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My fellow candidates enter the picture

 

Chapter Thirteen

One might have the impression from the above narrative that I campaigned for mayor in insolation or that none of the other mayoral candidates mattered to my campaign. In some respects, that was true. But then, in the last month, a kind of “insurgency” movement developed. It grew out of Mayor Rybak’s refusal to debate his opponents. This was not a fight that any single candidate could handle alone. It required the cooperation of several candidates. It was not until mid October that this insurgency flared with any intensity.

I have known John Kolstad for many years. He has attended MPRAC meetings from time to time. Al Flowers attended at least one such meeting. In August, John, Al, and I “debated” at MPRAC’s candidate forum. It was a friendly debate rather than one where we tried to score points against each other. By that time it was clear that Rybak was trying to stiff us; we were beneath his and the media’s radar screen. We were united in condemning what the authorities had tried to do to Al Flowers. As mayoral candidates, we knew we were “all in the same boat”.

The first candidate forum other than MPRAC’s was the one sponsored by Waite Park Community Council on September 19th, which I did not attend because it conflicted with the event at Uncle Bill Food Market’s former site. I know that Kolstad attended the community forum and Rybak did not but I’m not sure about the others.

the debate on October 7th

Then Don Allen of Independent Business News Network and Terry Yzaguirre of Mplsmirror.com organized the first full-scale mayoral debate at the MTN studio on October 7th. At first, four candidates were invited to participate: Kolstad, Flowers, James Everett, and me. I received a phone call from another candidate, Bob Carney, asking if he, too, could be included in this event. I referred him to the event organizers and he was included. Rybak, of course, had been invited to participate but he declined. So that made five candidates in all who did participate in the October 7th mayoral debate.

The debate itself lasted an hour. After the candidates each made opening statements, Allen and Yzaguirre asked questions. The questions were about the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, the Empowerment Zone program, our “leadership styles”, etc. Kolstad stressed the importance of small business in creating jobs for Minneapolis residents. Flowers was critical of the city administration for Empowerment Zone funds that seemed to have disappeared. Bob Carney wanted to talk about his transportation scheme which he called “Sky-bi”; it was a network of elevated platforms in downtown Minneapolis where bicycles might be used. We each had our issues.

The issues of my candidacy and of New Dignity Party were three-fold: the proposed paradigm change in identity politics, inspections abuse, and defective coverage of elections by the media. The identity issue posed a problem for me. Did I want to bring up a complicated and controversial subject which might create immediate misunderstandings and possible tension between me and the two black candidates in the forum (Flowers and Everett); or should I ignore this part of my platform and stress the other points? I chose the second option.

Therefore, when asked about funding for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, I merely said that it should be funded adequately. In truth, I did not know what were the strengths or deficiencies of this department or whether I agreed entirely with its mission.

The question about the Empowerment Zone inspired an unusual answer. I said that although I operated a business within the Empowerment Zone, I did not know much about the program. Mainly I knew that the director of the Empowerment Zone had once tried to have me arrested. This comment referred to the time when I had picketed Don Samuel’s “Peace Rally” on Penn Avenue north of Broadway because of Samuel’s role in closing down Uncle Bill’s grocery store and had also passed out flyers. The director of the Empowerment Zone, Jonathan Palmer, approached me angrily, said I was demonstrating without a permit, and I had to leave the area immediately or he would have me arrested. I stayed and no arrest was made. (See writeup of this incident.)

The panelists and moderators were somewhat amused by this story until I added that someone thought Palmer was working for Council Member Don Samuels. Terry Yzaguirre objected to that remark; I suppose she might have thought my statement might be slanderous. However, “someone” did ask me the question.

At any rate, we had a lively and friendly debate. The video was posted on several websites. The main significance was that the participants got to know each other better and that R.T. Rybak had not participated. I met Bob Carney for the first time. I had previously met Everett but did not know him well.

Bob Carney's initiatives

Carney turned out to be the spark plug of our incipient rebellion. At first, I did not know what to make of him. Bob Carney sports a goatee and always wears a business suit and bow tie, looking like the business-school professor that he once was. While I have general sympathy for transportation proposals such as his “Sky-bi”, I thought this was a rather odd issue to promote in a city election. The name of his party affiliation - “moderate progressive censored” - also struck me as odd.

