On a cold spring night the Volvos and Subarus created somewhat of a traffic jam in south Minneapolis as residents scrambled inside a quaint church to listen to the seven people vying to run the city.

Hundreds of the civic-minded jammed into Solomon’s Porch and plopped onto shabby chic furniture. Excuse me. Pardon. Is this seat taken?

Grandmothers moved through the crowd, passing out oatmeal cookies and sage advice. OK, I made that last part up. But you couldn’t have concocted a more Minnesotan mise-en-scène if you tried.

It was made only more so by the new ranked-choice voting system, which eliminated the mayoral primary but allows voters to choose up to five candidates, in order of preference. It’s unlikely any of the candidates will get 50 percent of the vote in the first ballot counting, so getting voters’ second or third choice will be crucial.

A candidate no longer has to be first, but being above average will pay.

Ranked choice, and the torpid format of the debates, has created a unique and somewhat soulless process that discourages rancor and negative campaigning, lest the candidate come off too mouthy or brash to make the top three.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. I’ve long been a critic of the hostile campaigns that distort records and confuse voters.

At times, however, the debate seemed like a regional episode of the game show “Family Feud”; the only thing missing was Louie Anderson as host:

“Give me three reasons you want to be mayor,” he’d intone.

Jackie Cherryhomes: “I truly love and am committed to this city.”

Ding.

Cam Winton: “I am running because I love our city.”

Ding.

Betsy Hodges: “This can be the greatest city of the 21st century.”

Ding.

One member of the audience remarked that “they all sound like R.T. [Rybak].”

Jeff Spartz, a longtime DFLer, doesn’t live in Minneapolis so won’t vote, but he supports former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew. He watched the Tuesday debate.

“With ranked choice, they all know the last thing they want to do is shoot themselves in the foot” with negative comments, said Spartz. “They all want to look well-rounded and sensible.”

That means the new Minneapolis, no matter who gets elected, will look a lot like the old Minneapolis, with a few more bangles (and taxes, though nobody wanted to talk about that). There will be more “blue-ribbon panels” to fix the ills, such as the income and education gaps between whites and minorities, and the fact the city has lost more than 25,000 jobs since 2001.

It will be “the greenest city in America,” as Andrew put it, crisscrossed by light-rail and cute trolleys, absent of thugs, brimming with successful children because of more preschool programs. And, it will be a “prosperous and unified city,” according to Hodges.

All the candidates are for “high density,” (even though they probably voted against it when it happened in their wards) and everyone seemed to want to be a “convener,” whatever that is. They agreed to a person that the city will be “vibrant.”

No qualms there.

The only one who came close to knocking the dust off the doilies was Winton, a newcomer who wisely is “not seeking the endorsement of either party,” or in other words, a quiet Republican.

Winton dismissed streetcars as “shiny” but unnecessary and seemed to espouse a more laissez-faire form of government. Good luck with that one. Winton promised “fresh eyes” on city government, and did so eloquently.

In fact, the biggest impression left by this debate, the second, is that the candidates across the board are knowledgeable and competent.

“The good news is, I could see voting for two or three of them,” Spartz said.

I went into the debate not knowing who I’d vote for, and came out the same. Hodges and Gary Schiff benefit from recent council experience, and Hodges’ Linden Hills constituents turn out to vote.

Those who watch city politics wonder if Schiff is too contentious. Andrew has been out of elective office for years but works hard and has name recognition. Council Member Don Samuels shows passion, but the outsider is conspicuously without big-party backers. Several people who have seen both debates agree with me that Cherryhomes was surprisingly good, focused, concise and specific. Political novice Jim Thomas even offered something: a good sense of humor.

Now, if anyone ever allows follow-up questions or lets candidates question one another, the field might narrow.

“Everybody’s got some barnacles if they’ve been around long enough,” Spartz said. “I expect there to be some negative campaigning as we get closer [to the caucus], when polling starts to show who the top two or three candidates are.”

Meanwhile, be confident your city will be “vibrant,” “unified” and “engaged,” no matter what.

Heck, if you believe the candidates, it might even be the greatest city of the 21st century.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702