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Election Blow-out: the Property Rights Group's Impact on the 2001 Minneapolis City Elections

   

The payoff of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee’s efforts to change public opinion came in the city elections held in November 2001. While the landlord group was not primarily concerned with elections, the results that year provided a score card for its political effectiveness.

Throughout 2001, a large sign was positioned at the front of the hall where the Property Rights group held its monthly meetings. This sign identified four City Council candidates, termed “the dirty four”, whom the group opposed; there were four candidates listed on the sign whom the group favored.

Members of the “dirty four” included:

Joan Campbell, 2nd ward
Joe Biernat, 3rd ward
Jackie Cherryhomes, 5th ward
Kathy Thurber, 9th ward (perhaps not so strongly opposed as the others)

When the dust from the elections had settled, three of the “dirty four” did not retain their seats on the city council. Council member Thurber decided in March not to seek reelection. Joan Campbell, in the 2nd ward, placed third in the September 11th primary behind Cam Gordon and Paul Zerby, the eventual winner. Jackie Cherryhomes, the City Council President, was knocked off in the November 6th general election by Natalie Johnson Lee. Of the “dirty four”, only Joe Biernat was reelected.

The sign in front at the meetings indicated that the group favored these candidates:

Paul Ostrow, 1st ward
Barb Johnson, 4th ward
Lisa Goodman, 7th ward
Sandra Colvin Roy, 12th ward

All four of these candidates easily won reelection.

At a later meeting before the election, M.P.R.A.C. members penciled in the names of Robert Lilligren, Dean Zimmerman, Barret Lane, and Shane Price under the “good” category. The first three, all newcomers, were elected. After Cherryhomes defeat, Paul Ostrow became president of the city council, and Robert Lilligren became vice president.

The Property Rights’ lone defeat was in the 3rd ward, where the incumbent council vice President, Joe Biernat, won reelection. Shane Price was his opponent. Less than a year later, however, Biernat was found to have received free plumbing work by members of a union whose affairs he regulated. He spent two years in the federal penitentiary.

With respect to the Mayor’s race, the sign said that the mayoral field included “an embarrassment of riches.” This was because three of the four top contenders - R.T. Rybak, Lisa McDonald, and Mark Stenglein - were considered the group’s friend. All had been invited guests at its meetings. The incumbent mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton, was, if not an enemy, a representative of the old order that needed to be changed. R.T. Rybak was the eventual winner.

Rybak came to the Property Rights meeting twice after the primary - once for an hour on the evening after the primary election and then a month later. He asked the group to draw up a list of specific proposals to improve city government to be incorporated in his 90-day action plan. These proposals were mentioned in a Star Tribune article on Rybak’s and Sayles Belton’s positions on affordable housing. Rybak took heat from some quarters for associating with the Property Rights group. It should be remembered, however, that Mayor Rybak’s late step-father, Chuck Mesken, was a landlord and early contributor to Charlie Disney’s movement.

What impact did Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee actually have on the election? Perhaps, the greatest impact came about in the public exposure which candidates received through the group’s cable-television show. This hour-long show airs twice on Fridays on the regional cable-television station, Channel 6, and on MTN. The group purchased additional air time in the months before the election.

Except for the 2nd ward where we invited all the principal contenders - Campbell, Zerby, and Gordon - to discuss and debate issues on an equal footing, our practice was generally to invite only our friends. Rybak, McDonald, and Stenglein all appeared for at least an hour. Of the City Council candidates, Natalie Johnson Lee was the most frequent guest, appearing at four meetings. She was the one who knocked off the Council President, Jackie Cherryhomes. Among the other successful candidates for City Council, those appearing on the cable-television show included Barb Johnson, Dean Zimmerman, and Robert Lilligren.

Members of M.P.R.A.C. also helped the winning candidates by providing lawn sign locations, contributing money, and participating in literature drops. The most remarkable effort was certainly that in the 5th ward where at least a dozen landlord volunteers drove voters to the polls or were Johnson Lee poll watchers. A landlord rented a sound truck which circulated through the streets of north Minneapolis on election day promoting Johnson Lee’s candidacy. Finally, a landlord volunteer prepared a highly effective piece of campaign literature which included a list of 23 unanswered questions addressed to Jackie Cherryhomes. Several thousand copies were distributed with ACORN’s help.

After the election, the city’s major newspaper, the Star Tribune, failed to mention landlord involvement in the city election, save for one reference to a “rump group of landlords” by an ideologically hostile reporter. The code of silence extended to other media. It took Jackie Cherryhomes, of all people, to give the Property Rights group some credit for what it had accomplished. She gave a post-election interview with WCCO-TV referring to the group’s allegedly unfair tactics in opposing her candidacy.

The WCCO web site included this statement: “The City Council President said that a group called the Property Rights Action Coalition ran a ‘difficult’ campaign against her. The group protested last summer in front of Cherryhomes’ house, objecting to neighborhood revitalization project funding she received for her residence. ‘In my ward, couple the winds of change with what I think was a very mean, personal attack, and this was the outcome,’ she said.”

Yes, when a Council Member in Cherryhomes’ camp was indicted for bribery, members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee did picket Jackie Cherryhomes’ home to protest what it considered a culture of corruption at Minneapolis City Hall. Yes, it appears that city money under the Neighborhood Revitalization Program did finance much of the renovation to repair fire damage to a house which Cherryhomes bought. But, of course, this City Council member, who had attacked and ruined so many landlords, would consider retaliatory action by members of that occupational group, excluded from the old Girls’ club, to be “very mean” and “personal”. (For perspective, read the Floyd Ruggles story.)

All in all, it was a very good night for Minneapolis property owners and tenants when the results of the 2001 municipal election were announced. In a one-party town, candidates supported by these pariah landlords had come out of nowhere to capture Minneapolis city government.

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