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

At a Humphrey School event, Winton defends his portrayal of city government as failing to do its most basic jobs while wasting money.

Cam Winton would like to tie the mayor's pay to performance, such as his ability to improve basic services.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

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.

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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.

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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.