Carney was a moderate or progressive Republican but election officials would not let him use the words “moderate progressive Republican” when he filed for mayor. The word “censored” replaced “Republican”. A lawsuit was in the works. Carney was also suing Governor Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Republican, for using his supposed “unallotment” powers to rewrite the state budget. It was not that Carney wanted to make money from the suit but, for him, simply a matter of principle.

Bob Carney was a doer as well as an informed talker - a fact that I appreciated. He carried a video camera and tripod with him in a suitcase and taped events for a YouTube-like presentation on his website, Republicancontract.com. For all that, Carney did not have a car or, at least, use one. He often traveled by bus or bicycle and sometimes walked. Several times, I gave him a ride home from a downtown event. Carney lived in south Minneapolis on Colfax Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets.

In his own determined way, Bob Carney now put pressure on Mayor Rybak to participate in this year’s election. Carney produced a video called “R.T. and me”, reminiscent of Michael Moore’s production about looking for Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors. Where was the mayor? Located in the hall outside the mayor’s office, Rybak was asked if he knew of a pending election. The mayor nodded affirmatively but otherwise made no comment because it was considered inappropriate to discuss politics at City Hall.

Fueling Carney’s doubt about the campaign was the fact that Rybak’s campaign calendar for October as viewed on a web site on October 8th was entirely blank. The return address given for his mayoral campaign office was a UPS Store on Hennepin Avenue. There were no visible signs of campaign activity involving the incumbent mayor. Many watched this video posted on Republicancontract.com, which also included a segment of the dapper Carney butting his head against a tree several times. It was good theater.

Bob Carney in pursuit of Mayor Rybak | left: Carney at City Hall with video equipment | center: a Rybak sighting | right: Carney catches up with the elusive mayor

On October 14th, the Star Tribune picked up the story of Mayor Rybak’s ducking candidate forums. Reporter Brandt managed to uncover the fact that while five mayoral candidates were debating at the MTN studio on October 7th, Rybak, who had pled “scheduling conflicts”, was actually telephoning “targeted voters” from an undisclosed location. Another piece of news in Brandt’s article was that Rybak had agreed to one debate with his opponents which would be held on the day before the election in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Actually, it was just one candidate (John Kolstad) whom Rybak would debate since MPR insisted that only candidates endorsed by major parties would be allowed to participate.

Carney now arranged for a press conference of several mayoral candidates in the atrium of Minneapolis City Hall in the afternoon of Wednesday, October 21st. Carney, Kolstad, Flowers, Everett, and I participated. Tom Lyden, a reporter for KMSP-TV, covered the event. We each made statements on camera in the atrium and then headed up to the mayor’s office to see if we could locate our fellow candidate - the missing one - and present a list of grievances. Rybak was not there, of course.

Outside Mayor Rybak's office | left: Carney interviewed by KMSP-TV reporter | center: Al Flowers & James Everett leave office | right: Papa John Kolstad at reception desk of mayor's office

In my televised statement, I said: “Rybak is not treating us respectfully. He pretends that we don't exist – that there isn't a campaign this year. I have one question for Mayor Rybak – if you are re-elected Mayor this November, do you pledge to serve your full four year term?” The implication was that, if the mayor was really running for Governor, he was putting Minneapolis taxpayers through an unnecessary exercise in holding another mayoral election next year should Rybak win both the mayoral and gubernatorial elections. KSTP-TV dug up the fact that the extra cost would be over $200,000.

I know that the news report on our press conference was widely watched because I received telephone calls from two women I had known. One was someone I knew in the 1960s who with her husband had recently moved their family business from Minneapolis to Anoka to avoid our high property taxes. She gave me specific tax information which was useful in some of my writings. The other woman was a former bar owner in St. Paul. I had helped organize a protest event three years earlier when the city of St. Paul was trying to close down her bar. She now wanted to help out in my campaign.

