Election Blow-out: Property Rights Group's Impact on the 2001 Minneapolis City Elections


Throughout 2001, a large sign was positioned at the front of the hall where members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee held their monthly meetings. This sign identified four City Council candidates, termed “the dirty four”, whom the Property Rights group opposed; and there were four candidates whom the sign said this group favored.

Members of the “dirty four” included:

Joan Campbell, 2nd ward
Joe Biernat, 3rd ward
Jackie Cherryhomes, 5th ward
Kathy Thurber, 9th ward

It is significant that three of these four Council members will not be returning. Council member Thurber decided in March not to seek reelection. Her place will be taken by Gary Schiff, who was endored by the DFL ward convention. Joan Campbell, in the 2nd ward, placed third in the September 11th primary behind Cam Gordon and Paul Zerby, the eventual winner. Jackie Cherryhomes, the City Council President, was knocked off in the November 6th general election by Natalie Johnson Lee. Of the “dirty four”, only Joe Biernat was reelected.

The sign also indicated that the group favored these candidates:

Paul Ostrow, 1st ward
Barb Johnson, 4th ward
Lisa Goodman, 7th ward
Sandra Colvin Roy, 12th ward

All of these candidates easily won reelection. Even before Cherryhomes’ defeat, it was announced that Paul Ostrow would seek to be elected President of the City Council and Lisa Goodman would seek to be elected Vice President. The November 6th election makes their election to those positions a virtual certainty.

At a later meeting before the election, M.P.R.A.C. members pencilled in the names of Robert Lilligren, Dean Zimmerman, Barret Lane, Shane Price, and others under the “good” category. We took no position with respect to the 9th, 10th, and 1th wards although, prior to the DFL convention, a member spoke with Gary Schiff about possible support.

With respect to the Mayor’s race, the sign indicated that the mayoral field included “an embarrassment of riches.” This was because three of the four top contenders - Rybak, McDonald, and Stenglein - were considered our friend. I resist labelling Sayles Belton an enemy despite the strong desire among Property Rights advocates for sweeping change. We tried to hold off on mayoral preferences until after the primary election, but were unsuccessful. Individual members went various ways.

Charlie Disney, our executive director, announced his own candidacy for Mayor shortly before the DFL city convention but dropped out for health reasons. After Charlie’s departure, I ran for Mayor on the “Affordable Housing - Preservation” in a candidacy intended to raise issues and remain noncommittal with respect to the major contenders. I finished 12th among the 22 mayoral candidates.

Rybak came to the Property Rights meeting twice after the primary - once for an hour on the night after the primary election and then a month later. He challenged the group to draw up a list of specific proposals to improve city government which he might incorporate in his 90-day action plan if elected. The landlords met and submitted about twenty suggestions in various areas. These proposals were mentioned in a Star Tribune article on Rybak’s and Sayles Belton’s positions on affordable housing. Rybak took heat from some quarters for talking with members of the Property Rights group. It should be remembered, however, that Rybak’s late step-father, Chuck Metzge, was a landlord and early contributor to Charlie Disney’s fledgling movement. His mother, Lorraine, who played a key role in her son’s successful campaign, was constantly reminding landlords of that fact.

What impact did Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee actually have on the election? The greatest impact came about, perhaps, in the exposure which candidates received to audiences of the group’s cable-television show. This hour-long show airs twice on Fridays on the regional cable-television station, Channel 6, and on MTN. The group purchased additional air time in the months before the election so that we could help our political friends. Jim Swartwood also put together a special program before the primary which turned out to be a debate among the minor mayoral candidates.

Except for the 2nd ward where we invited all the principal contenders - Campbell, Zerby, and Gordon - to discuss and debate issues on an equal footing, our practice was generally to invite only our friends to benefit from the paid air time. Rybak, McDonald, and Stenglein all appeared for at least an hour (two hours in McDonald’s case because she also filled in for a “no show”) early in the year. They had all come to our group seeking support. Of the City Council candidates, Natalie Johnson Lee was the most frequent guest; she was present at three or four meetings. Of the other successful candidates for City Council, those appearing on the cable-television show included Barb Johnson, Dean Zimmerman, and Robert Lilligren. Numerous unsuccessful candidates for City Council, especially in the 3rd and 6th wards, were also invited to participate on the show.

Members of M.P.R.A.C. also helped the winning candidates in other ways: giving lawnsign locations, contributing money, participating in literature drops, etc. The most remarkable effort was certainly that in the 5th ward where Jim McCauley lined up at least a dozen landlord volunteers to drive voters to the polls, do poll watching,and other chores. In an unusual alliance, Minnesota ACORN dropped literature for Johnson Lee which included a list of 23 unanswered questions addressed to Jackie Cherryhomes, written by a member of the landlord group.

Cherryhomes blamed (we say, credited) the landlord group for her defeat in a post-election interview with WCCO-TV. The WCCO web site included this statement: “The City Council President said that a group called the Property Rights Action Coalition ran a ‘difficult’ campaign against her. The group protested last summer in front of Cherryhomes’ house, objecting to neighborhood revitalization project funding she received for her residence. ‘In my ward, couple the winds of change with what I think was a very mean, personal attack, and this was the outcome,’ she said.”

We landlords would dispute that our picketing or campaign activities were any meaner than what was needed to get the job done in removing Cherryhomes from her office through the election process. In the absence of mutual good will and open discussion, this is unfortunately what it took to assert our interests effectively.

All in all, the general election on November 6th brought a very good night for Minneapolis property owners and tenants - in stark contrast, I might add, with their experience on the eve of the September 11th primary election, haunted by the defeat of some political friends and, especially, the horror of the terrorist attacks that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C. earlier in the day.

the battered old sign from 2001

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