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Minneapolis mayoral candidate Cam Winton Q-A: 'I'm a fresh set of eyes to the challenges we face'

winton portrait
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Cam Winton, 34, a first-time candidate, is an attorney with a background in business.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of interviews with seven candidates for Minneapolis mayor. Only those who have filed with the Hennepin County Elections Department to form a campaign finance committee have been interviewed. The interviews will run in alphabetical order. At the bottom of this article, you can find a short list of high-profile supporters (where provided by the candidate).

SERIES SCHEDULE

As a student, Cam Winton worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, came to Minneapolis as a “summer associate” for a law firm and came back to get married and start his career.

He is a Democrat turned Republican but is not seeking endorsement from any political party.

Winton, 34, a first-time candidate, is an attorney with a background in business.

For those who are wonder if he is from the Minnesota Wintons, the answer is no. He has met members of that family, compared relatives with them and decided there is no immediate link.

In this series of edited interviews, mayoral candidates were asked to introduce themselves to voters and respond to some basic questions.

MinnPost: Why did you decide to run for mayor of Minneapolis?

Cam Winton: I love this city. My wife and I have been fortunate to own a home in this city and raise our children in this city. There are so many things that are great about this city, but I think there is room for improvement.

The open-seat mayor’s race, for the first time in 20 years, presents an opportunity for me to build on what is great about this city and bring a fresh set of eyes to the challenges we face.

MP: You bring a fresh set of eyes, but you are also new to politics here. You’re running against some seasoned pros? How do you make your case to the voters?

CW: I’ve been active in politics in a number of ways. This is the first time that I’m a candidate, but I’ve been active as a volunteer. I’ve written letters to the editor and met with elected officials, so I’ve been an involved citizen.

This is the first time I’ve run for office. I think that’s a huge benefit because, with all respect to the people who are in power right now, I think after someone has been in power for years and years and years and years and years, they develop a certain lens for looking at problems.

In contrast, I’m coming to the problems we face with a fresh set of eyes that have been honed in the private sector. I work full time in the private sector now, and I’ll continue to do so through the campaign.

My colleagues and I have built a wind-turbine maintenance business. We provide services to demanding customers across the country and, increasingly, around the world as we maintain their wind turbines.

I’m proud of the fact that we sold that company a few months ago in a way that preserved the jobs of all 120 employees and enabled all 120 employees to share in the benefits of the sale.

Now, this isn’t Facebook. Nobody is retiring. I still work. So do we all. It’s a story to me of how private enterprise can create long-lasting, widespread benefits when it’s done correctly.

So, as mayor I’d draw on that experience to provide essential services effectively and to make it easier for others to have that experience with private enterprise that I’ve had. I want to make it easier for people to start and built companies here.

By doing those things, we’ll make life better for our citizens, and we’ll close the opportunity gap that I think is far too prevalent in our city.

Right now, there is another family out there that’s similar to my family. There’s a husband and a wife and a young child and an infant, but that family doesn’t have all the benefits and opportunities that my family has had. That family doesn’t have all of the comforts that my family has earned.

Those kids just don’t have the opportunities that my kids have. It’s particularly that last point -- those kids don’t have what my kids have -- that I find morally unacceptable.

I will be using this campaign to highlight that lack of opportunity and talk about solutions to it. A lot of it does have to do with basics.

When we provide essential services effectively, like making sure we have a well-staffed, well-equipped, well-disciplined police force, our streets will be safer. We’ll keep our kids safer.

When it’s easier for businesses to start here and grow here, there will be more jobs. People will be able to earn a paycheck and use that money to put food on the table for their families.

When I use the bully-pulpit of the mayor to push for a school system that puts kids first, and when I look at the ways the mayor could get actual power over the school system, so I could put kids first, those steps improve the educational system. That creates more opportunities for kids.

MP: There is no formal role for the mayor in the administration of the School District? How do you have an impact on the schools from the mayor’s office?

CW: Two ways. The first is through the bully pulpit. Whenever we’re thinking about schools and how we run our schools, we have to be thinking about what works best for kids. Nobody else. What works best for kids? Those are the people our schools have to serve.

I want to make clear that I’m a proud graduate of public schools. I went to public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Because of the great work public school teachers did, I was able to go on and get a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown University. I’m proud of that. It was public schools that gave me that foundation.

That said, in our schools in Minneapolis right now, with all respect to the folks who are doing good work and hard work, I think too often we don’t put kids first, as I would as mayor.

Specifically, with the bully pulpit, what I mean is encouraging parents to reach out to their elected School Board officials, to reach out to the superintendent, to reach out to the principals and teachers and say, ‘What are you doing to put kids first?”  That’s the bully pulpit.

The second thing I would do as mayor to improve our education system is to look at ways, through changes in statute, changes in the charter, that the mayor could get some actual control over schools. Whether that’s by appointments to the School Board, by sitting on the School Board myself or hiring a chief operating officer to work with the superintendent.

There are a number of different ways we can have the leader of the city exerting some direct control over the school system. That is the engine of opportunity for all of the children in our city.

I look forward to having a wide-ranging discussion about all those different possibilities, so we can figure out what works best for our kids.

MP: In our school district, we have a gap between the academic performance of children of color and white children. What do you think we need to do about that gap?

CW: That is definitely part of the problem. For any sticky issue that we face in our city, in our society, there is never one magic-bullet answer. If there was a magic-bullet answer, we wouldn’t have the problem anymore. Our achievement gap is no different.

It’s a multifaceted problem. I think there are things we can do with each of those facets to close the gap. Some of it does have to do with schools and putting kids first in our schools.

Another piece of it goes back to making it easier for businesses to start here and grow here. When there are more jobs here and families here who are secure financially, they’ll have the time and energy to attend to their kids, to read to them each night.

If someone is struggling to get enough shift work in a given week to pay the rent, I can’t hold it against that person that they don’t have the time to read to their child each night. I get it. Parenting is hard. I’m a parent. Parenting is hard, and working is hard.

So, I don’t mean to judge someone who doesn’t have the energy to nurture that child educationally. But I do know that when that person has a stable job, they’ll have more energy to nurture that child educationally at home. That’s another piece of it.

MP: What do you do to bring more business here and bring more jobs?

CW: First and foremost, we need to make it easier for businesses to start here and grow here.

Right now, if you want to start a business in Minneapolis or grow a business in Minneapolis, too often you have to go physically to downtown Minneapolis and get a permission slip from two, or three, or four city departments, depending on the type of business you want to start.

I get it. We live in a regulated capitalism, and thank goodness we do. Some regulations are essential to the way of life we take for granted.

That said, there’s a way to administer those regulations that’s not overly burdensome to people who are trying to get their dreams off the ground. Specifically, I think it’s high time we take advantage of technology to flip the regulatory process on its head.

Instead of a given person having to go downtown, take a number and wait to plead their case to a city official to get permission to do something, I think that would-be business creator should be able to stay where they are -- in the new store they’re building, in the new restaurant they want to open -- and through Skype or email or good old-fashioned text message demonstrate to the city regulatory bodies that the individual is complying with all the relevant regulatory codes.

In an era when we pay our taxes online, when we get paychecks online, there is no reason that somebody should have to trudge to downtown Minneapolis and park, take a number and wait to get permission to start a business.

I give credit to the city to the extent that it has done some things to streamline the regulatory process It used to be that an individual had to go to a lot of different buildings for a construction project. At least now some of those functions are consolidated in one building. That’s good progress, but there’s a lot more progress to make.

Improvement is a hallmark of any cutting-edge private-sector business today. You always have to be improving.

The city has not done that. The city has a process called Results Minneapolis[(a yearly performance report], which generates a lot of data, but unfortunately it’s almost death by data.

