A Wednesday night campaign forum at the Minneapolis Club was one of the liveliest the city’s mayoral race has seen all year, with candidates sharpening distinctions between their platforms and one uninvited contender even jumping up to protest his exclusion.  

While previous forums have featured candidates going down the line to answer the same question, with little follow-up, moderator Cathy Wurzer repeatedly pressed mayoral contenders on their specific plans and votes -- and encouraged their rivals to do the same.

The radio and TV host noted, for instance, that a plan by Council Member Don Samuels to target six “crime families” and offer them the best schooling and job programs in exchange for their staying out of trouble sounds good. But why would those people accept such help?

Samuels said if anyone flouts the city’s efforts, Minneapolis officials will go with them to court when they are arrested, tell the judge what they turned down, and recommend a strict consequence.

“I agree with you Don – why aren’t we doing it?” asked Stephanie Woodruff, an appointed vice chair of the city’s audit committee.

Samuels countered that the city has just gathered the related crime data.

Cam Winton, a wind energy attorney, launched a discussion about fiscal prudence after making the hardest critique yet of his rivals.

“When Jackie Cherryhomes was on the City Council, the City Council racked up a lot of debt,” he said. “Then along come Betsy and Don. Good folks, but they spent like sailors on shore leave, robbing taxpayers blind while spending money on things we don’t need and can’t afford.”

He said that Stephanie Woodruff sits on the city audit committee that has earned the city a D minus in transparency, referring to a January study by the Public Interest Research Group.

Woodruff, whose position is volunteer and unpaid, claimed she has no authority to provide the checkbook-level spending the report examined. She said that while she can bring issues to the City Council, she doesn’t have a voice – and that the lack of transparency in City Hall prompted her to run for office.

Wurzer pressed Cherryhomes for a response, drawing laughs from the audience when she said, “Weren’t you part of Block E? That wasn’t exactly a huge success.”

During Cherryhomes’ service on the council, from 1993 to 2001, the city did increase borrowing, leading Mayor R. T. Rybak to prioritize paying down debt when he entered office in 2002. She spearheaded the opening of Block E a decade ago with a $39 million subsidy, but the complex is largely empty.

Cherryhomes said she is proud of the work she did, even if there were problems with Block E. She trumpeted the success of consolidating Target's downtown headquarters, expanding the theaters, and building up the North Loop and the eastern stretch of Hennepin Avenue.

“All of those are investments that contributed to the stability of our tax base over this very, very difficult period that we just got out of,” said Cherryhomes. “Without the investments we made in the 90s … nobody would have had the platform they have had to govern on.”

Samuels and Hodges defended their financial decisions, noting that the city has cut services. He said the city needs dependable transit and projects like the Vikings stadium to attract development. “We can’t just sharpen our pencils, cut, cut, cut,” he said.

As discussion turned to increasing the capacity at the county trash incinerator versus meeting increased city recycling goals, Wurzer also questioned Mark Andrew on whether he would still have voted for the burner today, knowing what he does now. Andrew advocated for the facility in the 1980s as a Hennepin County commissioner, and it has become a source of controversy as the county seeks to expand burning. (He also spearheaded the county's increased recycling efforts.)

Andrew affirmed that he still would have approved the incinerator and that it was “extremely safe,” though he did not support increasing the burning capacity from 80 to 100 percent. Hodges and Winton slammed the incinerator as environmentally harmful, while Cherryhomes (who used to lobby for the incinerator owner) and Samuels said they wanted to see an objective study about its pollutants.

Dan Cohen, a planning commissioner, made a sharp critique of the Viking stadium, one of the top issues in his platform. He lamented that the deal was not put out for a public vote and said, “The big guys rammed this right down people’s throats.”

Cherryhomes praised the stadium as a jobs creator. So did Andrew and Samuels, though they both affirmed their support for having the Vikings pay more, as Gov. Dayton is pushing. Winton countered that spending the money on infrastructure and schools would have been the real jobs engine, while Hodges, who voted against the stadium, said the city should leverage the project to develop Downtown East.

As eight candidates jockeyed to be heard before the wealthy country club audience, Wurzer asked the big question: is ranked choice voting, in which there is no primary to winnow down the field, the best way to pick a winner?

Pushing past the moderator’s reluctance, Cohen said he would yield his time to friend and fellow candidate Merill Anderson, who was not invited to participate in the forum.

“Actually, you know what –” Wurzer started to say.

“Yes we are, yes are,” Cohen insisted.

Anderson jumped up from the audience and began an earnest speech about all the other candidates – 27 others filed to run – “that have no voice here tonight.”

“I can tell you from my experience and my involvement with them that they have some really good ideas for the city,” said Anderson, who is running under a “Jobs and Justice” slogan and listed an Excelsior address on his filing form. “There are a couple of them that  exceed the qualifications of some of those that are sitting up here on the dais. I think it’s really unfortunate that this session couldn’t have been more inclusive.”

The stage featured the most active, visible, and longtime campaigners -- a point not lost on Winton. He told Anderson that the contenders who were invited to speak had attended festivals and parades, answered questions on Facebook pages, made calls to raise money, and begun campaigning as far back as January.

For all the other candidates “yelling that they want their due, come on back to January and work your tails off,” he said.

Anderson left -- and the candidates spent the last minutes of the forum defending ranked choice.

“We want to be very careful when we start messing around with democracy,” said Andrew, though not without conceding that the system can be cumbersome and unpredictable.