Ward 5 City Council race: Candidates seek “change” for the North Side

Minneapolis City Council Candidates (L to R) Roger Smithrud, Lennie Chism, Kenya McKnight [speaking] and Natalie Johnson Lee answer constituent questions during a Ward 5 candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis on October 13, 2009. Thanks to Tony Webster for photo. 

 

A handful of years ago, Minneapolis Councilman Don Samuels had no intention of running for office. He worked from home designing toys, but neighbors pressed him, saying, "We're not getting any attention. The community is falling apart, with gunshots every night. This is crazy. Don't they care? Please go to City Hall and try to make a difference," he told the audience at the recent city council debate in North Minneapolis's Fifth Ward.

DFL-backed Samuels, who has four challengers, believes that he has made a positive difference on the North Side, which he says is in an era of "change," the night's buzzword, while others called for new leadership.

Despite such differences in opinion, the debate, which took place on the thrust stage of the historic Capri Theater on October 13, was surprisingly drama-free. Candidates spoke passionately and at times criticized the current City Council and Samuels, but not with the same level of intensity that has characterized so many other ward meetings. Five people are eyeing the council seat, as a result of the city's newly installed Instant Runoff Voting system, which lets voters pick their first, second and third-place candidates, as MPR explains here. Previously, a primary election would've whittled down the competition. 

Each candidate had two minutes to respond to questions, which centered on revitalization of the impoverished North Side, in addition to citywide challenges, such as the budget, schools, taxes and public safety. The forum drew more than 100 people, including state Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, mayoral candidate Al Flowers and Fourth Ward candidate Marcus Harcus.

A new era for the North Side  

Samuels emphasized redevelopments that have taken place on the North Side under his watch, some of which have garnered national attention. The recently rehabbed Capri, where in 1979 pop icon Prince debuted  "represents the new direction the North Side is moving in ... and momentum for change," he said.

West Broadway Avenue has the only commercial district in the country that is "unabated by the foreclosure crisis or the downturn in our economy, which is the worst since the Great Depression," he said.

Millions of dollars are already planned to go to heal foreclosures and seed redevelopment on the North Side. In Heritage Park, two developments, including a new senior wellness center and senior housing facility, will be a boon to the local economy. "We will get dollars coming to us no matter what the economic environment is," he expressed with emotion.  

He also touted dramatic reductions in crime. This year, there are 75 fewer homicides in the area compared to when he stepped into office in 2006, which saves the city millions of dollars. About $3 million goes to reacting to every homicide, he said. To prevent police brutality, he supported the purchase of video cameras and tasers containing video cameras, which record what officers are up to. Samuels said he believes that Police Chief Tim Dolan, who has fired more officers in two years than both of his predecessors, is doing a good job, despite "a few significant mistakes. He's trying to balance the unions and the community," he said.

Former City Council member Natalie Johnson-Lee, who was defeated by Samuels in 2005 after he was redistricted from the third ward to the fifth was previously endorsed by the Green Party and is returning to the race as a Democrat. Johnson-Lee, who is the executive director of Minnesota African /African-American Tobacco Education Network,  doesn't support Chief Dolan, but she agreed that officers who act out need to be fired.

Highlighting her experience living and working in the community, she claimed that she would be an advocate for the North Side. To get more funding, she suggested looking to the federal government, enforcing minority contracting goals and distributing tax resources equitably. She said she would work with city departments to identify expenses that could be slashed. To address the racial achievement gap in schools, children need to be encouraged to pursue post-secondary education opportunities.

Johnson-Lee, who is considered to be the only major challenger to Samuels, according to MPR, said she's not re-entering the race lightly and is willing to speak her mind. She told the crowd that she stands for justice. "It's your seat. I've seen what others have done. They sit in the seat and it becomes their seat," she said.  

'Gimme my money'

Lennie Chism, an owner of commercial and residential real estate, also a Democrat, again and again made the point that small business, which he said built up the North Side, has been ignored in favor of growth in other parts of the city.

He wants to stop corruption in City Hall, which he claimed has stymied change on the North Side. In his view, the community needs to reclaim tax dollars. Dramatically he said, "I'm a voice. I'm different. I'm going in there and asking, gimme my money," which elicited audience applause.

Chism, it's worth noting here, is facing theft and domestic assault charges stemming from incidents with his girlfriend, Monika Shannon, who has also obtained a restraining order against him, as the Star Tribune reported. In the Star Tribune story, Chism said he had been set up by Shannon, who he called a "scorned woman."

