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Minneapolis mayoral candidates jockey for position before Saturday’s DFL convention

At least three DFLers already vow to continue running, even if another candidate is endorsed.

Leading up to the convention, most of the DFL candidates for Minneapolis mayor are focused on wooing delegates but are quick to say they’re not ignoring general voters.

Even if by some miracle Minneapolis DFLers are able to endorse one of the party’s six mayoral candidates at their Saturday convention, at least three already have vowed to continue running.

Businessman Cam Winton brings that number to four. Winton, a Republican running as an independent, is not seeking any party’s endorsement.

Two candidates — former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew and City Council Member Gary Schiff — say they will not challenge an endorsed DFLer.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges, meanwhile, is keeping her options open.

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With such a crowded field of well-known candidates, there is a real likelihood, though, that no candidate will be able to achieve the needed 60 percent support of delegates.

The three who will stay in the race — former City Council Member Jackie Cherryhomes, City Council Member Don Samuels and educator Jim Thomas — say there is too much at stake to let 1,700 delegates select one candidate and eliminate five others.

“This mayor will be mayor during the largest demographic change in the history of our city,” said Cherryhomes of choosing a successor to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

She notes that Minneapolis doesn’t change mayors often, with most serving two or three terms. “This is a really, really, really big decision, and all 385,000 of us [citizens] need to be engaged in that decision. I feel really strongly about that.”

“People want to be engaged with this process in a big way,” Cherryhomes said. “They want to keep talking about it, and they’re not ready to be done with it in June. I am finding this whole process invigorating.”

Endorsement decisions

Schiff agrees with the high-interest level but has pledged not to run against an endorsed DFL candidate.

Gary Schiff
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosGary Schiff

“I think people are excited about an open mayor’s race,” he said. “There’s a sense that this is an opportunity for something new. This is our opportunity to make change.”

But if  no candidate is able to reach the 60 percent mark needed for endorsement, he plans to be a candidate in November.

“I think party endorsement is more important than ever because the November election is going to look like a primary to voters,” Schiff said — a reference to the ranked-choice voting system that replaces the primary election. “The party has an opportunity to send a message.”

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That message could also send Andrew packing if another DFLer is endorsed. However, the former DFL party chair and Hennepin County commissioner says he is getting good news from his campaign staff about delegate strength.

He is apparently basing his decision on his understanding of the number of delegate supporters currently in the Andrew camp. If he were to lose those supporters at the convention, he says, “I don’t deserve to run.”

One indication of interest in the contest could be the number of formal debates featuring the mayoral candidates. There have been more than a dozen so far, with more scheduled in the weeks ahead.

“We’ve had three major forums sponsored by communities of color,” said Cherryhomes. “That has never happened in our city before. I find that totally and completely exciting.”

Delegates now, voters later

Leading up to the convention, most of the DFL candidates are focused on wooing delegates but are quick to say they’re not ignoring general voters. But those conversations will come post-convention.

“The delegate community tends to have strong opinions about specific things — a lot of people motivated to become delegates are issues-oriented people,” Samuels said. “You’ll find a lot more single-issue people in the delegate community than in the general population.”

Candidates, however, need support from both single-issue delegates and the general public, which tends to take a broader view.

“What we sound like leading up to the convention might be a little different from what we sound like when we begin to address the general public, because you’ve got to get through this process,” Samuels said.

Jackie Cherryhomes
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosJackie Cherryhomes

There is also the need to attract votes from outside the party after the convention.

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“In some ways, a candidate has to do some repairing in post-convention work,” he said, “not because they’ve changed their opinions but because they’re defusing their focus. They’re acknowledging the existence of the general public.”

“The voters for November are just a much broader group of people, a much more inclusive group of people,” adds Cherryhomes, who agrees that delegates are much more focused on issues.

The challenge of seeking support from both groups, she believes, makes candidates stronger.

“It gives you an opportunity to hone your skills, to think about what you really stand for as you head out into the broader world,” she said, “but your message has to be consistent wherever you go.”

The message doesn’t always come from the candidate. A good candidate spends more time listening than talking.

Education becomes mayoral issue

Campaigns give convention delegates, and general voters, the opportunity tell a future mayor what they like and what they find wanting. This year, they have not been shy.

“I’m hearing people talk a lot about education,” said Hodges, who is not hearing many complaints about how the city is run.

She is not surprised by the education questions — she also got those questions running for the City Council. But this time, she’s hearing more focus on the achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

“I think that goes along with a larger concern about all of the opportunity gaps that are happening in the city,” said Hodges, who includes gaps in employment opportunity and housing in the discussion. “People are starting to see the gaps are going to hold us back.”

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She adds: “I will have a platform and a bullhorn and the ability to talk about these issues. This is about the future of our city. This is about our future work force. This is about the soul of our city moving forward.”

Jim Thomas
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosJim Thomas

Thomas, a teacher with the Minneapolis Public Schools, got into the mayoral race because he wanted to make sure education was part of the discussion. So far, he’s generally pleased with the results.

“People are thanking me for running,” said Thomas, who in the process is learning about taxes, snowplowing and potholes while he pushes his message about smaller class sizes and the impact of homelessness on students.

“I’m getting the conversation I wanted, and now for the next five months I’m going to be getting more aggressive to push the other candidates to state their positions,” he said. Thomas said he is still hearing candidates opt out of the education conversation by saying it is a topic for the School Board.

