. They are all in the mix Saturday.
One, Meg Tuthill, had promised to “suspend” her campaign if she lost. She lost. Then, in one of the funnier political fudges since Bill Clinton questioned the meaning of the word “is,” Tuthill redefined what “suspend” means and got back in.
Unlike St. Paul, where the mayoral and council elections are staggered, Minneapolis elections happen concurrently. So Schultz is “kind of surprised” electoral chaos doesn’t happen more often.
“It speaks to the relative stability of DFL politics in Minneapolis,” Schultz said.
But will ranked choice, and the newfound willingness to skirt the party process and “unsuspend” promises, cause the kind of tonal dissonance in the DFL that we’ve seen in the Republican Party lately?
“That’s an interesting question,” said Dziedzic. “If the royalty of the DFL doesn’t get its choices, what happens then?”