Last fall, when some residents in Minneapolis received calls from a pollster asking about the 2017 mayoral election — amid a heated 2016 presidential campaign and before any candidates for mayor had actually declared — the city’s political circles quickly moved to guessing about who had paid for it.
The callers conducting the survey had identified themselves as being with Standage Research from Colorado, but they also offered no information about the poll’s sponsor, though that didn’t stop Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges from speculating — based on some of the questions asked — that it was probably done by “conservative folks who are opposed to the progressive work I am leading at the city.”
Not quite. As it turned out, the poll probably wasn’t motivated by a right-wing agenda. According to financial disclosure reports filed in January and earlier this month, the poll was paid for by a city employees union, a pair of developers and a political scientist and artist from Virginia.
A pretty typical poll
The story first gained notice with a series of tweets by journalist Chris Steller, who received one of the calls from Standage, and the survey appears to have been a typical pre-election poll by a candidate or political organization. In addition to measuring support for the potential candidates, it asked about issues and possible campaign themes.
But whoever crafted the poll made some pretty solid guesses as to who would run. Respondents were asked about their opinions of Mayor Betsy Hodges, Tom Hoch, Jacob Frey, Ray Dehn, Nekima Levy-Pounds and Alondra Cano. Of those, only Cano is not currently a candidate for mayor.
The poll also asked about former Mayor R.T. Rybak and sought favorability measures for Gov. Mark Dayton, members of the City Council and then-Police Chief Janee Harteau.
Steller noted that one series of questions asked potential voters whether they were interested in “new ideas,” a law-and-order candidate, a woman candidate, a cheerleader for the city, a person of color. It also asked whether the respondent thought property taxes were too high or too low, whether they favored a $15 minimum wage and how they felt about the loss of the Minnesota United soccer stadium to St. Paul.
Phone survey: Q1 how likely next year to vote in mayoral race? Q2 city right direction/wrong track?— Chris Steller (@chris_steller) October 18, 2016
And though it wasn’t a classic push poll — defined as an advocacy call masquerading as a poll with questions designed to cast a negative light on a particular candidate — the poll did ask a series of questions about Hodges: about her leadership and her work on race, crime, property taxes and the police department.
But in a City Pages piece about the poll and the political gossip it spurred, Hodges said that she had been contacted by several people “concerned about [the poll's] right-wing bias.”
“I don't know who commissioned it,” she told the paper, “But it’s clear from the aggressive tone and content of the push poll that whoever is behind it are conservative folks who are opposed to the progressive work I am leading at the city — they're opposed to the working families agenda; they wanted complete, unprecedented tax abatement in perpetuity for a stadium; things like that.”
Unwinding the mystery
While the poll was in the field in late October, contributions to a political committee calling itself “Together Minneapolis” were recorded in November and December. The first contributions were $10,000 from the Firefighters Association Political Fund, the political arm of the city’s firefighters union, and $2,500 each from Ron Rapoport, a political science professor who taught Frey at the College of William and Mary, and Patricia Rapoport, an artist. Minneapolis developer Robert Lux also contributed $5,000 in November, and Milwaukee-based developer Tim Dixon contributed $5,000 in December. Lux is a principal with Alatus, which has developed some of the city’s most prominent residential projects, while Dixon was a developer of the Hewing Hotel and is proposing a condo project at the intersection of Central and Hennepin Avenues. All have subsequently donated to Frey’s mayoral campaign. (Lux has also donated $1,000 each to Hoch and Hodges.)
In January, “Together Minneapolis” listed Shelli Hesselroth, a Golden Valley accountant who has performed treasurer duties for Democratic campaigns under the name of Compliance Resource Inc, as both chair and treasurer on a report filed with the Hennepin County Elections office. The report also listed an “unpaid bills/advance of credit” to Victoria Research of Takoma Park, Maryland amounting to $25,625. That firm is owned by Donna Victoria, a Democratic pollster who also owns Standage Market Research, which did the phone banking for the October poll. In February, “Together Minneapolis” paid Victoria Research $24,500.
It wasn’t until the city’s so-called pre-primary financial reports came due on August 1, however, that the relationships of the funders of the poll came into focus. All had donated to Frey’s campaign between January 31 and July 13, 2017. Patricia and Ronald Rapoport each have given the maximum contribution of $1,000; Timothy and Leslie Dixon gave $2,000; Robert and Jodi Lux $1,500 and the firefighters association $600.
Frey says not involved
Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis firefighters union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 82, would only correspond with MinnPost via text message about the poll and the union’s support for Frey. He wrote the union hasn’t formally endorsed in the mayor’s race and may not.
About the purpose of the poll, he wrote: “We participated with a group to determine Minneapolis residents’ attitude toward city government.”
The firefighters supported Mark Andrew in the 2013 mayor’s race, and was a prominent supporter of Peter McLaughlin in his 2005 challenge to Mayor R.T. Rybak after his first term in office, an episode Rybak mentions in his memoir. “We also heard that the unions representing police, fire, and some city employees had commissioned a poll that they were telling people showed I was vulnerable,” Rybak wrote of the 2005 race in “Pothole Confidential.” Rybak received more than 60 percent of the vote that November.
None of the other participants in the poll were eager to talk about it. After multiple phone calls and emails, Hesselroth wrote only that, “I'm not able to provide any information.” Ron Rapoport and Robert Lux did not respond to requests for interviews.
Frey said Thursday he was aware of the poll back in October but wasn’t involved in commissioning it or raising money for it. He said he didn’t know how the firefighters might have located his former college professor Ron Rapoport and that none of data from the poll was shared with him. He said Thursday he wasn’t even a candidate for mayor in October and only decided to run later that year.
But he said he was proud to have the support of the union and the individuals who funded the poll and is seeking the endorsement of the firefighters union.
“If unions, a couple businesses and my professor from college support me, I’m proud of that,” Frey said. “I want to be transparent about this. I’m proud to have their support.”