“Education is a big reason why people leave the city — that’s why people move to Edina, move to Bloomington,” said Alex Hoselton, campaign manager for Thomas and also a Minneapolis schoolteacher. “If we want a long-term strategy for having a city with 100,000 more people, we need to have stronger schools.”

Thomas adds: “I believe the most important thing for a mayor is to deal with the issues that are most important to the city’s neighborhoods. Education is right at the top.”

Samuels agrees, saying he is not surprised that the issue is getting so much attention.

 “All of the candidates have been impressed about how many people are concerned about education,” he said. “They don’t care that you’re the mayor and that you’re not the School Board or the school superintendent. They want to know what you are going to do about the achievement gap.”

Property taxes and services, too

Andrew, too, has been struck by the number of education questions coming his way, but he also sees another issue resonating.

 “Property taxes are a real concern for working-class families — that issue has come up more than I expected,” he said. “They’ve taxed people to the level where people are no longer willing to deal with higher property taxes. They are also very aware that basic services have been cut to a level they’re not willing to allow.”

Cherryhomes, too, says: “I’m hearing consistently, throughout the city, that people are concerned about public services and taxes. I hear it from young families. I hear it from senior citizens.”

Cam Winton
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosCam Winton

“From Linden Hills to the North Side, and at a one-on-one I did with about 20 Somali leaders, the issue of property tax comes up,” she said, adding that people are worried about getting priced out of their homes.

“People are concerned that the streets are falling apart, and people are concerned that we don’t have a good, efficient, snowplowing system,” she said, adding that most don’t know there is a long-term plan for re-paving the streets.

Schiff is hearing concerns about business opportunities.

“I’m hearing relentlessly, over and over again, that Minneapolis must make it easier for small businesses,” he said. Schiff has received early support from a coalition of small-business owners.

“Our city’s small-business regulations were last comprehensively written in 1960. A 50-year-old regulatory code is too old,” he said. As Mayor, Schiff said, he would ask the city attorney to re-draft the entire regulatory code.

Winton, like the DFLers in the contest, has been campaigning since at least March and has heard plenty from potential voters.

“People are sick to death of partisanship. People are sick to death of party politics,” he said. “Partisanship is a rot on our civil society.”

“People have been very enthusiastic about the notion of a small-“I” independent taking the best ideas from across the political spectrum and implementing those ideas,” Winton said.

Spending priorities

His campaign has focused on spending priorities. He is opposed to streetcars, which he says Minneapolis cannot afford. He would spend more money on street paving, jobs, schools and public safety.

Don Samuels
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosDon Samuels

“I’d say that probably 25 percent of the people I talk to on the campaign trail bring up transit,” he said. “Of those folks, 75 percent have a strong assumption that streetcars would be wrong for Minneapolis at this time.”

Winton adds: “Folks are energized by the notion that someone is calling it like they see it — someone has recognized that we have to live within our means.”

In November, Minneapolis voters for the second time will use ranked-choice ballot to indicate at least their top three choices for mayor. They’ll also use it to elect their City Council representative.

Convention may bypass ranked choice

This system, last used in 2009, has been tweaked to create the possibility that some winners could be announced on Election Night — a rarity last time — and to spell out the rules for counting improperly marked ballots.

The Rules Committee of the Minneapolis DFL convention considered ranked-choice voting as part of the process of endorsing a mayoral candidate but dropped those plans in favor of the traditional one-choice ballot.

Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosBetsy Hodges

That decision could be changed by a vote of delegates to that convention.

Hodges notes: “Its always been true in a convention environment that you ask to be people’s second and third choice. Because as the balloting progresses, as people drop off, you want to be people’s second or third choice.”

 She already has been asking November voters who support another candidate to make her their second- or third-place choice.

“It’s actually really great to continue the conversation and not have to stop it at ‘I’m supporting some else,’ ” Hodges said.

Samuels says he’s pleased at the number of second and third choices he is receiving, while Andrew says he has not been asking for anything but first-choice support.

“I usually ask people what is important to them,” he said. “I engage them. I have probably longer conversations than my campaign staff would like to see me have,” said Andrew. But when it comes to asking to be someone’s second choice, “I generally don’t ask.”

Like the other DFL candidates, Andrew spends hours on the phone each day talking to convention delegates. He says he is very careful about asking a delegate for support.

Mark Andrew
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosMark Andrew

“Sometimes, I can tell in my phone call they’re leaning, but they’re not quite there yet, and I don’t want to pressure people,” he said. “I’m not a high-pressure guy, and I rarely ask for second choice.”

“I’m picking up a lot of second-choice support,” said Winton, who agrees it is tough to hear that someone has a different first choice. But he says that when he asks to be someone’s second or third choice, he tends to succeed. He also says he is concentrating mostly on gathering first-choice commitments.

“At this stage of the race, in June, it’s pretty rare to find someone who is firm on their first choice and firm on their second choice and looking for a third choice,” said Winton. “You have to be remarkably civically engaged to have that set of facts apply.”

For Thomas, full-time campaigning has not been possible so far. He has been taking part in the debates but has been busy wrapping up the just-ending school year.

“This summer, I’ll have a couple of months off, and there will be a whole lot of educators who will have some time to work for us,” he said. “I haven’t had anyone discuss with me that education isn’t vital to Minneapolis.”

Thomas adds: “The other candidates have been very kind to me, but after I push them a little more, they may not be so kind. They’ve been great. They’re bright, hard-working people who love Minneapolis and want the best for Minneapolis.”