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Minneapolis mayoral election going nearly unnoticed

Three factors seem to be combining to hold down voter interest as Mayor R.T. Rybak seems a lock to win re-election handily in an 11-candidate field. The city’s new ranked-choice voting system appears to be a major factor.

Election Day is less than two weeks away, but one of the herd of candidates for Minneapolis mayor has a huge concern.

“Most people seem to think this election is next year,” said Papa John Kolstad, who is running as an independent but has the endorsements of the city’s Republican and Independence parties and ran two years ago as the Green Party’s candidate for Minnesota attorney general.

The fact that there is a mayoral election in one of the nation’s largest cities while nobody seems to notice is a product of three things:

1. None in the group of 10 trying to unseat two-time incumbent R.T. Rybak is taken seriously by the media, Rybak or the public. Only one of those candidates, perennial candidate Dick Franson, ever has won an election, and his last victory came in a City Council race in the 1960s. He’s been on a decades-long streak of more than 20 losses ever since.

2. Rybak’s been paying no attention to the rest of the field. He skipped the one forum that has been held, although he will participate in a Minnesota Public Radio forum with Kolstad on the eve of the election. MPR said none of the other candidates could participate because they don’t represent major parties.

Rybak, it should be noted, says he’s campaigning hard on his merits. But the fact is, by Election Day he will have done more DFL gubernatorial forums than mayoral forums.

3. Ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is being unveiled for the first time.

Mayor R.T. Rybak
Mayor R.T. Rybak

Billed as a electoral improvement by its good-government supporters, the new voting system, which allows voters to designate first, second and third choices, eliminates the primary election, which in the past would have weeded down the mayoral field to the top two candidates for the general election..

With ranked choice, anybody with a $20 filing fee goes on the November ballot. With so many candidates, public debates become nearly impossible.

“Even if you can have a forum, when you have a pack of candidates, you can’t have a meaningful debate about issues,” said St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune of the new — and, in his view, not improved — system.

Thune, it should be noted, is a foe of ranked choice voting, which St. Paul voters will decide whether to select as their system on Election Day.

If this first go-around in Minneapolis is any example, the system would seem to favor the incumbent by increasing the pool of fringe candidates and likely discouraging others candidates with more traditional backgrounds from taking on the incumbent. (Yes, yes, Rybak did not come from a traditional political background when he was first elected mayor. But he was running against strong foes — including incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton — in his first victory.)

“If you had a strong candidate,” said Thune, “that person would be underwater, caught up in the froth of all the other people.”

Certainly, ranked choice voting doesn’t appear to be off to an auspicious start in Minneapolis.

Kolstad calls the whole situation “bizarre.”

Bizarre. Twisted. And pathetic. After all, shouldn’t a great city have a real election among credible candidates?

Still, it’s not without humor. 

For example, Bob Carney Jr., a lifelong “moderate” Republican, is busily cranking out videos of “R.T. and Me,” showing his efforts to engage the mayor in debate. He also said he tried to do a video of a visit last week to the Star Tribune where he was trying to get any of the paper’s political reporters to take notice of his campaign.

When he attempted to record his visit to the newspaper, he said he was told “you can’t use your video camera here. That would make you a competitor.”

A competitor of what?

“The newspaper,” he said he was told.

As mentioned, Carney does say he’s a longtime Republican Party activist in the city, but he won’t have Republican next to his name. When he tried to identify his party as “Moderate Progressive Republican” he was told by city officials that he couldn’t state “both my principles and a party” in the three words candidates can use to identify themselves on the ballot. He’s filed complaints to the state on that decision, but on Election Day he’ll be identified as “Moderate Progressive Censured.”

In truth, it’s Kolstad, not Carney, who has the official endorsement of the city’s Republican Party, which is surprising, given the fact that Kolstad has been a lifelong DFL activist. Even Kolstad, the longtime musician, is surprised to be carrying a Republican banner.

Papa John Kolstad
Papa John Kolstad

“The thing you have to make clear is that the city Republican Party is different from those others,” he said. “These are not Pawlenty Republicans. These are Teddy Roosevelt, Ron Paul, anti-corporate Republicans.”

Kolstad, who says current city hall officials treat small business owners “arrogantly,” says he’s been treated warmly by Republicans of all stripes. He even spoke at the state party convention earlier this month.

“Never spoke from the dais in all my years working for the DFL,” he said.

Carney’s not surprised he didn’t get the support of the city’s Republicans.

“I’ve been a thorn in the side of some Republicans for a long time,” said the mayoral candidate, who describes himself as an inventor, writer and video creator. (He’s writing a book on his campaign experiences and, of course, is doing those videos.)

So disgusted is Carney with “Pawlenty Republicans” that he’s made a campaign vow: “If I’m elected mayor, I will run for president against Pawlenty,” he said.

No candidate has been busier than Carney.

On Monday, he fired off a multipronged email to the mayor of Moscow (yes, in Russia), Yir Luzhkov.

In the very long email, Carney told Luzhkov he is interested in Moscow’s “snow suppression” study, which apparently involves cloud seeding as a possible way of reducing snowfall.

Carney also said he admired the honesty shown in the website biography of the mayor because it shows that he was first appointed as mayor by presidential decree in 1992.

Bob Carney Jr.
Bob Carney Jr.

Wrote Carney: “I am strongly in favor of having free and open elections. But I do commend you for at least stating publicly, on your web site, that you are now vested with authority from the national government, and not suggesting that you are elected. This seems to me better than claiming to be elected if your power and authority do not, in fact, derive from an election. … I wish we had more clarity here in Minneapolis regarding the question of whether or not we are having an election. Mayor Rybak is also apparently running for Governor, but it is not yet clear whether he is seeking this by election, or as an appointed Czar. …”

Can’t you just picture Mayor Luzhkov scratching his head over all of this?

Carney isn’t the only one using Russian analogies to describe this mayoral race. On Monday, candidate Al Flowers compared Rybak’s re-election strategy to those of Joseph Stalin.

Wrote Flowers in a statement: “Just as a cult of personality surrounded Stalin in his efforts to grab and keep power, R.T. Rybak has benefited from the local media worshipping at his feet blatantly aiding his bid to serve another term as mayor of Minneapolis.”

Al Flowers
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Al Flowers

Flowers, a longtime community activist, was cited in late September for possessing marijuana at the Edina home of a Crips gang member. Earlier this month, Flowers filed suit in Hennepin County District Court alleging that officials set him up, that he didn’t have pot and that it was part of election skullduggery to damage his name.

All of this — the pot, the DFLers running as Republicans, the emails to Moscow — come in the first year of the new voting system, and Kolstad predicts that people who do end up figuring out there really is an election this year will be stunned by the new procedures.

“I really like Al [Flowers],” Kolstad said. “We’ve even been doing some campaigning together. We were at an event, and he was telling people that he’s running for mayor and then he introduced me and said, ‘Papa John’s running for mayor, too.’ People would say to Al, ‘If you’re running for mayor, why would you introduce him?’ Al would say, ‘He’s a good guy. You can vote for me No. 1 and him No. 2.’ And the people would look at him and say, ‘What?’ ”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.