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Minneapolis mayoral candidate Cam Winton grilled, but doesn’t wilt

Minneapolis mayoral candidate Cam Winton grilled, but doesn’t wilt
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Cam Winton would like to tie the mayor's pay to performance, such as his ability to improve basic services.

What does full-contact shadow-boxing look like?

A couple of dozen hard-core regular attendees at the events of the U of M’s Humphrey School may have witnessed a bout Thursday at noon when candidate Cam Winton outlined how a moderate Republican like him might approach the Minneapolis mayoral job, then submitted himself for civil-but-aggressive cross-examination by Larry Jacobs of the U’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. No blood -- but possibly a bit of light -- was shed.

The mayoral race features at least seven candidates. More may join the fray. The Humphrey School already hosted five leading candidates for a kickoff debate. Those five (four of them present or former members of the City Council plus one former Hennepin County commissioner) all seek the DFL endorsement (although only one has pledged to abide by it).

Winton was excluded from the earlier debate on grounds that it was limited to endorsement candidates. He protested that decision bitterly and publicly and attended the event to dramatize his exclusion. It was agreed that he would be allowed to give his views at a separate event, which is what turned into Thursday’s shadow-boxing.

Over the 68 years since 1945 – when Hubert Humphrey was elected Minneapolis mayor – the mayor’s office has been occupied by just one Republican for a single four-year stretch, and that Republican (P. Kenneth Peterson) left office in 1961. Although he prefers to say he is running for mayor as an independent, Winton doesn’t deny nor conceal that he identifies himself as some kind of Republican.

Winton is an attorney with experience in the wind energy industry. That gives his resume a strong whiff of environmental awareness to buy down some liberal Democratic suspicion. He helped create a company that was recently sold and he always mentions that the deal was structured so that the employees participated in the proceeds of the sale, another note to take on Democratic stereotypes of how Republicans do business. Winton has never held public office. He suggests that, compared to his opponents with long records in government, this might be an advantage. He frequently describes himself as one who would bring “a fresh pair of eyes” to the challenges of running a city.

Not beholden to unions

He would like you consider the possibility that the city might do well under the leadership of someone not as beholden to the public employees’ union as a typical Democrat must be, who is more open to non-government-centric approaches to solving problems, who would know how to make businesses feel welcome in the city, and who believes that in fiscally straitened times such as these, government has to focus on delivering basic services and not stray into areas that, at least in the eyes of a Republican, are better done by the private sector.

He has a very short list of what he believes should be the next mayor’s priorities, and they are pretty much all things that everyone in every big city wishes City Hall did better, specifically: police and fire, paving and plowing the streets, attracting new private-sector jobs and improving the schools.

Winton said he is the only candidate not seeking the endorsement of Education Minnesota – the teachers’ union. And it’s probably wise that he isn’t seeking that endorsement, since he says the teachers’ union “stands directly in the way” of making Minneapolis public schools “world class.” He went further and said that “we have some teachers who would do better to find another line of work” but whose job security is protected by the union. He would like to tie teacher pay to performance.

If he has his way, Winton said, Minneapolis will have longer school days and a longer school year. He also favors transitioning the pension program for municipal employees from its current, traditional defined-guaranteed benefit structure to a defined-contribution structure, so the city could cap its costs.

He would also like to tie the mayor’s pay – theoretically, that is, his own pay –  to performance, such as his ability to improve basic services.

Well, if you aren’t going to spend more money – and you want, as Winton explicitly does, to hire more cops -- how do you pay the cops? You have to do less of other things that, while many of them might be nice, aren’t core services. Like what? He mentioned bike lanes and streetcars as “things that aren’t priorities.”

He believes taxpayer money could also be saved by avoiding overlaps between functions that are provided by, for example, both Minneapolis city and Hennepin County governments.

Cross-examination

Winton laid out almost all of the ideas above during his opening statement, then sat down to face Jacobs’ cross-examination, which was rooted deeply in skepticism.

For decades, going to back at least to Don Fraser’s days as mayor in the 1980s and right through the current tenure of Mayor R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis mayors have made similar points about the need to combine duplicative functions, to make Minneapolis more business-friendly, to restrain the growth of municipal pensions. Rybak has waged big fights against the city unions. And all of those mayors were liberal DFLers. How do the same arguments, coming from Winton, qualify as evidence of a “fresh pair of eyes?” Jacobs asked, and asked the same or similar question about many of Winton’s ideas for change.

Larry Jacobs
Larry Jacobs

The interview portion of the program was remindful of Walter Mondale’s famous “Where’s the beef?” moment in debating Sen. Gary Hart during the 1984 presidential primaries.

Winton replied by, among other things, saluting Rybak as a “great mayor” and declining to criticize his performance in any way, which is interesting since, other than that remark and Winton’s general encomiums to Minneapolis as a great, great city, his pitch simultaneously depends on a portrayal of the city government as failing to do its most basic jobs while wasting money and energy on non-necessities. But Winton stood up to the grilling with good cheer. An atmosphere of strained civility hovered over the entire Q and A.

Winton definitely didn’t wilt. He kept smiling and kept explaining why his ideas were a bit different. I suppose the overall argument was an implied one: Only Republicans really mean it when they talk about restraining the growth of government; if the need is to get the unions to make concessions, it would help to have a mayor who wasn’t a member of the DFL, given what the “L” stands for.

On a list of aggressive questions, Jacobs challenged Winton on his plans to improve K-12 education, a goal that Jacobs said was “entirely misplaced” for a candidate for mayor since Minneapolis public school are run by the independently elected Minneapolis School Board and the superintendent, whom the board appoints. What does that have to do with the mayor?

