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Letter to the news director of a local television station
September 26, 2009
KSTP-TV, Channel 5
3415 University Avenue W.
St. Paul, MN 55114
I watched your local news program last evening (September 25) and, being a candidate for mayor in Minneapolis, paid particular attention to the report on the contest for mayor in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The gist of the report was that in both cities the incumbent mayors, Coleman and Rybak, were sure to be reelected. The DFL party virtually monopolizes politics in both cities and, in this case, its mayoral candidates were far ahead of the other candidates in fundraising. The report had a University of Minnesota political-science professor - his name might have been Scheer - who put his priestly stamp of approval on the idea that the mayoral elections were a done deal. The only discordant note in the report was that both Rybak and Coleman seemed less interested in remaining mayor than in running for governor. Also, you did give candidate Al Flowers time for a brief comment after reporting that he had less than a dollar left in his campaign coffers.
If this is the type of reporting which commercial television stations will give to this year’s municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul, then those events will, in fact, become done deals. The only “information” which viewers will have received from the media is that the incumbent mayors are sure to be reelected. They won’t even know who else is running.
I would argue that a democratic system of government cannot continue in that environment. It is important that voters have choices. That means that they must be able to decide between at least two alternatives when they cast their ballot. To do that intelligently, they must have information about each of the alternatives - at least, know the candidates’ names.
In my opinion, KSTP-TV was one of the better media news operations in reporting last year’s Congressional races. I was the Independence Party candidate for Congress in the 5th District. You sponsored a debate between the three candidates in my race, moderated by Tom Hauser, which was later broadcast on Channel 45. I ran into people who said they watched that show and found it informative. Your station also gave candidates two minutes of time on the 6:30 p.m. news to make uncensored statements. That also was a service to the candidates and to the voters.
In the current race for mayor in Minneapolis, I would agree that R.T. Rybak is the front-runner, perhaps by a wide margin. Yet, democratic elections do not make sense if voters do not have a choice. If you think that the challengers are insignificant figures in the election, then why not do a report on Rybak’s record in office? Does the incumbent mayor deserve to be reelected - pro and con? Rybak himself will tell you why he should be reelected; but, believe me, there are also many reasons why he should not be. I say that as someone who actively supported Rybak in his initial run for office and also when he was reelected in 2005. I obviously do not support his candidacy this year.
One of those reasons was illustrated by an event that occurred a week ago, Saturday, September 19, 2009, at the corner of Plymouth and Sheridan avenues in north Minneapolis which your station and all other major news organizations chose to ignore. A businessman and City council candidate, Lennie Chism, staged a community celebration at this site of his newly acquired property, a condemned building which used to house a neighborhood grocery store, Uncle Bill’s Food Market.
Chism wanted to remodel the building to create a sidewalk cafe similar to those found in Uptown as a step toward economic revitalization of the area. He was showcasing his vision. The city of Minneapolis wanted the building torn down. In fact, the demolition was carried out yesterday.
Mayor Rybak and City Council member Don Samuels were both instrumental in the decision to condemn the building as a prelude to tearing it down. As reported in the Star Tribune on May 12, 2007, at a block-club meeting, the mayor virtually ordered Fire Department inspectors to find something wrong with the building so it could be condemned. Fire Department inspectors had signed off on the condition of the building in July 2006 - less than a year earlier - yet the same group of (untrained) inspectors coming back to the building on the following Monday now found that the building had significant structural weaknesses, specifically “sagging floor joists”, and posed a danger to the public. The building was condemned six days after Rybak issued his instructions.
Please note that the block-club meeting was convened because a shooting had occurred in the neighborhood in late April, 2006, and ”neighbors” (notably former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes) blamed it on the grocery store. No one could link the shooter to that store, but the store was generally being accused of being a “crime magnet.” Since the police could not prove specific allegations of crime, city officials used building inspections as a remedy. They ordered the building condemned and later demolished so the crime would go away. (A complete report from building owner’s point of view is found at the website, landlordpolitics.com/unclebill.html.)
I think this is a blemish on Mayor Rybak’s record. His own parents were owners and managers of a drug store at Chicago and Franklin which was often troubled by crime. In fact, Rybak told me personally how his mother had become romantically involved with his step-father after his biological father died. His mother was so discouraged by crime in the store that she walked despondently down Franklin Avenue. A landlord who had an office across the street, Chuck Mesken, followed her in his car, asking if she wanted to tell him what was wrong. Rybak’s mother finally relented, got in Mesken’s car, and poured out her heart, and they later married. Mesken is the man who raised Rybak. I thought it was a beautiful story.
