Short answers, long agenda for the Great Minneapolis Mayoral Debates

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Bike lanes, the Vikings stadium and transit were just a few of the topics discussed during Thursday's debate.

This story contains corrected matter.

The atmosphere at Pepito’s Parkway Theater down on 48th and Chicago Thursday night was festive. Patrons ordered beer, munched popcorn and milled around the lobby and on the sidewalk. You’d think that the crowd — 300 or 400 strong — was there for the latest “Star Wars” premiere. In fact, they had come for the latest episode in another long-running franchise: The Great Minneapolis Mayoral Debates of 2013.

I don’t know how many head-to-head (or rather, head-to-head-to-head….to seventh or eighth head from the field of 35 candidates) contests there have been so far (the candidates had already done two earlier in the week).

In any case, this one was sponsored by the Hale-Page-Diamond Lake Community Association, and it featured a scant seven candidates, a menu that was set by the League of Women Voters in May when only eight people had signed up for the race. Since that time, one notable, Council Member Gary Schiff, dropped out, and another notable, Park & Rec Commissioner Bob Fine, signed on, but the somewhat officious League would not add him (nor any of the lesser-known mayoral aspirants) to the night’s political fray.

Despite that slight, Fine  was on hand to pass out literature proclaiming his campaign mantra: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the city ran as efficiently and provided such a high level of service as our renowned park system?” (Of course it would, but then trees and grass are a lot easier to deal with than municipal unions, rogue cops and income inequality.)

Before the debate kicked off, a gal from Fair Vote Minneapolis explained ranked-choice voting to the audience. “Understand?” she asked at the end.

“No,” they shouted back.

“Well, OK,” she said. “Then just vote for your first, second and third choices.”

On stage were the usual suspects who cheerfully agreed to answer within one minute questions submitted by the audience and vetted by a League facilitator. (No queries on boxers-versus-briefs or other fun issues made it past her eyeball.)

Another League member sitting next to me in the front row timed candidates with her iPhone and repeatedly shouted out “Stop!” — often cutting them off mid-sentence. The exercise seemed ridiculous. If you don’t think so, then stand in front of a mirror and give yourself 60 seconds to tell how, as the city’s next mayor, you’d attract new talent and Fortune 500 companies to the area.

That was the first question, and Mark Andrew, former Hennepin County commish and the candidate with the very best swath of mayoral-style salt-and-pepper hair, muffed it. All he could get out was a list of the city’s pluses — natural amenities, the U of M, culture, well-trained people, blah, blah, blah. Stop!

In this first round, only a few candidates came up with reasonable elevator pitches. Don Samuels, council member from North Minneapolis and, in my opinion, the most utterly dapper, emphasized — as he would do often during the evening, the importance of safe streets — though he never said how he would produce them. In fact, he was inexplicably languid throughout the entire debate — maybe because a recent poll showed him slightly ahead of many other candidates.

City Counil Member Betsy Hodges pushed mass transit because, she said, people these days, particularly young people, are hunting for places to live where they don’t need cars.

Jackie Cherryhomes, one-time council president, said she would use the mayor’s bully pulpit to improve schools.(I get a little concerned whenever I hear politicians talking about bully pulpits; I hearken back to George W. Bush, who used it to preach the privatization of Social Security. It worked about as well as parents urging kids to major in electrical engineering instead of film. The more he bully-pulpited, the more people resisted.)

Still, you have to hand it to the candidates. Through 10 rounds of questioning, they had to muster specifics about their programs — or enough blather to fudge, brag about accomplishments, defend whatever they’d done in the past and add touching details about their personal lives — all the while perched on high chairs under bright lights with someone yelling “Stop” in their faces.

Here are some of the high points — or not, depending on your views:

Specifics

All the candidates were for greater government efficiency — duh. Cam Winton, a lawyer and energy company exec who bills himself as an independent, promises to save taxpayers big bucks by consolidating the city’s “bloated back-office functions” and by not replacing retiring baby-boomers. Those proposals he calls “no-brainers,” a phrase he uses frequently enough to remind me of all those maddeningly self-assured people who give TED talks. He’s also against spending $40 million a mile on streetcars and is in favor of enhanced bus service.

Andrew suggested that the budget could be cut by persuading Hennepin County to take on a greater portion of the Medicaid burden. He’d have to be the Great Persuader to accomplish that.

Dan Cohen, who sits on the City Charter Commission and the City Planning Commission, brought forth cheers from the audience when he said Minneapolis should cut “foolish spending, starting with the Vikings stadium,” which, he claimed, put the city in business with alleged racketeers. “It’s like a script from ‘The Sopranos,’ ” he added to more cheers as well as guffaws, chortles and hee-haws.

A hot issue was police misconduct. Winton advocated installing cameras on police officers to catch cops behaving badly. Cherryhomes and Andrew were for a return to community policing, a strategy that partners law enforcement with local residents to prevent problems that lead to crime. How effective that is, I know not, but Andrew agreed with her on that and also with her insistence that the city strengthen the powers of its Civilian Police Review Authority, which is supposed to investigate and redress citizens’ complaints against cops.

Cohen, who supports less-nuanced approaches, said that bad cops should be fired immediately and have their gear put out on the sidewalk. Again, he received loud cheers.