The city, under Results Minneapolis, requires a given department to put out a PDF with data points on it. If you’re just putting out a PDF that’s clogged with 75 key performance indicators, that’s not enabling anyone to make good decisions and see what levers cause what outcomes.

Seventy-five key performance indicators means those aren’t key performance indicators To have a key performance indicator there should be three, or maybe six max, across the entire enterprise.

These are examples of the best practices I’d be bringing from my experience in the private sector, delivering services to demanding customers and building a business with my colleagues in a way that enables everybody to share in the benefits and thrive.

MP: Public safety is always an issue with voters. What do we get for public safety if you are mayor?

CW: Two key things. First, we make it easier to start businesses and grow businesses. When people have a job, they are less likely to commit a crime.

The second thing we do is add more cops. I tip my hat to the police force, to the mayor, the City Council and everybody involved, the citizens across the city, because violent crime is coming down.

In contrast, though, property crime is on the way up. Burglaries are on the way up. In my neighborhood, and far too many neighborhoods across the city, people are experiencing rashes of garage break-ins and smash-and-grabs where people smash a window and steal a car stereo.

Those sorts of crimes, obviously, take property -- and that’s bad -- but also erode the bonds of trust that are the glue that holds the city together. We’re all living cheek by jowl. If you can’t trust that you can walk out in your neighborhood safely and leave your things in your locked garage safely, you’re probably not going to stay in Minneapolis much longer, and that’s unfortunate.

I don’t think this is a lack of will by the Police Department. I think it’s because they don’t have the resources they need to catch the bad guys who are doing this.

The metric in the United States is, for a city of our size, there should be 2.5 cops for every thousand citizens. We have 380,000 citizens. We should have 975 cops. We don’t. We have 850 cops. That’s a big difference.

With 125 extra cops on the street, we could be putting more of those burglars in jail, bring our burglary solve-rate up and bring our property crime rate down, making our streets safe.

MP: So where do you get the money? 

CW: Darn good question. You beat me to it. That was going to be my next statement.

As mayor, I’ve said my priorities will be essential services of city government: police, fire, road paving, road clearing and making it easier to start and grow businesses and thereby closing out opportunity gap.

To do some of those things, yes, it takes additional expenditures on those priorities. So we get the money by spending less money on the things that are not our priorities.

For example, right now the city spends approximately $8 million a year in software license fees. Writes checks to companies to provide software. Some of that software is specialized inventory management software. We can’t just replace it easily.

But a good chunk of that money is going to pay for software that, instead of using it, we could do what the University of Minnesota has done and use Google Apps.

If it sounds simplistic, folks should take note that the University of Minnesota is saving money it used to spend because it uses Google Apps.

Do the math. In our case, it’s probably $6 million a year we could save using Google Apps. That’s about half the budget for those additional 125 cops.

Let me give you one more example. Every year the city of Minneapolis spends about $2 million on the Communications Department that tells the Star Tribune and MinnPost what a great job we’re doing. And when I say “we,” I mean city government is doing. And then we citizens read about that in MinnPost and the Star Tribune.

I think, in the era of Twitter and YouTube and email, that it doesn’t take $2 million for the city to get its message out. Now, is it nice to have people talk about the city? Sure.  But when we’re talking limited tax dollars and deciding what to do with them, that’s not a priority for me.

One other, and I’m saying this as a businessperson. The city spends about $5 million a year on business retention [Listed in the 2013 budget as retention, expansion and attraction].

Which means someone from Community Planning and Economic Development goes to a business and knocks on a door and says, “Hi, we’re from the city. We’re so glad you’re here. What can we do to help you?”

In the era of easy electronic communications, it shouldn’t take $5 million to do that. Also, the Chamber of Commerce is doing a great job of business retention.

Is the city visiting a business a good thing? Sure. But it’s not a priority, so we have to de-fund that and fund cops and road work.