Now, another store owner, Bill Sanigular, who was an immigrant from Africa, was having trouble with young punks hanging around his grocery store. Neighbors blamed him for running a store that attracted criminals. Instead of remembering his mother’s experience, Rybak, now mayor, joined the critics and used his power to persecute the store owner. City inspectors first ordered him to make $25,000 worth of repairs and then condemned the building at the mayor’s request. Today, Bill Sanigular is a diabetic confined to a wheelchair. He lost everything pursuing the “American dream”. I gave up on my belief in Rybak’s decency after learning what he did to “Uncle Bill”.
The problem is much bigger than this particular case. Council Member Samuels specializes in going after the owners of small businesses operating in poor neighborhoods. They are blamed for “tolerating” crime. Samuels got two convenience stores condemned - Wafanas and Big Stop - calling them “inconvenience stores”, and he also has gone after a half dozen other businesses in his ward. In his maniacal zeal, I compare Samuels to Captain Ahab going after the “great white whale”.
Current city policy is to hold property owners responsible for preventing crime in or near their properties. Presumably the city police have no role in that situation. If a single “nuisance” crime - drug or gun possession, prostitution, etc. - an ordinance allows the city to take away the owner’s license to operate the business, rendering its building worthless. In some cases, such as Uncle Bill’s Food Market, the city can virtually confiscate the property.
Beyond this, the city of Minneapolis is collecting fines and fees with a zeal. If a property owner does not shovel all the snow off a sidewalk within four hours after the snow stopped falling, it can send an expensive private contractor out to do the work, charging the property owner. Moreover, there is a fine of $103 for each hour that the snow illegally remains, which means that if you go on vacation for a week in the winter and leave your walk unshoveled, you could be looking at $14,000 in fines when you return. In the summer, property owners need to keep the grass cut to less than eight inches or city inspectors may send out the contractors to do the work.
The result of such Mugabe-like policies is is that the owners of small businesses are frightened. No one in his right mind would want to invest too much money in Minneapolis. At a time when the city budget is stretched thin, city officials are thus destroying the tax base by their own discretionary actions. I think this ought to be discussed in city elections, not how much money each candidate has in his campaign coffers. We need to discuss whether the city police could be working more closely with business owners to deal with their common problem of crime instead of whipping up hatred against “problem properties” among block clubs and neighborhood associations. There are some real issues which might usefully be discussed.
It’s easy for news reporters to look at the financial reports filed by the various candidates or their principal campaign committees and decide which candidacies are viable. Yes, Rybak has raised much more money than others. But that simply means that numerous well-heeled interest groups are giving to his campaign because they expect something in return. The rest of us, who simply want good government, will not be attracting the big contributions. So if a viable candidate is the one who raises more money because he is prone to doing special favors for persons or groups contributing to his campaign, then I think democracy is doomed. Surely we need to consider the candidate who wants to serve the public at large.
As a candidate for mayor, I have placed 130 to 140 yard signs in lawns in Minneapolis. This may be more than what Rybak has placed although I’m not sure. I also have walked up and down streets plugging my candidacy. I have posted fliers on public bulletin boards. I have organized and participated in a candidate debate with rivals Al Flowers and Papa John Kolstad which was shown on cable television; Rybak declined to participate. I will also be included in another mayoral debate, Rybak’s participation again being in question. A video clip of me singing Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (not too well) will be posted on a much-watched blog. Unfortunately, I caught the flu a month ago so I can’t do as much as I planned, but my campaign is a real one even if the financial reporting does not convey its full extent.
Looking at the list of mayoral candidates, some of whom use bizarre names to describe their candidacies, I can see that it’s easy to dismiss Rybak’s challengers as a bunch of weirdos or goof-balls tilting at windmills. I don’t particularly care what you think of my candidacy. I would ask, however, that you take at least two of the challengers seriously: Al Flowers and Papa John Kolstad.
Kolstad, who has the mayoral endorsements of both the Republican and Independence parties, is a well-known musician in the Twin Cities. He also operates a national music-distribution business and is an expert in health-care issues. Al Flowers is a candidate well-versed in local issues. He has his own cable show. An indication of his political significance is perhaps the fact that in July city officials tried to condemn the house in which Flowers was living for “lack of water” even though a posted video showed that water was still running to the house.
I don’t think any of us wants Twin City politics to sink to the level found in certain Third World dictatorships. It would be good if we could restore the two-party system in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Failing that, I would hope that your station would consider some real reporting of the mayoral race - certainly including Kolstad and Flowers, and hopefully others such as myself - with a focus on the incumbent mayor’s record and what his challengers would do differently.
candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis