Tragic neighborhood fire led Sandy Colvin Roy to long government career

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Sandy Colvin Roy: “When you figure out there are things you want to change about the world that you’re living in, the city you’re living in, you go to the people who can make those changes. Quite often it ends up being someone in elected office.”

Sandy Colvin Roy did not set her sights on a career in government that would span 28 years, including 16 years on the Minneapolis City Council. Instead, she ended up in government because she learned the hard way that government is where lives can be changed for the better.

“When my husband and I moved to the Phillips neighborhood, it was because that was all we could afford,” she said in an interview before wrapping up her time on the council. “It was a very poor neighborhood. That was 1975, and there were old houses built very close to each other.”

“I woke up one morning with fire licking the bedroom window,” she said. “It was the all-wooden clapboard house next to us that was blazing. We knew the family who lived downstairs. There were five kids in that family, and the mother had visiting cousins, so she had 11 kids to try to get out.”

Colvin Roy’s daughter, then 3, was a playmate of a little girl who lived in the house.

“I watched them carry out her limp, blackened body, this little girl,” said Colvin Roy, choking back tears nearly 40 years after the fire. “The one little girl they couldn’t find had crawled under a bed with a kitty.

“I was angry that the city would allow a place to be rented out when the back door had been nailed shut. There was only one exit from the place. The space heater … was fed its gas from an illegal flexible tube that went up over the only exit.”

“That’s what got me out and into my neighborhood organization,” said Colvin Roy. “They got me city building codes that I sat and read. It really just started me being active in trying to make a change.”

And change came. The nonprofit Phillips Neighborhood Housing Trust was born, following a change in state law, to create safe housing. That was her first involvement with government as an activist.

Changes for the better

“When you figure out there are things you want to change about the world that you’re living in, the city you’re living in, you go to the people who can make those changes,” said Colvin Roy. “Quite often it ends up being someone in elected office.”

She recalls that someone explained the caucus system to her. She decided the DFL matched her politics and became active in the late ‘70s.

“It was years without me ever thinking I would run for office,” she said, “but I kept building those relationships and being involved.”

Her first government job was as a secretary to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Spartz. She later worked for Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. She admires both of them.

In those jobs she started reading government documents and became comfortable with the research and decision-making process.

“I thought … I could do that job (county commissioner),” she said.

But she was attracted instead to city government because she was frustrated with the way money was being spent.

There was an obstacle, however: Denny Schulstad, the longtime, lone Republican on the City Council and the city’s only Republican office holder.

“I lived in the 12th Ward, which was not an auspicious place for a Democrat,” Colvin Roy said.

Schulstad agreed to a meeting and told her he didn’t know if he would run again.

“I wrote him a very nice note thanking him for his time and telling him I had to make my decision and I couldn’t wait for his,” said Colvin Roy.

“I had to basically create a DFL Party in the 12th Ward because there wasn’t one,” said Colvin Roy. “Seriously, I had to talk a whole bunch of people into coming out on a Saturday to endorse me to run, and I did. And he made his decision not to run.”

“I knocked on so many doors that in the end the knuckles on my right hand were bruised and purple,” she said of her successful campaign.

It was 1997 when she arrived at City Hall thinking she knew her colleagues, council staff and party activists because she had been active in the DFL.

“I didn’t know I would feel so isolated,” she said. “It felt like I had to read everything to understand what was going on. There wasn’t anybody I could turn to who would just say, ‘this, this and this are the items to pay attention to.’ ”

“So I read every Sunday,” she said. The other six days were filled from early morning until late evening with meetings.”

“The result was that I felt I was on solid ground when I took a position,” she said.

She learned to listen to the professionals on the city staff and to keep asking questions until she understood what they were talking about. That has served her well as chair of the Transportation and Public Works Committee, which frequently hears from engineers and other technical staff.

“We get to be the final deciders on many things,” said Colvin Roy. “But the people in front of us — their job, as I see it, is to come to their own conclusion, using their professional background, but then explain it to us so we accept their conclusion.”

Two toughest decisions

Looking back, she says the two toughest decisions during her 16 years involved Block E and the new Vikings stadium.

“With both … I had to divorce my own emotional response to the situation, and that was difficult,” said Colvin Roy. “In Block E, I thought the Council ahead of me that knocked down that whole block was wrong. Still do.”

In 1987, the City Council had voted to tear down what was left on Block E, citing rising crime in the area. The site languished as a surface parking lot until 2001, when a Chicago developer built a shopping and entertainment center, which is largely unoccupied today.

The stadium was more complicated. Several council members quickly declared themselves “philosophically” opposed to public financing for sports facilities.

Colvin Roy decided to study the proposal before making up her mind.

“A lot of decisions are complicated,” said Colvin Roy. “I didn’t sleep through the night for a full six weeks. That’s one measure of trying to figure out exactly what was in my control, which was far less than people would like to believe.”

“I wasn’t sitting in the Legislature. I was sitting here (City Hall) and we had a yes-or-no decision,” she said. “They got to shape things.”

She spent hours with Kevin Carpenter, the chief financial officer for Minneapolis, going through the legislation and the never-ending stream of numbers. For her, it came down to the difference between a sales tax and a property tax.

Unlike property taxes, the sales tax largely can be avoided, in her view. The sales tax package involves a citywide tax on lodging and a downtown tax on restaurants and liquor.

“A sales tax you can affect by your own buying habits, so you have control over it, and that doesn’t seem so complicated to me,” Colvin Roy said. “It came down to a guarantee of $5 million off the property taxes and into sales taxes. You have control over your purchasing power.”

Some of her City Hall colleagues thought the city might get a better deal by waiting until the next legislative session. Colvin Roy didn’t agree.

“Well, you know what, it was a Democrat in the Senate that was insisting he’d take away the sales tax and Minneapolis would not be collecting anything if we didn’t do the stadium,” she said. But that wasn’t the only reason to support the project.

To her, stadium means jobs

The hospitality people were estimating their business in the Twin Cities was about $1.5 billion a year, Minneapolis hotel owners estimated that 10 percent of their business comes from activities at the dome.

“You think about all those jobs, and I was told those are not good-paying jobs. Well, they are paying someone’s rent,” she said. “It might not be what you want to do but they’re paying someone’s rent and sending kids to school. That was on my mind.”

She also thought of the people who live in the 12th Ward and remembered a couple she met when she was door knocking.

“I’ve never forgotten one couple who were the original owners of a little G.I. house,” she said. “We sat down at a little kitchen table, small kitchen. The Formica had worn through, they had stacks of neatly sorted coupons, the man’s shirt was threadbare. It was a home that was clean and orderly and just squeaking by.”

“They said, ‘We want you to help people, but try not to help them so much that we can’t stay here,’ she said through tears.’ Those are the people I was thinking of. Not the millionaires.”

Despite the tears, Colvin Roy said, “the toughest part was not to make my decision based on emotion.” She believes she made the right decision on the stadium and that it was a sound business decision.

She values the advice that came from a woman who is a kayaker and part of Colvin Roy’s close circle of friends.

“She said: ‘Sandy, what I learned in kayaking is that you don’t focus on the rock in front of you. If you want to be safe, you focus ahead where the stream is going. That has helped me a lot.”

She leaves behind some advice for the seven new council members.

“One of the toughest transitions will be going from campaigning to governing,” said Colvin Roy. “In campaigning, it’s necessary to hone messages to be very sharply focused and quick. Very few of the decisions we make here [City Hall] fit neatly into that sort of speech.”

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Now, after deciding not to run for re-election, she has cast her last vote. Made her last speech. Chaired her last committee meeting. She must move out of her office and give up her parking spot.  After 28 years of government, there is no “new” job waiting.

She takes comfort in advice from Council President Barb Johnson that she received from her mother, Alice Rainville, who also served as council president.

“Remember, there is never a last act,” Johnson told Colvin Roy. “Whatever the vote is in front of you, or the discussion is, there will be another one, tomorrow, next week, in an hour. There will be another one. There’s never a last act.”

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