Candidate forums sponsored by Metro Property Rights Action Committee
The course that we adopted was for the Property Rights group to devote most of its meetings in 2009 to giving candidates for city office a platform to be seen and heard on our cable-television show that is aired weekly in Minneapolis. All candidates who filed for city office would have access to this show. I began making inquiries.
The meeting on June 17th featured a conservative speaker, Tom Coulter, who represented “Change in America”. I also invited Dave Bicking, a Green Party candidate for City Council in the 9th Ward. He owned and operated an auto-repair shop in south Minneapolis.
Unfortunately, Coulter and I, as moderator, became involved in an ideological argument during his half-hour presentation. Coulter would not take another segment. That left the two remaining segments to Bicking. This was being more generous toward candidates than we had planned to be but we did have a good discussion. We wanted to have a number of candidates for the same office on the show at the same time so that a proper “debate” might take place.
With that in mind, I called some of the incumbent City Council member’s offices to try to line up commitments to attend our meeting. Barb Johnson, Don Samuels, and Gary Schiff were the people I called. Johnson, the Council President, readily agreed to debate her opponents. Aides to Samuels and Schiff said they would get back to me but never did. I also invited Mayor Rybak to debate his opponents at our meeting. The message received from his aide on June 9th was that “that we regret to inform you but we are not interested in participating at this time. If you have any questions about his position on issues please let me know.” A bit annoyed, I did fire off a letter to the mayor asking if he was behind the city’s aggressive pursuit of fines and fees. That letter received no response. Tension with Rybak was starting to build.
On July 6th, I sent an email to MPRAC members announcing, among other things, that Barb Johnson would be debating two of her opponents, Troy Parker and Marcus Harcus, at our meeting on Wednesday, July 15th. I also invited the group’s members to consider running for office themselves.
On July 14th - the day before our scheduled meeting - I received a message on my telephone answering machine from Barb Johnson’s campaign manager accusing me of spreading the word that Johnson would attend our meeting when I had never contacted her campaign. That was true; I had spoken with Johnson herself. I hastily sent out messages to other candidates inviting them to come to our meeting and get free air time. On the morning of the 15th, I did reach Johnson by telephone. She said she had not been clear on the date. In any event, she now had three other meetings scheduled at that time.
MPRAC’s July meeting was the first in our series of candidate forums. Kris Broberg, a candidate for 13th Ward City council who was endorsed by the Independence Party, spoke for the first half hour. He was a fiscal conservative running in a relatively conservative ward. The next half hour was taken by Marcus Harcus, one of the two candidates who was supposed to have debated Barb Johnson. His talk concerned racial profiling and other topics of concern to north Minneapolis residents. The last half hour we split between two candidates. Twenty minutes went to Kenya McKnight, a candidate for City Council in the 5th ward running against incumbent Don Samuels, and ten minutes going to DeWayne Townsend, a candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation.
The impromptu agenda had worked well for this meeting but we needed a more organized approach. On July 28th, I sent email messages to seventy candidates for city offices - mayor, City Council, Park Board at large, and Board of Estimate and Taxation - offering spots on our television show to interested candidates. I acknowledged the fact that the two co-moderators were themselves candidates for city office, pledging to conduct the meeting fairly.
None of the incumbent City Council members responded. Rybak’s campaign again sent the mayor’s regrets. A Park Board member informed me that our meeting was held at the same time as the Park Board’s regular meeting so we would effectively be discriminating against incumbents. A candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation doubted that the moderators would be fair. But we did receive acceptances from a dozen other candidates. The task now was to arrange them into meaningful groups and schedule their times. Hopefully, we would have some real debates.
Normally Metro Property Rights Action Committee meets at the Martin Luther King park building in south Minneapolis on the third Wednesday of each month. In August, however, the Minneapolis park system closes its buildings for a few weeks. We had to find another location for that month’s meeting. Fortunately, a former member of the group, Jim McCauley, offered us the use of a meeting room at Walsh Title Company in Edina for the August meeting. Though out of our area, it was easily accessible from Highway 100.
We scheduled three sets of debates for the meeting held on August 19th: Ward 7 and Ward 5 City Council candidates and the candidates for mayor. In Ward 7, Michael Katch was the only candidate who had responded to our inquiry so we let him have the first half hour. Katch seemed to have a good chance to unseat the incumbent Council member, Lisa Goodman, whose interference in development projects had provoked a major lawsuit resulting potentially in tens of millions of dollars of liability for the city. Katch was a professional currency trader who knew something about city finances.
We expected to have four candidates from Ward 5 (my own) at the meeting but two of them, Natalie Johnson Lee and Kenya McKnight, did not attend because of a competing event in the ward. (I had promised McKnight a chance to make a brief appearance on camera since she had had twenty minutes of air time in the previous meeting.) The only candidate present when the second segment began was Lennie Chism. Later, another candidate, Roger Smithrud, walked in and was promptly included in the discussion. The Ward 5 incumbent, Don Samuels, had not responded to our inquiry.
Chism was an African-American businessman who had recently purchased a commercial building at the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth Avenues. It had once housed Uncle Bill’s Food Market. The city had condemned the building and Don Samuels was determined to have it torn down. Chism, who had been the publisher of a black business directory, wanted to convert the building into a cafe with outdoors tables similar to what exists in Uptown. He thought north Minneapolis should have some drinking or dining establishments, too, for the upscale younger clientele.