That’s my basic approach: fund priorities and make hard decisions about things we can’t afford and therefore will not fund.

MP: Police Chief Janee Harteau and Fire Chief John Fruetel are new in their jobs. What do you think about them, and would they stay in those jobs?

CW: Based on everything I know about those individuals, they’re very capable and qualified. I think they’re doing good jobs in a continuous-improvement culture, which is what I would bring to the entire city operation. I, and everyone else in the City Hall, will always be looking for ways to improve.

I would expect no less from the fire chief and the police chief. That said, I think they’re both capable people and well-qualified.

MP: As mayor, do you retain them?

CW: I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

MP: The last two budgets have been bare-bones with small increases in property taxes, compared with past years. What happens with property taxes with you as mayor?

CW: There are good people working hard who just can’t afford the endless property-tax increases. You’re right about the tax policy this year and last year, but I think it’s important to zoom out and consider the context.

In the past 10 years, the property tax has gone up every single year except for last year. In my experience, I’d be hard-pressed to find a citizen of Minneapolis who would say the quality of the services provided has also gone up every single year.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a citizen of Minneapolis who says, "Oh yeah, it sure seems easier every single year to start a business in this city." That’s not the case.

For property tax, I’d say the following: We need to fund our priorities. We have to, and we need to stop funding things that are not priorities. We always need to recognize that people cannot afford endless property tax increases.

We also have to recognize that a big driver of property tax increases is Local Government Aid [from Minnesota]. As mayor, I look forward to getting as much LGA for my city as is humanly possible.

Minneapolis has a unique role in the state, and I think it's wise, from a policy perspective, and morally fair that Minneapolis would receive benefits from around the state in the form of LGA because of the cultural amenities we put on for everybody to take advantage of.

That said, we have to recognize that LGA is not a steady stream of funds. It is not a predictable stream of funds. Sometimes it comes — sometimes the spigot is wide open, and sometimes it is not.

Too often, the approach of the current city leadership has been to say, "Well, if we get a lot of LGA, property tax increases will be less, but if we don’t, property tax increases — oh gosh — will have to be more. We’ll just use the citizens like ATMs again and take some more cash."

That’s not my approach. I’ll do a budget that pays for the priorities based on a reasonable amount of property taxes brought in from city residents. On top of that, for any bells or whistles, for any nice-to-have, rather than need-to-haves, I’ll pay for those if LGA funds come in.

I think we have to learn to live within our means and make hard decisions about what we can afford and what we can’t afford.

MP: Officially, the mayor’s race is nonpartisan. You have been a Democrat. Are you now a Republican?

CW: I am a Republican. I am not seeking the endorsement of any party in this race. So let me drill down on what I mean by that. I’ve been active in the Republican Party.

That said, I’m married to a DFLer. I have a lot of experience compromising with a DFLer. And while I am a Republican, there are ways I disagree strongly and fundamentally with the party platform.

Gay marriage I support. Period. No equivocation. I was vigorous and outspoken in my opposition to the marriage amendment I co-hosted a fundraiser. That’s one way where I disagree with the Republican Party.

Another way is in my belief that wind energy has an important role to play in our nation’s electricity fix. I am in the wind energy business.

Some people on the Republican side of the aisle think that wind has no role to play, and I disagree. My point here is that I call it like I see it. I’m not beholden to anybody.

And I’m not running for any endorsements in this race because it is a nonpartisan municipal-level race, and in a nonpartisan municipal-level race, what’s important are potholes, cops and can somebody start a business without getting a permission slip from somebody downtown.

In a nutshell, I’m active in the Republican Party, but I’m not seeking the endorsement of that party, or any other party, in my race for mayor because I want to focus on issues without getting hung up on labels.

A significant number of my supporters and my donors are DFLers, active DFLers who are drawn to this campaign of mine because of the message I’m putting forward: A fresh set of eyes, building on what is great about this city while working to fix what needs fixing and being willing to take solutions from wherever they come from.

