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Minneapolis mayoral election going nearly unnoticed

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by linda higgins on 10/21/2009 - 10:43 am.

    Isn’t Carney’s statement “Moderate Progressive Censored?”

  2. Submitted by Richard Reineccius on 10/21/2009 - 12:45 pm.

    I’m a MinnBorn, currently San Francisco voter. We’ve had ranked-choice/instant runoff voting in SF for several years now for all City offices. In all cases but one the #1 or #2 vote-getter got the win when the ballots were tabulated by the machinery a second or third time (lowest candidate is dropped off after each count). Saved big money for the city in every election.
    The one case that caused a stir ended after 23 tabulations. The Supervisor (City Council member) was later removed from office by the court because he actually lived in a different city — not because of any fault in the IRV method.
    There’s no reason instant runoff wouldn’t work just as well for primary elections, state offices, and Members of Congress. And in St. Paul.
    –Richard R.

  3. Submitted by John Hottinger on 10/21/2009 - 02:53 pm.

    It seems the problem is with the media, not the IRV voting system. There are other candidates for Minneapolis mayor who should be recognized, but apparently the media has chosen not to do so. On the other hand, maybe the citizens feel very comfortable with the leadership Mayor Rybak has provided. St. Paul Councilman Thune is an an opponent assuredly in part because his former campaign aide has admitted that Mr. Thune might not have won if the IRV system was being used. The last time I had the privilege of running for office it included four candidates throughout the campaign and was richer in debate and discussion — and voter choice — than situations where it was just two. Certainly, IRV is an improvement over the small turnout primaries that narrow the discussion to the two candidates with initial advantage and clout. The public picks the winner from diverse choices with IRV; in the old system a limited number of primary voters narrow down a field with little or no public discussion or exposure. Good job, Doug, in at least serving the media’s role of identifying some of the candidates to the public.

  4. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/21/2009 - 03:27 pm.

    The upcoming Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) election method has produced exactly the predicted kind of campaign — issue-oriented and not-negative — in several of the Council races, especially wards 5 and 6. Some neighborhood newspapers are covering these campaigns and developments (for example, the SW Journal). Please give those media due credit.

    Too, let’s remember that this is Minneapolis’s first experience with an RCV election. The critics would have everyone believe that it HAS to be perfect immediately … as if the age-old system RCV is replacing ever got perfect after about 150 years. (No, it didn’t.) The city elections folks and their partners are working hard to have a good election on the 3rd. If it isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean RCV is a failure — far from it. (And if the St. Paul election isn’t perfect, what then, St. Paul critics?)

  5. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 10/21/2009 - 05:37 pm.

    This is kind of a silly statement, Doug:

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

    Nearly impossible? Really? Lots of elections routinely involve long lists of candidates. Statewide general elections. Primary elections of all kinds. Media and community groups who are interested in voter education have always had the responsibility of negotiating between serious/legitimate candidates and those who are not worthy of public attention. Sometimes a media outlet does that job poorly, but regardless the responsibility is already out there.

    Just like how a paper will decide to divvy up coverage of candidates in a municipal primary election, with Ranked Choice Voting it will have to decide how to divvy up coverage in a municipal general election.

    Ranked Choice Voting is not creating the lack of coverage/interest in the mayor’s race. The fact of the matter is that none of RT’s challengers are running a campaign that appears strong enough to realistically enjoy a chance of beating him. If one of the other campaigns started earlier, was obviously mobilizing a significant grassroots army, or was better funded, then people would pay more attention. Blaming RCV for lack of attention in a race where there is no real contest is silly.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/21/2009 - 06:28 pm.

    If St. Paul voters do not choose IRV, I would hope primaries can be handled differently to make it easier for people to vote.

    Perhaps if primaries were held on Saturday, many more people might more easily make the effort to get there.

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/22/2009 - 09:48 am.

    If MinnPost would spend less time covering Michelle Bachman’s daily rants and giving space to those who “stalk and stare” at Michelle during Presidential speeches, maybe more attention could be given to the Mayoral race.

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