Winton had said, at first in passing as he summarized his education-reform ideas, that he would seek power to appoint some members of the Minneapolis School Board. There’s nothing like it in the state. The Minneapolis City Council has no authority to legislate such a change.

Other than using the famed “bully pulpit” to talk about his ideas for school reform, how would Winton implement any of his ideas for longer school days, getting rid of bad teachers and making the Minneapolis schools world class?

For me, this was Winton’s worst moment of the event. He had an answer, but not much of one. Yes, he acknowledged, it would require state legislation to give the mayor appointive power over some portion of the Minneapolis School Board. It would require a “multi-year process” that could not even begin until such state legislation was approved, and he said nothing about why the Legislature of the governor would sign onto such a project.

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Comments (7)

A few pluses, mostly minuses

There IS some attraction to a candidate who hasn't spent his entire adult life in government, and I don't think the notion of a "fresh pair of eyes" is entirely off-base. Mr. Winton's eyes, however, appear to suffer to some degree from the same sort of myopia that afflicts Republicans in general, though his case might be a degree or two less severe.

As we have seen before, and will surely see again, businesses don't exist for the purpose of enhancing the quality of life of a particular community or region. They exist to make money. The whole mind set that somehow Minneapolis must make itself "more attractive" or "more welcoming" to business strikes me as hogwash.

Of course, were I the CEO of a major corporation, I'd be happy to take advantage of whatever tax breaks, infrastructure discounts and other amenities a desperate city was willing to bestow upon my company, but I'd owe that city nothing in return. The city has simply chosen to give those things to the company, presumably after some reasonably rational thought process and discussion among influential citizens. I would then insist on calling this a "free market" approach, even though it's yet another example of capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich.

The idea of the mayor running the school system is, frankly, appalling, and I say that as someone not especially enamored of the current teacher's union setup.

Getting rid of defined-benefit retirement plans and putting in their place defined-contribution plans is a common tactic of the wealthy to ensure that those peons who manage to live long enough to retire will do so in poverty, thus maintaining the proper relationship between capitalists and their underlings. It also turns every retiree into a totally involuntary stock market speculator, transforming retirement into an ongoing period of emotional and economic stress. It's a terrible idea unless you happen to be a stock trader.

A fresh set of eyes is only minimally helpful if those eyes suffer from the same sort of fuzzy vision as the not-so-fresh eyes of people who've spent decades in local politics.

For what it's worth,

there are ways to make a city attractive to business that don't involve handing them cash, directly or indirectly. These include having an educated work force, a reliable means for employees to get to and from work (including parking for those who choose to drive their own vehicles), and adequate access to the communications systems and transportation infrastructure needed for the desired businesses. Minneapolis has signiifcant problems in at least three of these areas, as best I can tell.

If Mr. Winton wants changes in the Minneapolis schools, he'd best change electoral races.

Defined contribution retirement plans don't have to result in peonage. They do require reasonable contributions from both employer and employee, some common sense in how those funds are invested and keeping one's hands off the capital until it's time to retire. (Unionizing might help with ensuring reasonable employer contributions, but it seems most of today's work force is content to ignore the power of collective bargaining.) Most industries and employees have failed on one or more of these fronts. Past problems have including employee investment in the employer's stock (encouraged by far too many employers), failure to take full advantage of an employer's match, and playing grasshopper too often. (Do kids even hear that tale any more?)

Well, if he was running against stereotypes...

He'd be good to go. As it is, his one big solution to the one problem he addressed is to do something the mayor of MPLS cannot do. At least he's working on real solutions to real problems eh.

Getting rid of bike lanes is a cost savings?

I find it humorous that Mr. Winton continues to position the discontinuation of installing bike lanes as something that could save the city real money. The vast majority of bike lanes that you see in the city today were applied during repaving projects, meaning the only true cost is the paint - pretty negligible in the grand scheme of things. If Mr. Winton claims to be an environmental advocate, it seems investments in bike infrastructure (again relatively inexpensive compared to road projects or other environmentally sustainable projects) would be a relatively cost-effective way to make a real difference. This persistent war on bike lanes makes it hard for me to take Mr. Winton's candidacy seriously.

Sounds like Winton's eyes

are so fresh that they haven't looked at the structures of government in Minnesota.
Ignorance is not going to solve our problems.
I think that we've done 'kinder and gentler' already.

Cam Winton

As one of the arguably "hard core" but not all that regular attendees at the Humphrey School program with Cam Winton led me applaud the opportunity to hear from and about the candidate who has chosen to step into the DFL monopoly oriented mayorial race. As Eric Black pointed the Republican hiatus in that office goes back more than 50 years punctuated only by Charles Stenvig who probably represented some variation of the early T- party movement.
Larry Jacobs conducted a spirited- may I say confrontational at times?- interview that challenged Winton and helped separate himself from what's likely to be the rest of the pack. Mr. Jacob's is certainly knowledgable about how previous mayors have managed the office but almost seems put off that someone would step too far away from "business as usual" suggesting if more experienced politicians couldn't get some of these endemic problems resolved how can a non-politican get the job done?
Not a bad question and Winton probably needs to fill in a few blanks but his real issue may be to get enough of the electorate to pay attention in the first place. Of course, a ranked choice voting system may provide a climate for everyone to look beyond what once was one and only choice.

Perspective

Going in for a heart transplant: Would you be interested in a fresh set of eyes?

Everyone thinks they are the perfect choice for a political position until they get in and find out "You have to compromise" and oops there are the 101 reasons that your idea with your "new eyes"
won't work.

Why call 911 on a crime issue: Call your neighbor; get a fresh set of eyes and fresh perspective!

Nothing against you Winton but some experience is better than no experience, its easy to throw rocks much more difficult to actually accomplish something.