Meeting the Star Tribune editorial board

In the meanwhile, I had received an invitation to sit down with editors from the Star Tribune editorial board who would be interviewing candidates to decide which one to endorse for mayor. My appointment was set for the afternoon of Thursday, October 22nd, starting at 3 p.m. Al Flowers had told us the day before that he had not been invited to be interviewed. An invitation came to him at the last moment. Flowers and his associate, Farheen Hakeem (a former Green Party candidate in Minneapolis who is now a co-chair of the national party), were sitting in the lobby when I arrived at the Star Tribune office. We were soon joined by others and led to the conference room.

Editorial writers Lori Sturdevant and Denise Johnson interviewed a group of candidates including Al Flowers, Bob Carney, James Everett, Joey Lombard, and me as another editor, Doug Tice, sat in. Rybak, Kolstad, Wilson, and Franson had been interviewed two days earlier.

We candidates were asked to make general statements about our campaigns and then answer specific questions about city budget, the shortage of internal auditors in city government, and other matters. While briefly mentioning identity politics and criticism of the media (including the Star Tribune) as two of my issues, I focused mainly on inspections abuse, excessive fines and fees, destruction of the tax base, and other concerns relating to my experience as a property owner in the city. That was my area of credibility.

I think I got through to my questioners when I said it was unreasonable to require property managers to submit management plans to the city as a condition of keeping their rental license if a single instance of criminal activity (such as drug sales, gun possession, prostitution, or gambling) occurred on their property. If it were that easy, I asked, why not require the Minneapolis Police Department to submit a management plan each time there is a fatal shooting on the city streets? Does anyone really believe that is a realistic solution to preventing crime?

Doug Tice, a recent addition to the Editorial Board, had been sitting at the table during the questioning. After our meeting, he came up to me to say that he, too, had doubts about the wisdom of the city’s “problem properties” approach to crime. It was clear that buildings per se did not commit crimes but misguided people. This had been the main talking point of the Property Rights group for many years. I had always thought that Star Tribune editors subscribed to the “broken window” theory (that dilapidated buildings inspire people to commit crimes). Evidently not - or, perhaps, not any more. Maybe the Star Tribune editors were not the enemy I supposed them to be.

The Star Tribune editorial board announced its choice for mayor in the Sunday newspaper on October 25th. It was Rybak, of course. The headline read: “Can-do Rybak deserves third term”. Even so, there was something in it for me. Within the text of the editorial, this statement appeared: “Landlord Bill McGaughey is right to question whether targeting ‘problem properties’ rather than criminal conduct itself is either a just or effective crime-fighting strategy.” This single sentence in a Star Tribune editorial justified my decision to run for mayor, I thought. The “problem property” approach has long been the cornerstone of city policy with respect to crime.

The Star Tribune editorial also contained this statement: “Consultant Robert Carney Jr., former alderman Dick Franson and (John) Kolstad fault the city for inadequate internal auditing. Their claim that no independent audit of the city’s books has been done in three years is inaccurate. One was completed under contract with the state auditor’s office only last month. But internal auditing is weak at City Hall and Rybak has been too slow to strengthen it.” This was an attack on the three candidates’ credibility. The city‘s financial records may have been audited but not its compliance with internal policies, which was the province of the Internal Auditing department.

Bob Carney, who had engaged Star Tribune editors and reporters aggressively during the campaign, now won an additional concession. The Star Tribune agreed to print the candidates’ dissenting view in a Counterpoint feature, which appeared in the paper on October 29th. It was titled “Minneapolis: A city in need of more audits.” Carney wrote the article and five other candidates, including me, signed it in support.

By that time, we had more information about the city’s Internal Auditing function including the fact that a single internal auditor covered all of city government - and he was retiring soon. This man’s review of “procedures and internal controls over fuel purchases” in April had disclosed several irregularities including employee gas cards being used outside Minnesota, lack of receipts, and “creative odometer readings.”

Still looking for the mayor

Carney was not done. He now wanted to present a “Second Citizens’ Petition for a Redress of Grievances” focusing on Governor Pawlenty’s unallotment of funds going to local governments and elsewhere. This event would again be held in the City Hall atrium on Tuesday, October 27th. The unallotment was the focus of one of Carney’s other lawsuits. I was less interested in this as a city issue and did not attend. It did not receive press coverage as far as I knew.