Because of Ranked Choice Voting, we have a remarkable and unique opportunity here. Ranked choice means our city can have this wide-ranging conversation about how we want to chart our city’s course over the next decade.

MP: Mayor Rybak has said he will devote time during his last year in office to set the course for development in the area around the new football stadium. What would you do to make sure that new stadium is not surrounded by surface parking?

CW: We set broad principles and stay out of the way is what I would do. We zone it. We say the area would be zoned for residential, retail and office establishments, a good mix of those things.

We zone it in a way that we would not have, for example, light industrial right there across the street from a light rail station. Obviously, we need light industrial in our city, but that’s not the right place for it, and that’s why we have zoning.

Beyond zoning and the bully pulpit of the mayor, and my work as mayor to cultivate relationships with folks who would bring businesses there and build housing there, I don’t think the city should be doing much.

I think currently we have a byzantine, Rube Goldberg system of tax credits and loopholes and incentives that perhaps are intended to achieve good aims but far too often are slush funds milked by individuals in a way that bears no rational relationship to a good outcome for the city.

You look at the city’s track record in this area, and we’ve seen the nightmare of Target Center’s financing and the nightmare of Block E. As Einstein said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

So, if the result of my approach is that there are a couple more parking lots around the new football stadium, for a couple more years than there would have been otherwise, I would rather have that outcome than have yet another mess for our kids to clean up 20 years from now.

MP: Nicollet Mall is in need of repair. The city has asked for state bonding funds for that project without success so far. What would you do with the Mall?

CW: I would look at proposals to improve Nicollet Mall the same way I would look at any other proposal. That is, how does it stack up next to our priorities? What can we afford to do?

To use city money to do any kind of extensive rehab of Nicollet Mall would not be a priority of my administration at first. I would want to focus on cops and potholes before I turned to that.

That said, the business community downtown has done some great things. For example, the Downtown Improvement District. Everyday I see some of the hardest-working people around wearing DID uniforms picking up trash, giving directions and making downtown feel friendlier. That’s a great example of how the private sector and the public sector can collaborate.

To the extent that we need to do some paver fixes, that’s low dollars. Sure, the city can take care of some paver fixes. But if we want to start talking about broader visions for Nicollet Mall, pretty quickly I’m going to be turning to the private sector.

MP: The Southwest Light Rail Line is slated to travel the strip of land between Cedar lake and Lake of the Isles. There are freight trains using that area now. The city has taken a stand against dual use of that area by freight and light rail. Where are you on this?

CW: I take it as a fait accompli. Southwest is going to get built. No mayor can stop that. So I’m going to make sure I’m at the table, so the timing of the trains, any sound barriers that are put up, any parking arrangements that are made, all of these things are done in ways that protect the residents of Kenwood and Bryn Mawr.

MP: Is there a question I have not asked that you would like to answer?

CW: I’m intentionally not part of the existing DFL power structure. That’s not my ballgame. I’m the only one in this race not coming from a background in government.

 So, can I sit here and tell you I’ve got the support of this or that City Council person or this or that former City Council president?  No, I can’t. I don’t play that ballgame.

I’ve been building a business in the private sector with my colleagues I want to bring that fresh set of eyes to fix the city’s problems.

Winton's high-profile supporters

They include campaign treasurer Ashwin Madia, who was the DFL-endorsed congressional in the Third District Congress in 2008. Others are Bill Manning and Ron Schutz, both of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm.

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Comments (1)

Inexperience

Why is inexperience considered a good thing for a political office seeker? The private sector is not like the public sector, and vice-versa. Each one has different concerns, different cultures, and different skills needed to navigate them. It's a little like a plumber offering to replace the transmission in your car: "I’m coming to the problems we face with a fresh set of eyes." That isn't necessarily a good thing.

As Mr. Winton would say, "that said," he HAS written letters to the editor. My concerns are probably misplaced.