Stephanie Woodruff then chimed in. She is an executive recruiter and a citizen member — that is to say, a volunteer, on the city’s Audit Committee, which reviews internal governance and spending. Just because I haven’t mentioned her until now doesn’t mean she was sitting around like a potted palm. Earlier, she had observed that everybody might like to cut expenses but that the city currently was operating pretty close to the bone. Now sprinkling a little reality dust on the cops issue, she pointed out to Cohen (and the rest of us) that the police chief does not currently have the authority to up and fire a cop — there’s a whole legalistic process the department has to go through. “The chief needs that authority,” she added.

In discussing the issue of encouraging more development in the city, Winton asked the audience, “Ready for a Google search assignment? Form-based zoning.” (See what I mean about the TED thing?) Form-based zoning is the cool new thing in city planning, and I had Googled it myself a year or so ago. So I can tell you that such a system allows builders to put up pretty much whatever they want, as long as it’s not a nuisance to the neighborhood, like a pig manure processing plant, and it conforms to the shape of the structures around it.

The idea is to cut down on the pettifoggery of zoning codes, which specify setbacks, distances, heights, floor area ratios and so on. It can work pretty well in, say, Boston’s Back Bay, where the streets are all made up of three- and four-story brownstones erected in the 19th Century. But I’m not sure how well it would do on many Minneapolis commercial streets, which, with their mashup of office buildings, apartments, gas stations, fast-food outlets and single-family homes, have no form to speak of.

Brags

Candidate accomplishments we heard about:

Hodges: Helped merge the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems and handed off the city’s pension obligations to the state, saving $20 million annually.

Samuels: helped Mayor Rybak reduce property taxes this year (by only 1 percent, but that’s better than a kick in the pants) — though, as a member of the council, Hodges did too.

Andrew: pushed through Hennepin County’s development of the Midtown Greenway and never in his 16 years in office raised property taxes.

Cohen: helped the Planning Commission usher in zoning that permits smaller dwellings to accommodate the increased number of single-person households.

Defenses

The audience was none too happy about the city’s centralization of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program at City Hall; previously, it had funneled money for planning efforts to community associations. Samuels and Hodges defended the decision as one the council had to make to save dough. Most candidates expressed their scorn and proclaimed — to cheers — that the program should be reinstated.

Only Winton demurred. “You’re hearing a lot of pandering on this,” he said. “I tip my hat to Betsy and Don.” His point: With a limited budget, they had made the necessary tough decision.

Hodges also defended the controversial bike lanes on Portland and Park avenues. “I support bike infrastructure,” she said. “It helps people to live here without cars.”

A moment of candor

One member of the audience asked candidates who they would rank as their second choice for mayor when they voted. “Oooooh,” crowed the spectators at this possible gotcha.

Cohen said Betsy Hodges; Woodruff chose Samuels “because he’s education, education, education.” The rest didn’t give a direct answer. “I haven’t had the opportunity of meeting all the candidates, and I do want to meet Jeffrey Wagner,” said Hodges, pretending to be flirtatious. (Wagner’s YouTube campaign spot shows him emerging from a lake, with pecs of iron, mouthing his campaign slogan,”Wake the f**k up Minneapolis.”)

Proposals that sound great but need details

Cherryhomes wants to grow the city by developing the 120 surface parking lots sitting in downtown Minneapolis. Similarly, Woodruff wants to develop the waterfront, especially above the falls, and Cohen thinks downtown needs a casino to pep it up and to break the monopoly now enjoyed by tribal gambling operations. Hodges (and other candidates) say that we must close the chasm between whites and nonwhites.  

Up close and personal

Samuels came to the U.S. with only $83 in his pocket and became a big success, Andrew said he is “not from Minneapolis but of Minneapolis,” and Cohen’s ancestors came from a town in Russia just like the one in “Fiddler on the Roof” —  “only without the music and without the comedy,” he added, though he is pretty comedic himself.

Winton wound up here because he married a Minnesota girl. They could have gone anywhere, he said, but choosing Minneapolis was — you guessed it — a no-brainer, because of its rich civic tradition, parks and—Stop!

Stephanie Woodruff styled herself as an underdog — a woman, a lesbian, a candidate with a campaign war chest of only $2,000, a person who went through a foreclosure to bail out her business. And she seemed determined to continue living on the edge: She has promised that if the reading scores of nonwhite children don’t rise during her tenure as mayor, she’ll turn over half of her salary to a fund that would help to reduce the achievement gap.   

One-word answers

One question asked candidates to name the personal quality they thought would be most important for the new mayor to have. Here’s what each said:

Samuels: Vision              

Hodges: Integrity

Cherryhomes: Leadership

Andrew: Leadership

Cohen:  Courage

Woodruff: Leadership

Winton: Candor

It struck me as funny that nobody mentioned  “Endurance.” We’ll all need some of that before election season ends.

Correction

This report contained several errors concerning the positions of Minneapolis mayoral candidate Cam Winton. In terms of police oversight, Winton said he is in favor of putting cameras on officers. They are already in police cars. Winton supports enhanced bus service, rather than streetcars, which he said would cost $40 million per mile. The one-word responses of several candidates also were incorrectly reported. They are listed correctly above at the end of the story.

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