I now planned an event of my own. John Choi, the current city attorney in St. Paul, wanted to run for Ramsey County Attorney to succeed the incumbent who was running for Governor. He would be holding a fundraiser at the Minneapolis club on Monday, October 26th, starting at 5 p.m. Among the honored guests was R.T. Rybak. Evidently Rybak had time to participate in other people’s campaigns, especially those who might be useful in his prospective gubernatorial campaign, but not for his own campaign to be re-elected mayor.

I also wanted to protest Choi’s elevation to County Attorney. As the St. Paul City Attorney, his office had participated in a number of questionable activities including the closing of Diva’s bar and shredding of documents in a racketeering lawsuit brought against the city of St. Paul by a group of landlords. I quickly made a sign that bore the slogan: “John Choi - law in the service of injustice.” That would get their blood boiling.

After discussions with Bob Carney and others, I decided to stand near the entrance to the underground parking garage of the Minneapolis Club to catch people coming to the Choi fundraiser. Carney and Melissa Hill, a candidate for City Council in the 3rd ward, were at the site when I arrived. Hill was the one who had originally alerted us to the fundraiser. Later, John Charles Wilson, another mayoral candidate, joined us. Carney set up his video equipment to record the event. Our protest event may or may not have had an impact. Several cars entered the ramp during the half hour that we protested but none seemed to notice us. Only one man bothered to talk with us. He was politely curious rather than upset. We did not see Rybak.

Standing around, I did get to know Hill and Wilson better. Melissa Hill had been arrested at the anti-globalization rally in Pittsburgh in late September. (I almost went to the now-famous Seattle protests of WTO in 1999.) Wilson was plugging away at his mayoral campaign. Like Carney, he did not have a car. I offered him a ride back to south Minneapolis but he declined. Wilson did say, however, that he was planning to attend a mayoral debate that evening sponsored by the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. Being unaware of it, I decided to drive to the Association’s offices at 3537 Lyndale Avenue South to see what was happening. Wilson was already there when I arrived. The office, though lit, seemed to be empty.

A woman eventually came to the door when we knocked. No, the debate was not being held at the office but at Painter Park and Recreation Center on 34th Street and Nicollet Avenue. Wilson and I drove over to that site to find a meeting in session. Wilson took a seat in front, and I one in the back. Later Al Flowers arrived and took a seat next to me. There was a brief business meeting before the candidates spoke. The Park Board candidates spoke first.

While the Park Board candidates were speaking, Flowers poked me in the shoulder and pointed to the door. Lo and behold, it was Rybak. Evidently he knew about this candidate forum and I had not. I snapped a picture of the elusive mayor standing on the other side of the room to await his presentation. It was a grainy photo taken at a distance, like one that might have been taken of Bigfoot. Wilson made the first mayoral statement. Then Flowers spoke. Finally, it was Rybak’s turn to speak. He had a smooth four-point program for the city if he were reelected. Several questions were asked and answered. People were satisfied.

When the meeting appeared to be over, I stood up and declared that I was also a mayoral candidate who would like to make a statement. Although I was not on the list of candidates, the chair said I could have two minutes. I used that time to explain that I was running for mayor to do something about inspections abuse such as what the Mayor and city officials had done to Uncle Bill’s Food Market. At that point, a man stood up and said that closing down Uncle Bill’s was one of the best things that had ever happened to that neighborhood. A woman echoed that opinion.

In full argumentative mode, I condemned the city for using false inspections reports to condemn buildings and put legitimate grocery stores out of business. “There is,” I told my critics, “no such thing as a problem property. There are people who commit crimes. We need honest police work to enforce the law.” The chair told me I was not making any friends with that kind of talk.

So be it. I was running for mayor to make changes, not reinforce the status quo. I hung around for a few minutes trying to schmooze with whoever would talk with me. Then I ran into Al Flowers on my way out the door. He told me that Rybak had made a parting shot at him a few minutes earlier. The mayor had called him a name - I forget which - and he, in turn, had called Rybak a “coward”. The context for this exchange was that, several days earlier, Flowers had disrupted a speech made by Mayor Rybak at a dedication ceremony for a new building on Broadway to house radio station KMOJ-FM.

The insurgency was starting to gather steam. And Rybak had finally surfaced! I notified subscribers to the e-democracy forum: “Mayor Rybak has been spotted at a mayoral campaign event!  It happened last evening at a candidate forum sponsored by the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.  I even have a photograph! “

 a day with several campaign appearances

The next day, Tuesday, October 27th, included a full set of activities. It was also the day when the “Pre-General Report of Receipts and Expenditures” of the candidates’ principal campaign committees would be due at the Hennepin County elections bureau. That would give the cue to a certain type of political reporter to rise from his armchair and report how much or how little money the various candidates had raised One would then know who the viable contenders were. Fortunately, I had already mailed my report in and evidently it was accepted.

Candidates for Minneapolis public office were invited to a “meet and greet” event at the Ebenezer Tower Apartment on Portland Avenue in south Minneapolis, starting at 2 p.m. on October 27th. Frederick Markus, who sometimes posted messages on the Minneapolis e-democracy list, was a contact person for the event. It was held in a party room at the top of this high-rise apartment. I was surprised to see Bob Carney seated at a table with Mayor Rybak when I walked into the room. Papa John Kolstad joined the conversation.

I greeted the mayor with the remark that some of us candidates have been “hounding you” about avoiding campaign appearances. Rybak replied that he had, in fact, been conducting an active campaign. I assume that he had knocked on some doors and appeared at certain events, even if mayoral debates were not among them. I also raised the subject of Uncle Bill’s Food Market as a point of contention between us. (The mayor was reported to have put pressure on inspectors to condemn the building.) Rybak said he would talk with me about that some other time. I left the table after snapping a few photographs.

A "meet and greet" at Ebenezer Tower Apartments | left: Kolstad and Carney talk with Rybak | center: Wilson & Markus shake hands over chili | right: Flowers sits with Ebenezer resident

Fred Markus had prepared several kinds of chili and assorted vegetable snacks. People were seated at small round tables eating and talking with each other. We candidates were supposed to make the rounds of the different tables shaking hands, passing out literature, and discussing politics. Fred himself had much to say, including some complimentary remarks about Rybak.

I had just finished talking with a woman at one of the tables and had started on my bowl of chili when Mayor Rybak sat down at the table with us. Without ever looking at me, he proceeded to explain to the woman how his reelection as mayor would help the city. It was the same four-point plan that Rybak had presented at the neighborhood meeting the night before. The mayor stuck closely to his script although he did answer a personalized question or two. I watched in amazement. After he was done with his pitch, Rybak arose and walked to some other table to begin the process again. He never once looked at me. I thought it was because in his eyes my presence spelled trouble and the mayor was someone who avoided conflict whenever he could.

As Mayor Rybak and his entourage headed toward the elevator, I walked over to remind him that I would like to talk about Uncle Bill’s some time. The mayor gave no answer. The rest of the candidates, including Carney, Kolstad, and Flowers, remained at the event for another forty-five minutes to an hour. The meet and greet was supposed to end at 3:30 p.m. We left shortly before 4 p.m.

other events that day

I do not recall now whether Carney ever carried out his City Hall event that afternoon. (Note: Yes, he did.) I do remember meeting Kolstad and Carney at City Hall and discussing our plans for the evening. Kolstad’s car was parked in a ramp; Carney was riding with him. My car was parked at a downtown meter not far away. We agreed to have coffee together at a coffee shop in north Minneapolis before assembling at North Commons Recreation Center on James avenue for a candidate debate sponsored by the Minneapolis NAACP. Kolstad insisted that it should be a local coffee shop and not part of a chain. Because we weren’t sure what was in the area, we agreed to meet first at North Commons.

I arrived promptly and waited for the others. I learned from a park employee that the “Bean Scene” was a good local coffee shop; I would recommend this to my colleagues. As the wait continued, I read free-circulation newspapers. Then I spotted activity in the parking lot behind the park building. A man was taking campaign literature out of a van. It was mayoral candidate Dick Franson. His van was decorated with campaign insignia. Kolstad and Carney were talking with him.

We all walked into the North Commons recreation building and into the room where the debate would be held. Franson placed his literature on a table and I did likewise. We both also had campaign signs. Since this was the first time any of us had encountered Franson, the conversation centered on him.

Dick Franson showed us a full-page ad that he had placed in a Minnesota veteran’s magazine. He was a proud veteran of the Vietnam war and, of course, a one-term Minneapolis alderman in the 1960s. Arne Carlson, the future Governor, had defeated him for reelection using questionable campaign tactics. Franson, who knew some of the DFL greats from that era, did not have a high opinion of Carlson. I believe he also told us that he had spent $14,000 on this campaign and was thus running a “serious” campaign, unlike some of us.

In time, persons from our host organization, the Minneapolis NAACP, walked in along with several other candidates for City Council. I talked with Troy Parker, who was giving Barb Johnson a run for her money in the 4th ward. I recall that Parker said he had 900 lawn signs placed in the ward. (I had thought we were doing well with 180 signs for New Dignity Party placed in the whole city.) Natalie Johnson Lee, Roger Smithrud, Kenya McKnight, and Lennie Chism participated in the debate as 5th ward candidates; Don Samuels, the incumbent, did not. I would have thought that he would want to mend fences with the black community. Eventually, we had a full slate of candidates for several offices, including Al Flowers and John Charles Wilson. We stood in a semi-circle and answered questions put to us by the moderator, Booker Hodges, each in turn.

I don’t remember much of the conversation. I do remember making perhaps the wittiest remark of the evening. The candidates were each asked what they would do first if elected mayor. I replied: “Fire proof North High School.” This referred to the fact that Don Samuels had once impulsively remarked that he wanted to burn down North High because it was giving black children such a poor education. The many students and alumni of North High did not agree, of course. Samuels had retracted that statement several times.

For a candidate debate, this one was characteristically collegial. The salient fact was that both the mayor and an African American council member, Don Samuels, did not think it worthwhile or advisable to attend an event sponsored by the Minneapolis NAACP. Neither did the City Council president. So we other candidates just stood around talking and having a good time. That was it for the day. None of us was later elected, though.

another press conference at City Hall

On the following day, October 28th, Bob Carney sent an email to his fellow candidates for mayor: “Breaking news -- ‘City of Minneapolis Internal Audit Function’ report to be presented to Board of Estimate and Taxation -- Mayoral candidate Carney says report shows ‘woeful inadequacies in our City’s financial controls.’” Carney reported that the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), which supervises the Internal Audit function for the city, would be meeting that afternoon at 4:30 p.m. to consider a report prepared by a committee of outside auditors headed by Katie Shea, head of the Internal Audit department of the Metropolitan Council. Mayor Rybak, two City Council members, a representative of the Library Board, and two elected representatives of the public comprised the Board.

Carney attended the meeting and taped much of it with his video camera, focusing on Rybak. As the bad news was delivered, Carney said that the mayor kept slipping to the edge of the picture. Finally, he stood up and left the room. The committee report concluded: “Based on the review and the observations described in the main section of this report, Minneapolis Internal Audit does not comply (in bold lettering) with the Institute of Internal Auditors Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing.” The report author told the Board: "... we found in our discussions with people that it is widely acknowledged that Internal Audit is severely under-resourced, so that being able to monitor and adequately report risks back to the Council, to the Mayor, to the Administration, would be nearly impossible under the current system."

Carney now organized another press conference for 4 p.m. on Thursday, October 29th, at City Hall. Several mayoral candidates - Carney, Kolstad, and I - wanted to comment on the Internal Audit report. Unsure where the press conference would be held, I first went to the mayor’s office on the third floor, happening to see Rybak as he hurried to a meeting down the hall. Then I realized that my meeting was probably being held in the atrium. I raced down the stairs just in time to make a statement in front of Bob Carney’s video camera. Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt was there.

My points were that the lack of adequate Internal Auditing was a major failing of the current city administration, that I had once been an accountant myself, that I thought the city should have three to five auditors on its staff as the BET report recommended, and that the function would probably pay for itself. Brandt took notes.

