On a June evening at an airy riverfront condo in Minneapolis, former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew prepared to step back into the political limelight.

He had not held elective office since 1999, but the room was brimming with powerful political supporters — a testament to the connections he has maintained through the years.

“Mark is the unifying force for getting all these people together,” said host Sam Kaplan, a longtime DFL power donor who recently returned to Minneapolis after a stint as U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

Andrew, a former DFL state party chairman with 16 years on the Hennepin County Board, has already commanded more campaign donations, more high-profile endorsements and more establishment connections than any of his opponents in the crowded 35-candidate field for Minneapolis mayor.

“I’ve had more elected service than anybody running,” Andrew said, “so I know a lot of people.”

Andrew’s passion for service was ignited in college in the 1970s, when he helped form the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), a grass-roots student organization that has since grown into a powerhouse with similar groups across the country and accomplishments that include work on campaign finance laws, a state fluorocarbon ban, establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and most recently, mobilization of the youth vote on gay marriage.

His interest in environmental issues has been a thread through his political and professional life. As a commissioner in the mid-’80s, he helped establish an early curbside recycling program for every city in the county. In 2007, he founded GreenMark, an environmental marketing firm that has worked with Target Field, Pentair and Xcel Energy. As mayor, Andrew said he wants to make Minneapolis the greenest city in the United States.

But Andrew’s environmental credentials took a hit early in his days on the board, when he backed a controversial trash incinerator project in the North Loop.

Protesters showed up to a board meeting dressed in chemical-hazard suits, and Statewatch, the newspaper of Andrew’s own MPIRG, ran an article raising questions about the health effects of toxins that would be emitted from the facility.

He was questioned about $4,000 in campaign contributions he took from employees and political action committees of those connected to the incinerator project. Andrew countered that the contributions were legal and that he needed to raise campaign funds.

MPIRG issued a report last month criticizing the incinerator for the release of damaging pollutants that disproportionately affects lower-income children. Andrew has noted during mayoral debates that converting waste to energy was an alternative to landfills that had been encouraged by the state. He praises the incinerator as the biggest and most successful alternative-energy project in the history of the state, while stopping short of supporting a plan to increase burning at the facility to the maximum capacity.

The pragmatism, while provoking some environmentalists, has impressed colleagues who, unprompted, praise his ability to strike compromises.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, now an Andrew supporter, recalled trying to secure his support in the early ’90s for a resolution to have Hennepin County Medical Center train doctors to perform abortions.

The timing seemed right: Andrew was known for promoting abortion rights, and after the latest election there was finally a majority of commissioners who shared his view. To Goodman’s frustration, he told her he would not pursue such a controversial move right away, because his job as chairman was to build collegiality on the board. He waited a year.

Building consensus

As Andrew put it, “The idea was to build relationships on the County Board and then nurse the controversial issues along and make sure that everybody on the County Board gets something they want.”

He may have learned some of that patience and consensus-building during the years he spent as a legislative aide to legendary former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, long considered one of the most powerful DFL politicians in the state.

Moe, who now is a lobbyist, said Andrew has “always been extremely fair and he’s not highly partisan. He tries to find good in everybody and tries to capitalize on the talents that people have.”

Not everyone shares the same view of Andrew.

“He postures like he’s Mr. MPIRG and he’s green and he’s environmental … he’s not a real environmental activist,” said Leslie Davis, founder and president of Earth Protectors, who opposed the incinerator project. Andrew’s support of the incinerator, Davis said, is not “like a blemish on your record; you can’t ever get beyond something like that.”

Bickering and political clashes dominated county governance through much of Andrew’s time on the board. A private consultant’s report in 1993 found that county government suffered from eroded relationships and flawed decisionmaking. Aided by the election of several new commissioners, Andrew helped usher in a period of civility during the last third of his service.

Throughout his tenure, Andrew championed spending on social services, particularly for women and family planning programs. He supported a clean needle exchange, welfare reform and county health insurance for domestic partners, and he led the effort for the Midtown Greenway and expanding the county’s authority to work on projects beyond its normal reach.

“A lot of votes I made that were for women’s issues or poor people’s issues are due to Mark Andrew,” said John Derus, a former county commissioner who served with him in the ’80s and early ’90s. “He’d sit in my office and argue with me about it. … He is an excellent salesperson.”

Andrew says he weighed running for mayor as far back as the early 1990s, but the timing was never right — until Mayor R.T. Rybak said he would not seek another term this year and the contest to replace him was flung wide open.

Personal struggles

A businessman with a wife, two kids and a house in Lynnhurst, life wasn’t always so tidy for Andrew.

Behind the public image is a man who triumphed over a chaotic childhood. The second of five children, Andrew was born into a south Minneapolis family struggling to hold their own. His father worked as a water meter reader for the city by day and as a janitor by night. His parents divorced when he was in high school and he quickly learned to fend for himself.

As a teen, he started throwing dances and concerts to pay his expenses, persuading churches to open their basements, bringing in bands and hiring off-duty cops. Ever since college, Andrew has maintained the “World’s Greatest French Fries” stand at the Minnesota State Fair for extra money.

Andrew battles the same diabetes that has afflicted his family members. He also sought treatment for alcoholism after leaving the County Board. A man who once longed to be a writer, Andrew regrets that he now hardly has time to read — the “Life of Pi” has gathered dust for months next to his bed.

His personal history has shaped many of the traditionally liberal ideals he brings up on the campaign trail. When it comes to education issues — among the most important and controversial in the race — he has objected to opponents’ proposals that would threaten teachers’ union protections.

Earlier, he spoke out against charter schools and Teach for America, an organization that recruits teachers for lower-income and rural schools. At a recent forum, however, he voiced support for the alternative teaching program and made a general statement in favor of school choices for parents.

Several campaigns have criticized him for giving different answers to different audiences, and independent candidate Cam Winton attacked him at the same forum for supporting the status quo.

Andrew took Winton’s criticism in stride.

“I have a titanium spine,” he responded, “and I’m not bashful about standing up to any group of people.”