Chism blamed Samuels for the number of condemned houses being torn down on the North Side, describing it as a land-grab. He also held him responsible for development projects that don't hire enough minority men who need to feed their families. (He didn't mention female breadwinners.) Chastising Samuels for a rhetorical comment he made in 2007 about burning down North High School, he remarked, "Someone wanted to burn down North High School," he said. "If I said I wanted to burn down Eden Prairie or Wayzata [high schools], I'd have to go. We're being told we can't even have a building."

Samuels responded that he has apologized over and over for the statement that was made in a heat of passion. As a demonstration of his care and concern, he forged a partnership between North High School and Coloplast, a medical company that made its headquarters this year in North Minneapolis, netting 800 jobs, he said.

Looking for a chance to lead 

Democrat Kenya McKnight, who works for the Northside Economic Development Network, which expands existing efforts to develop new businesses by bringing together the resources of area organizations, according to its Web site, said she has been active on social and economic justice fronts.

She claimed that her youthfulness - she's 32 - wouldn't be a hindrance and that young people need to be given a chance to lead and not just be assistants. "We need to let young people design what their future looks like, with your support, guidance and wisdom," she said, claiming that she ran a successful youth entrepreneur program this summer.  

In answer to several questions, she repeatedly brought up that the police department and City Council have lost taxpayer money in various legal settlements. She wants to bring back former Police Chief William McManus, who took a job in 2006 leading the San Antonio, Texas police department.

Community members need to be informed and involved so that they can hold the city accountable, she said. In regards to balancing the budget, she acknowledged that she doesn't have ready solutions. "I'm only getting a great deal of experience balancing my own fiscal life," she said.  

Roger Smithrud, who works in the Star Tribune's mailroom, has support from the Independence Party and Republicans. Smithrud, who previously ran for the state House, hadn't filed a campaign finance report as of October 18, nor had Chism, according to online Hennepin County records and McKnight was reportedly late doing so (required for campaigns that spend $100 or more).

Smithrud said he's running because he believes that some of his neighbors have been unfairly targeted by city inspections, forcing them to move out. He thinks that many of the condemned houses that have been scheduled for demolition are restorable and could be beneficial to the community. Also, he sympathizes with those who are having a hard time making ends meet.

Veering off-topic at times, he often found himself searching for words and apologized for losing track of questions. About closing the achievement gap, he called for new ways of teaching, trailing off with, "It takes a town to raise a child, or a city. It takes a group of people. I can't remember the old phrase."

At the end of the forum, four of the candidates declined to offer a second choice for City Council under the belief that it would be self-defeating under the new system to do so. Johnson-Lee said, however, said she'd throw her support behind McKnight, who she has helped train as a leader, asserting, "I'm a person of my word."  

Samuels, however, had the last word, which seemed to effectively wrap up the circumstances on the North Side: "If we want developers and contractors to come in and do justice in our community, we've got to be diplomatic and fair and strong," he said. "That's the kind of leadership this community needs." 

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    Anna Pratt's picture
    Anna Pratt

    Anna Pratt (email annaprattjournalist [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis.

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    Don't discriminate against ANYONE

    "To get more funding, she suggested ... enforcing minority contracting goals ...." Why do race and ethnicity need to be considered in deciding who gets awarded a contract? It's fine to make sure contracting programs are open to all, that bidding opportunities are widely publicized beforehand, and that no one gets discriminated against because of skin color or national origin. But that means no preferences because of skin color or ethnicity either--whether it's labeled a "set-aside," a "quota," or a "goal," since they all end up amounting to the same thing. Such discrimination is unfair and divisive; it costs the taxpayers money to award a contract to someone other than the lowest bidder; and it's almost always illegal—indeed, unconstitutional—to boot. Those who insist on engaging in such discrimination deserve to be sued, and they will lose.

    I Finally Woke Up

    I grew up on the north side.  My mind was programmed with all the usual answers given for the difficulties in our lives.  It always seemed to revolve around me being the victim and a government program needed to fix my problems for me.  We never looked at ourselves.  It was always someone else.

    It wasn't until I really looked at myself and went back to high school and finished my degree that I shook off some of my north side thinking.  I love the north side, but there is a tone there that can be self-destructive.  When I got out of the air force, I went to college and started my career.  I wanted to live a certain way that caused success and not despair.  I didn't have children out of wedlock, I finished my hs degree, I worked hard, I didn't commit any crimes and I used my money wisely.  The formula for a good life is pretty simple if we are willing to look at ourselves first.  We are foremost victims of ourselves.  Are we willing to look at ourselves, or are we going to take the tired old path of being slaves to our own excuses?