Sure enough, an article appeared in the Star Tribune on the following day, October 30th, headlined “Mayoral challengers say Minneapolis needs more internal auditors.” I was quoted as saying: “You have to have your bases covered ... The report that came out the other day was somewhat shocking.” John Kolstad, the article said, “urged voters to select some one other than Rybak in Tuesday’s election, arguing that the incumbent hasn’t defended his record in political debate sufficiently to warrant reelection.” Carney referred to the mayor’s leaving the room when the bad news was being delivered at the BET meeting.

debate at Harrison Neighborhood Association

I was concentrating on literature distribution during that week. However, there was one other campaign event which was set for Thursday, October 29th. Harrison Neighborhood Association, on whose board of directors I sit, was hosting a debate between candidates for City Council in the 5th ward and candidates for mayor. There would also be a presentation on the Ranked Choice Voting system. It would come first, then the City Council candidates would debate, and finally it would be the mayoral candidates’ turn. The event itself, held in the gymnasium of Harrison Park, began at 6 p.m. It was expected to end at 9 p.m.

More than a hundred persons - at least half of them Hmongs or Laotians - were packed in the gymnasium. Harrison had paid a facilitator from St. Paul to conduct the meeting. John Charles Wilson was seated in the front row. Park Board candidates including Annie Young, who is part of Harrison Neighborhood Association’s paid staff, was among the speakers. Then the main event took place: the debate between the 5th ward candidates for City Council, including incumbent Don Samuels. The white candidate, Roger Smithrud, sat between Samuels and the other three candidates who were all African American. This was a rip-roaring debate - the seventh between this particular group of candidates, I understood.

The arguments raged most intensely between Samuels and Lennie Chism, now the owner of a vacant lot where Uncle Bill’s Food Market once had stood. I was seated next to Carl Eller, the ex-Viking and NFL Hall of Famer who had property interests in the neighborhood. Although I was opposed to Samuels’ re-election, I shook hands with him after the event.

The candidate debate at Harrison Neighborhood Association | left: view from the audience | center: Don Samuels speaking in 5th ward debate | right: view from the podium

The problem was that the City Council debate was not supposed to last more than an hour. The mayoral candidates were scheduled to begin debating at 7:30 p.m. However, the facilitator let the Council candidates go on until around 8:20 p.m. By that time, half of the audience had left. The facilitator then announced that candidate statements had to be kept short because we would have to be out of the gymnasium by 9 p.m. We were each asked to make one-minute opening statements about our respective visions for the city if we were elected.

There were six of us mayoral candidates seated up on the dais, from left to right: Al Flowers, me, Papa John Kolstad, John Charles Wilson, James Everett, and Tom Fiske, a candidate of the Socialist Workers Party. Bob Carney uncharacteristically did not participate; he said he wanted to work on Part 3 of his “R.T. and Me” video series. Rybak also did not attend, of course. It was our second debate with a full slate of candidates (meaning five or more of the eleven). So here we were, this group of losers, squeezed into forty minutes or less of debate, trying to impress a shrinking audience.

The first candidates did as they were told. Being on my home turf, however, I dared to express defiance. I began my presentation by observing how mismanaged this event had been. Here it was 8:30 already and we had been scheduled to come on an hour earlier. I raged against the people who said that our group of candidates could not win. We were all good candidates who could perform adequately if elected mayor. We wanted to make our case and not be hamstrung by all these silly rules.

Kolstad, when it came his turn to speak, said he had never seen me so animated about something. Flowers, sitting on the other side, whispered to me asking if I thought it would be OK for him to give both his opening and closing statements when his turn came. I thought it would be OK. So Flowers initiated the new routine. He kept talking for four or five minutes ignoring the moderator. The other candidates did likewise. We had taken back the event. I must admit, however, that this new spirit of freedom worked to our disadvantage when the Socialist Workers Party candidate went on and on about the evils of capitalism as the clock ticked. The intimidated moderator then did nothing to stop Mr. Fiske.

But I was elated and so, I think, were the others, by the time that 9 p.m. arrived. The audience sat in rapt attention while this “debate” was going on. The comments I received afterwards were that, unlike most political candidates, we were civil toward each other. We gave each other compliments instead of attacks. I think I gained new respect at Harrison Neighborhood Association for having been part of that inspiring event.

the insurgency gathers steam

This had been a spirit building up for some time as we together faced a desperate situation. We came to call this our “insurgency”. It was a united attack against forces that would destroy us and our democracy by pretending that none of the mayoral candidates except for Rybak even existed. We did exist and we insisted on being heard. To focus attention on what seemed to be happening, I composed a message on e-democracy forum titled “the core of the insurgency” and sent it out on October 31st.