After the meeting, I suggested in a conversation with Chism that he rent some tables and chairs to place on the sidewalk for a special one- or two-day event to simulate the cafe. This would show north Minneapolis residents how the site might be used for the neighborhood’s benefit and perhaps put pressure on the city to allow the condemned building to remain.
The third segment of the August 19th meeting was the debate between mayoral candidates. Papa John Kolstad, who was endorsed by both the Republican and Independence parties, had agreed to attend, as well as Al Flowers, who was well known in the city, and John Charles Wilson of the Edgertonite National Party (his own creation). In the interests of fairness, I agreed to abstain from participation though also a mayoral candidate.
At the last minute Wilson could not make the meeting so that only Kolstad and Flowers were present. Together they proposed that I also participate; Jim Swartwood would moderate the discussion. We each made energetic presentations criticizing Rybak and Minneapolis city government but were collegial toward each other. This set the tone for a cooperative attitude among the non-Rybak mayoral candidates which came to be known as “the insurgency”.
The three half-hour segments were to be aired on Minneapolis Television Network (MTN) Channel 17 on successive Fridays, starting at 7 p.m., and Saturdays, at 7 a.m. It seemed a waste of time and effort to ask candidates to attend our meeting if they would appear on only one of the aired programs. We therefore cut each segment short by five minutes and allowed candidates featured in the other segments to introduce themselves and make brief statements in segments other than their own. That way, the candidates attending each meeting could appear in all three segments, maximizing their television exposure.
It was back to the Martin Luther King park for the September meeting, held on September 16th. We paired candidates for 4th ward City Council, 10th ward City Council, 11th ward City Council, and Board of Estimate and Taxation for this show. I was hopeful that Barb Johnson, the Council president who represented the 4th ward, would attend our event. When she had canceled in July, Johnson had asked me to call her again about participating in a future month. I did call her office but never received a response.
I had to inform the other candidates that Johnson again would not be participating. That prompted an email from candidate Troy Parker informing me that “with all due respect” he, too, would not participate if we could not secure Johnson; the word “debate” was misleading in that situation. Marcus Harcus, also from the 4th ward, had already appeared in July. In the end the candidate who participated in the September meeting from this ward was Grant Cermak, who had not previously been on our radar screen.
We let Cermak have the first half hour. He, a white candidate, brought a young black man, Ricky Jones, as his guest. Jones had quite a story to tell. He was a free-lance photographer who specialized in covering the downtown night life in the warehouse district. He told of being harassed repeatedly by the Minneapolis police - having his film confiscated, his car boxed in by squad cars, etc. - in the course of his work. A lawsuit against the city was pending. Cermak made it clear that, if elected to the City Council, he would try to repair the relationship between the city police and residents of his ward.
In the second half hour, three candidates for City Council in the 10th ward made presentations. The fourth candidate, Meg Tuthill, who was endorsed by the DFL party, did not attend. The three participants were: Kim Vlaisavljevich, an Independent candidate; Matt Dowgwillo, an DFLer, and Dan Alvin, endorsed by the Independence Party. Dowgwillo was a computer consultant; Vlaisavljevich, a financial advisor; and Alvin, a chef. All three stressed preserving the ”Uptown” style of living, building on what Ward 10 already had.
Dowgwillo wished to bring more young people into politics. Vlaisavljevich, daughter of a mayor of Eveleth (MN) from the Iron Range, stressed her financial expertise. Alvin suggested that the city accept an offer from public-employee unions to deal with the pension shortfall. This was the closest thing to a “debate” that we had all year.
Because the three Ward 10 candidates had had to share a half hour, they were invited back for another fifteen minutes or so in the last segment. Dowgwillo had leave, but Alvin and Vlaisavljevich stuck around for additional discussion. A candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation, R. Michael Martens, was sitting in the audience. Although BET candidates had not been scheduled to participate, he agreed to come up to the front table and say something about his candidacy, sitting next to moderator Jim Swartwood who was also a BET candidate.
Because the taped segments would air on successive Fridays starting ten days after the meeting, the meeting on the third Wednesday of October, October 21st, allowed only one of the segments (the first half hour) to air before the November 3rd election. Only that segment would benefit candidates. This we gave to Mike Tupper, a candidate for City Council in the 6th ward who had been unable to attend the September meeting because a candidate debate sponsored by the Whittier neighborhood was held at the same time.
Tupper, endorsed by the Independence Party, was a union plumber, personable and down to earth, whose views on city policy were similar to those held by many Property Rights group members. He wound up sticking around for the entire meeting even though the last two half-hour segments would not be aired by election time.
I filed as a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis on July 20th. Jim Swartwood filed as a candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation on the following day. The meetings of Metro Property Rights Action Committee in August, September, and October therefore took place with a possible conflict of interest between us as co-hosts of the show and as candidates for elective office. This did not matter in most cases because our guests were running for the City Council. Where it did matter, we tried to be open about this.
The only uncomfortable situation arose when Michael Martens, a candidate for Board of Estimate and Taxation, showed up at our September meeting even though we had announced that only City Council members would be participating. We let him speak. Networking with other political candidates would be beneficial both to us as candidates and to our Property Rights group.
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