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Big money, mean mailers and forgotten races: what you need to know about the Minneapolis school board election

A primer on a stranger-than-fiction campaign.

So the stranger-than-fiction Minneapolis School Board election takes place in less than a week. There’s been a river of cash, fleets of canvassers and phone bankers, a breathless, big-bold-type mailer slamming an incumbent and the GIF-besotted, factually suspect beast that is Facebook. And still there are a lot of you out there who are unsure whom to vote for when confronted with an actual ballot.

Sorry, Dear Reader, this ain’t that story — though we will momentarily offer some assistance. MinnPost does not endorse candidates for public office.

And I for one could not be more delighted. It’s been my observation over the years that candidates for an office this hyper-local get better as they campaign. How could they not, after hundreds of hours of conversations with people who care passionately about the community’s future?

So why not let newspaper editorials go the way of the felt eraser? Without them — particularly in a one-party town — candidates might have to engage with voters directly. The exercise makes most of them better, which is especially important given that we are asking people to take on a full-time, mostly unpaid position in which they will make crucial decisions about children.

The ever-contentious race for the at-large board seats

I would wager the current candidate Minneapolis residents have learned the most about is Iris Altamirano, who is running for an at-large board seat. Because of her background — and the dynamics of the race — she has earned support from pockets of voters who agree about virtually nothing else. If she wins, she will be in an enviable position to build bridges.

Iris Altamirano
Iris Altamirano

The daughter of a school janitor, Altamirano worked in agricultural fields in Texas as a child. In part because her mother had no patience for the limiting messages her daughter was given by the school system, Altamirano went on to graduate from Cornell University and to become a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

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Will she win? Because she finished third in the August primary, conventional wisdom puts her in third place in the four-candidate field for two at-large board seats elected by a citywide vote. But conventional wisdom doesn’t account for the fact that in a nonpresidential election year, primaries attract only the hardiest of the die-hards. 

At the same time, Altamirano will have her work cut out to best the first- and second-place finishers, Rebecca Gagnon and Don Samuels, respectively. Altamirano and Gagnon have the DFL endorsement; all three enjoy individual endorsements by numerous DFL elected officials.

Rebecca Gagnon
Rebecca Gagnon

The fourth at-large candidate, Ira Jourdain, enjoys the backing of some of Gagnon’s strongest supporters. It’s unlikely to put him over the top. 

An incumbent, Gagnon has been an omnipresent fixture in Minneapolis Public Schools since her 2010 election to the board. In addition to serving on a number of state and local education-related boards and task forces, she is a frequent attendee at high-profile and school-level events. 

Although she did not seek the endorsement of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) in either of her bids for office, Gagnon’s campaigns have enjoyed strong union support — this year including six-figure spending by labor on the DFL’s coordinated campaign. 

Samuels, meanwhile, demonstrated a deep understanding of education policy in his bid for mayor last year, and made public calls for transparency when the MFT sought to close contentious contract negotiations to the public.

Samuels was a founder of the Hope Collaborative, which played a role in galvanizing support for more effective schools by bringing national leaders of successful effort to the Twin Cities to talk to local leaders. He supports high-performing charters as well as efforts to close persistent underperformers.

Most recently, both Samuels and Altamirano have decried a negative mailer currently circulating that paints Gagnon as beholden to special interests and that links her to the awarding of a shadowy no-bid contract currently in headlines.

‘We need a new conversation’

“A recent negative mailing and negative campaign calls we’ve seen and heard about in the past week are more examples of what I’ve been saying throughout our campaign,” Altamirano stated. “We need a new conversation about education in Minneapolis because the situation for our kids is too urgent. Negative campaigning does not move us in that direction.”

Don Samuels
Don Samuels

Samuels also decried the mailer, adding that he is concerned about the example adults are setting for children. “I am also calling on anyone who supports me, even if they think they are being helpful, to stop focusing on what’s wrong with others so I can focus on telling how I will make schools better for every child,” he said. 

Created and paid for by a new independent expenditure committee, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, the mailing is more strident than anything on the record so far this year. 

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The fund is chaired by Daniel Sellers, who is the executive director of the education advocacy group MinnCAN. MinnCAN’s national affiliate 50CAN is associated with a political action fund that has spent in favor of Samuel’s candidacy.

“We appreciate that [the candidates] don’t support the negative tone, and at the same time we feel that it’s critical that people understand there are clear choices and clear differences between the candidates,” said Sellers. “I’m not surprised the candidates themselves are not eager to engage in negative campaigning.” 

Ira Jourdain
Ira Jourdain

According to Sellers and to registration filings, the fund is made up of MPS stakeholders including teachers and alumni. He has promised financial transparency.

Pre-election campaign finance disclosures are being filed this week. So far, spending by organized labor and the DFL in favor of the party’s slate has outpaced funding by so-called reform groups.

CSI an issue

Last year, Gagnon testified before state lawmakers in favor of funding for the Community Standards Initiative, an effort to promote positive behavior in neighborhoods and schools which was ultimately awarded a $405,000 no-bid contract by MPS in May.

The group that got the contract had no website, phone number or legal structure. It did, however, have the support of state Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion. The two currently are the subject of a GOP-led ethics probe.

Several district insiders have said a number of board members knew about the contract, which was placed on the board’s consent agenda, where items do not receive public discussion. The vote to approve was unanimous. 

There have been nameless attempts to stir the pot, too, though it’s not clear on whose behalf. In recent weeks a number of Minneapolis voters have complained of receiving anonymous “push-poll” calls in which negative messages concerning several candidates are raised.

The forgotten races for district seats

In direct contrast to the roiling debate in the at-large contest, the other three races on this year’s ballot are barely registering. Those seats all correspond to geographic districts that use the same boundaries as the Minneapolis Park Board.

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In District 5, two candidates have mounted a polite campaign to represent the swath of south Minneapolis stretching south from 36th Street from Interstate 35W to the Mississippi River.

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On Monday, we profiled the race between teacher Nelson Inz and funeral services provider Jay Larson. Both men are well respected, though Inz has mounted the more active campaign.

In District 1, incumbent Jenny Arneson is running unopposed. In addition to being a staunch advocate for families and schools in the city’s northeast quadrant, Arneson has served as vice-chair of the board.

In District 3, Siad Ali is also running unopposed. The seat is now occupied by Mohamed Noor, who was selected by the board to serve out the remainder of the current term after Hussein Samatar died in August 2013. Noor stepped down to mount an unsuccessful campaign for the state House of Representatives against fellow DFLer Phyllis Kahn.

A former MPS employee, Ali has been a constituent advocate for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He was born in Somalia and lived and studied in India before immigrating to the United States.

Which is a tidy segue back to the start of this piece. Little ink has been spilled about Ali, Inz and Larson outside of community media. Several community and political groups have, however, compiled voter guides.

One is from Educators4Excellence, an organization of teachers — many of them active in their union — who are seeking a voice in policy matters. The detailed Q&A was compiled before the primary, so a number of respondents are no longer in the race.

Another was compiled by the Coalition for Quality Public Schools, which includes two groups spending in favor of DFL endorsees, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and the MFT.