The message began: “The gatekeepers say that the election for mayor is over and the political herds echo that sentiment.  But don't believe it for a minute ...  There is an insurgency in the race for mayor carrying the momentum of events.  At its core are candidates Al Flowers, Papa John Kolstad, and Bob Carney - and I would also include myself in that group - with John Charles Wilson and James Everett being somewhat more loosely connected.  As a group of mayoral candidates, we are not prepared to concede the outcome of this year's election. We will not be rolled by the Rybak juggernaut and its many admirers.”

To stop Rybak, some of the mayoral candidates had discussed encouraging other, better-known people to enter the race as write-in candidates. I visited the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) office Friday morning in hopes of talking with its executive director, Bob Miller, about this. Miller was not in but I was given a telephone number to call and leave messages. Miller called me back Monday morning. Yes, he was critical of the Rybak administration and would be willing to serve as mayor if elected as a write-in candidate. Practically speaking, however, it was too late to organize much of a campaign.

The first and only “debate” involving Rybak and another candidate for mayor came on Monday, November 2nd, at 12:30 p.m. in the studio of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Kolstad was worried that the other candidates would be offended if he alone was allowed to debate. Carney was threatening to pull a stunt as an audience member to protest the exclusion of other candidates. So MPR decided to eliminate the audience. That was all right with me and, I think, eventually with Carney. We had another trick up our sleeves.

singing patriotic songs

Back in 2001, when I ran for mayor for the first time, I had the idea of a singing event in Peavey Plaza involving the “minor” candidates for mayor - there were eighteen of them at the time. I sent out a press release on the eve of the election saying “You were not interested in our political views but perhaps you’d like to hear us sing.” It set the right tone.

Several reporters arrived to cover our event. We were not so well organized. One other candidate (Leslie Davis) and I, and a non-candidate who happened to be in the area, sang some patriotic songs from sheet music. This event was shown on the local news program that night. Coincidentally, it was on the eve of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I proudly remember that, because of a campaign gimmick, I was able to be on Twin Cities television on that fateful night singing patriotic American songs.

That was our “Hail Mary” pass for the 2001 campaign. Why not do something like it this year? I proposed the idea to Terry Yzaguirre of Mplsmirror.com. She was enthusiastic. Of course, she’d cover such an event if we could organize it. I called several of the other mayoral candidates and received positive assurances. Papa John Kolstad, our best singing voice, was unavailable if we sang in the middle of the day on Monday since he would be debating Rybak in St. Paul.

I did a Goggle search of patriotic music, found suitable lyrics, and made a dozen or so photocopies. I then contacted media. We would start our singing at 11:30 a.m. in the Government Center Plaza across from City Hall, giving participants time afterwards to hear the debate broadcast from St. Paul.

The group of singers included mayoral candidates Bob Carney, Dick Franson, John Charles Wilson, and me, plus my colleague who was running for the Board of Estimate and Taxation, James Elliot (“Jim”) Swartwood. As I approached the Government Plaza shortly before starting time, I saw only Swartwood. Was this event going to be a complete bust?

Fortunately, other people soon started to appear, both candidates and media representatives, until we had a respectable event. There was a camera crew from KSTP-TV led by Tom Hauser, its chief political reporter. Brandt Williams from Minnesota Public Radio brought equipment for a sound recording. The Star Tribune sent a photographer to capture the scene. Of course, Terry Yzaguirre was also on hand with her video recorder. Jim Swartwood took photos for Watchdog News.

This time, the singers had plenty of sheet music. We sang, in order, these songs: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, “America the Beautiful”, a parody of “Take me out to the ball game”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “Star Spangled Banner” and “This Land is Your Land”. The whole routine took around twenty minutes. I think it sounded OK but I may be mistaken.

When the singing was done, Tom Hauser interviewed each of the candidates on camera. We each made statements about why we were running and answered questions about how much money our campaigns had raised and spent. Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio also interviewed people. The candidates then went our separate ways; I drove Carney home to south Minneapolis. I then caught part of the Rybak-Kolstad debate on MPR on my car