In theory, a new generation catching on to democracy — not only registering and voting, but also organizing, caucusing, shaping party platforms and running for office — is something older “small-d” democrats cheer.
In practice, not so much.
The rumble in Minneapolis from seasoned citizens about the upstarts whose names are on the Nov. 7 city election ballot doesn’t sound much like cheering. In the contests for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the noise has become downright nasty.
Generational transition isn’t the whole story in the campaigns for all nine seats on the Park Board — three at-large plus six district representatives. But it’s where this tale must begin:
The average age of the six nonincumbents endorsed by the DFL Party for the Park Board is 35; that of the seven-member slate backed by the Bernie Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution, six of whom are also DFL-endorsed, is 36. By comparison, the average age of the seven candidates who are backed by the Save Our #1 Parks committee — only one of whom, 39-year-old Fifth District incumbent Steffanie Musich, is also DFL-endorsed — is 51.
Predictably, a new generation brings new priorities — and less experience. The Our Revolution candidates say this year’s campaign is all about making city park operations catch up with the times in a city whose population is now more than a third nonwhite. They talk about economic fairness, racial equity and global warming — themes that, not coincidentally, were prominent in the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
For example: At-large candidate Russ “Rooster” Henry, 40, wants chemical-free parks (but does not explain how he’d keep sports fields playable without them). At-large candidate Devin Hogan, 33, says he’s a “fearless focused futurist” who wants to end “inefficient fossil fuel maintenance” at city parks and replace it with “permaculture practices.” Second District candidate Kale Severson, 34, a former parks employee, promises to push for retrofitting park buildings with solar panels and geothermal systems.
Our Revolution’s more seasoned opponents say the city is witnessing a power grab by people who don’t have a clue about managing a $110-million-a-year public budget and don’t know, let alone appreciate, all that the incumbent Park Board has done for the very causes they champion.
For instance: 1 of every 4 parks employees is a person of color today, up from 1 of 5 in 2010. That was the year Jayne Miller arrived as superintendent; on her watch, the Trust for Public Land twice ranked the Minneapolis system the best big-city system in the country. A 20-year agreement reached last year with the City Council eases the financial pressure that was holding back park improvements. Its assurance of an $11-million-plus-inflation annual stream presents an opportunity for the Park Board to move beyond fiscal crises to consider a wider improvement agenda.
Ironically, the Park Board player who helped engineer that breakthrough deal — President Liz Wielinski — was an early casualty of the push for change. She publicly clashed with mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds and the NAACP over Park Board hiring practices, stepped down as board president in July 2016, then decided not to seek a third term.
Wielinski is among the backers of the candidates preferred by the Save Our #1 Parks committee. Among them is another former board president, Tom Nordyke, who says he decided to seek a comeback in the Fourth District after seeing how inexperienced the next Park Board could be.
Only three of the nine Park Board incumbents are seeking re-election, and one of them, at-large member Meg Forney, is running despite losing a bid for DFL endorsement. Nordyke is one of two former members who jumped in. The other, Bob Fine, served four sometimes tumultuous terms representing the Sixth District, the city’s southwest corner, before stepping down to run for mayor in 2013.
Some of the people with whom Fine tussled a decade ago reportedly urged him to run this time. That’s how keen they are to stop an Our Revolution takeover.
Fine’s opponent is Brad Bourn, 38, the only incumbent who’s running with the backing of both the DFL Party and Our Revolution. He’s often been the odd man out on the current board as he sought to move racial equity considerations higher on the board’s agenda. He’s rooting for the voters to give him more allies, he told me last week.
“We have a long way to go to making sure we have a fantastic park system for everyone who calls Minneapolis home,” he said. He explains the spate of young candidates as “this groundswell of progressives” who were inspired, then crushed, by the political events of 2016. “They realized that here at the local level is where choices are made that really affect their daily lives,” he said.
Ideally, a nine-member governing board would include a mix of ages, backgrounds and perspectives — and the controlling political party in a one-party town, knowing that it alone is accountable for governing, would see to it that it were so. But that’s one of those “in theory” ideas. In practice, a new generation with a new agenda can sweep into a party or a government as a tsunami, knocking out experience with impunity.
The voters will decide whether that happens at the Park Board this year. The Save Our #1 Parks slate’s selling point is experience — not always in elective office, but of the sort that political parties in Minneapolis used to prize in Park Board candidates.
For example; Billy Menz, 42, in the First District and Mike Tate, 58, in the Second District are longtime youth coaches in the parks, as was Fine. LaTrisha Vetaw, 41, is the only woman of color on the Park Board ballot; she helped spearhead a successful campaign to ban tobacco use in the parks. Abdi Gurhan Mohamed, age unknown, is a parent, a small-business owner with 40 employees, and an immigrant who understands the importance of parks to new citizens. Nordyke was the Park Board’s first openly gay chair in 2009-10; he helped launch the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a philanthropic force that could suffer if the Park Board lurches unpredictably next year.
That slate is asking a version of the question that a more consequential contest posed to voters one year ago: In elective office, does experience matter? DFLers weren’t happy when Americans answered “no” and put a first-time candidate in the White House. Who’da thunk that just one year later, it would be the DFL Party that would be asking Minneapolis voters to value change more than experience on the Park Board.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.