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Piled onto a stage at the MacPhail Center on Thursday night, six Minneapolis mayoral candidates went down the line answering questions about how they would support the arts.
The event had so many contenders, with so much to say, that it ran over the allotted two hours — and the atmosphere was more of a public policy round table than of a typical political debate.
Candidates are attending a slew of forums to get their message out. But while primaries in New York City and elsewhere are whittling down crowded races to just a few candidates, ranked-choice voting has left Minneapolis with a wide-open field of 35 with no clear favorite.
With only five to eight of the most active candidates on stage, there’s less of the back and forth of a traditional debate or a chance to take candidates beyond their talking points. That’s little help to voters trying to pick their candidate as Nov. 5 approaches.
“The stage is so filled with candidates that it’s hard to put them in a dentist chair and drill down,” said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs, who has moderated several mayoral forums. “I think 35 candidates both is a blessing of democracy but also a curse of democracy — and even if you winnow it down to eight or four it’s still pretty daunting to have an in-depth conversation that reveals the flaws of the candidates and their relative strengths.”
As the pace of forums picks up as Election Day approaches, some candidates are frustrated at not even making the list of those invited.
Several education groups have invited the “leading” candidates to discuss racial education and opportunity gaps Monday night, prompting candidate Doug Mann to send out an e-mail saying he wasn’t invited. Instead, he used an already established e-mail forum to share his views.
Sticking to the script
Even the candidates who are included in the forums acknowledge their imperfections.
“Forums are inherently restrictive because there are time constraints put on them, but it’s also an opportunity for voters to see multiple candidates perform under a challenging format, and that’s got value, too,” said Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, who estimated there could be as many as three forums a week until the election.
Candidates have stuck to some of the same narratives at multiple events.
Cam Winton, a wind energy attorney running as an independent, often mentions that he helped build a small wind energy company of 120 employees who all kept their jobs in a recent sale to Duke Energy. Council Member Don Samuels tells audiences that he immigrated from Jamaica to the United States with $83 in his pocket and, once in Minneapolis, chose to live in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods to help make it safer. Andrew touts his leadership on the Midtown Greenway.
Former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes describes her narrow election loss in 2001 as a turning point, after which she created a private lobbying and consulting enterprise and learned what works for people in the business community. Council Member Betsy Hodges highlights her successful fight for municipal pension reform.
They’ve answered questions about locating the Southwest Light Rail, closing racial disparities, hiring more minorities in City Hall, bolstering downtown, greening the city landscape, forming a municipal utility and supporting corporate subsidies. And they’ve squirmed through 90-degree heat at the State Fair, addressed beer regulations at a brewery and talked business before a private crowd of downtown executives.
Personal details have spilled out, too.
Woodruff experienced a home foreclosure. A gospel song by Samuels was number one on the Jamaican Hit Parade when he was 19, before landing in the United States in 1970 and working under the table in New York City to pay for college. Andrew used to drive a cab. Cherryhomes once dreamed of being a cocktail pianist. Hodges wrote an unpublished young adult novel.
A change in tone
The candidates were largely genteel when the forums started six months ago, hesitant to openly call out their competitors on stage. The main exception was Winton, who has questioned their lengthy government experience and raised doubts about how some opponents can pay for everything they say they’ll fund as mayor when they have voted for a new streetcar line and Vikings stadium.
Now, other mayoral contenders are quicker to criticize one another, and are drawing sharper distinctions.
Last month, Andrew slammed Hodges as having “the disease of small vision” for opposing a new hotel near the Convention Center, quickly prompting a fundraising e-mail from Hodges’ campaign saying that Andrew had tried to “hijack a policy forum to engage in a relentless series of baseless attacks.”
Candidates are also touting themselves as “the only” one talking about certain issues.
At a State Fair debate, Andrew said he was the only person who had publicly stated there is racism in the Police Department — prompting an attendee to call out, “That’s not true!”— though others have voiced concern about recent incidents in which officers used racial slurs.
Hodges then jumped in to say she had been saying for eight years that there’s racism in the department.
Samuels also claimed that he was the only candidate who has an education plan for minority children, though other candidates have come out with plans of their own and cited the achievement gap between white and minority children as a priority.
At the same event, Woodruff pushed back against Winton’s standard criticism of everyone’s government experience.
“I don’t know why Cam keeps putting me in this category that I’m a government official, because I’m not,” said Woodruff, pointing out that her post on the city’s audit committee position is unpaid and appointed.
Candidates are trying to explain such complicated issues in so short a time for their audiences that many ignored a command from a Minnesota Public Radio moderator recently to answer with just a “yes or no” to questions on whether they would have supported the Vikings stadium, whether the barriers to run for mayor should be higher, and whether they would raise property taxes. The moderator, Gary Eichten, frequently had to cut them off as they tried to launch into longer explanations.
“That’s a yes, right?... That’s a no ... We’re running out of time here,” he said.