Minneapolis mayoral candidates get into nitty gritty differences in second debate

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Things heated up in the mayor’s race on Wednesday, April 3 at Solomon’s Porch, a nonprofit Christian center in South Minneapolis. There were two additions from the debate last week, when Don Samuels, Jackie Cherryhomes, Gary Schiff, Betsy Hodges and Mark Andrew debated at the Humphrey School, vying for the DFL endorsement. The April 3 debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters, included Cam Winton, a conservative candidate who’s running as an independent, and Jim Thomas, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher. The candidates sat in comfy armchairs in the densely packed room (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a code violation with how many people were crammed on the balcony) and got into the nitty gritty of where they differ on the issues.

HERC

Right off the bat, some major differences emerged, starting with the first question about whether Minneapolis should comply with Hennepin County’s request to increase the amount of garbage burned at HERC. Samuels, Andrew and Cherryhomes all came out in favor of Hennepin County’s plan, while Hodges, Schiff and Winton came out against. I could not tell what Thomas’s position was.

“We shouldn’t be making decisions based on political expediency or fears,” said Samuels, contending that the “objective analysis” so far is that the facility is safe.

Hodges said burning more garbage isn’t “a sensible way to proceed in the city,” which should rather “redouble our efforts on recycling and move toward a zero waste city.”

“I believe in the right to breathe clean air,” said Schiff, calling the choice between burying and burning waste a “false choice.” He said he would sponsor a zero waste initiative.

Winton also didn’t support increasing the burned garbage, saying HERC needs to do an environmental impact study.

Andrew defended HERC, saying it was built because the landfills were leaking toxins into the ground water. HERC was created, he said, to create a renewable energy source by turning garbage into energy.  “It’s the biggest and most successful alternative energy project in the history of the state,” he said, saying that it has been “proven time and time again to be way below the state standards for toxicity.”

Cherryhomes said that while Minneapolis has increased its recycling, “everybody in this room knows you have got stuff you can’t rid of,” and that it either is going to get burned or go into a landfill.

Thomas admitted he wasn’t knowledgeable about the subject, but said we should be sharing the pain with surrounding counties, whatever technology we are using.

Education

The second question focused on how the mayor can influence the public education system to close the achievement gap, and brought out differences between the candidates, particularly Winton and Thomas. 

Andrew, Cherryhomes and Hodges all nixed the idea of mayoral control of the schools, saying instead that the mayor can act as a convener and facilitator for change. Samuels talked about how he would support Superintendent Johnson and the current “progressive” school board and “help parents understand their role.” 

Both Schiff and Hodges emphasized disrupting the cycle of poverty, with Schiff emphasizing early childhood investment and Hodges emphasizing other factors that cause the “opportunity gap” including health, transit, housing and work.

Winton said he would seek four appointments to the school board. Winton is in favor of performance-based pay for teachers and ending “last in, first out” policies (where the last teacher hired is the first fired). He also supports longer school days and school years. 

Thomas criticized high stakes testing and charter schools. He said the current mayor and “one person here” have been actively involved in bringing in specific kinds of school board members, including a “26-year-old Teach for America person,” (referring to newly-elected school board memberJosh Reimnitz). He suggested different PTAs from around the city come together and talk about what has been happening.

Transportation

With the exception of Cam Winton, the candidates all seemed to be on the same page when it comes to transit — supporting a multi-modal system that includes lightrail, streetcars, buses and bikes. The one dissenter, at least where streetcars are concerned, was Cam Winton. “I do not think that streetcars are an important part of our city’s future,” he said, because they cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The city would do better to invest in bus rapid transit, which “is a lot cheaper” with the money saved used for other priorities like crumbling roads and “keeping streets safe.” 

How to balance city’s need for denser development (and a broader tax revenue) with the desires of neighborhood associations? 

This was an interesting question to watch the candidates dance around. Hell hath no fury like a neighborhood organization opposing a new development. Hodges’ answer was that if we do transit right, development will happen naturally, but that leadership is needed for when tensions arise.

Cherryhomes and Andrew stressed the urgency of broadening the tax base. “High density development is in the immediate future if I am mayor,” Andrew said, pointing to North Minneapolis, the riverfront and the commercial nodes of the city as the focus.  Cherryhomes said that the sad fact is that a lot of the discussion about density “isn’t about density, it’s about who is going to be living in that density.”

Samuels stressed the importance of looking out for all the neighborhoods, especially the ones that have the fewest resources, and Schiff talked about the importance of sustainable growth without compromising current resources and character.

Dense development is the norm when you’re living in the city, according to Winton, pointing to two developments in Southwest Minneapolis that other candidates, as City Council members, have done everything in their power to nix. As mayor, Winton said, he will do everything in his power to set the framework and let the process run from there. 

Homelessness 

Many of the candidates here had similar answers, supporting a broad-based approach with the city and county, and redoubling our current efforts to transition families, vets, mentally ill and others out of homelessness. A couple of the candidate veered from this message slightly, with Winton suggesting that Minneapolis needs to redouble efforts to create more affordable housing and preserve existing housing, and welcoming Section 8 recipients to all parts of the city. Samuels talked about the need for 24-hour homeless shelters so that people have a place to go besides the public library or businesses. Thomas said the most important focus should be on jobs and raising the minimum wage.

Career Gap

The last question before the lightning round addressed the disparities between African American and white unemployment in Minneapolis. The most concrete answers came from Don Samuels, who mentioned his initiative with Council member Elizabeth Glidden to “ban the box” and prohibit employers from asking potential employees about their previous offenses, and Thomas’s suggestion to provide incentives for employers to hire “outside the norms”.

Lightning Round 

The lightning round was fun, and it revealed a couple of important points. First, the ranked choice voting system, all the candidates agree, has turned the campaign away from personal attacks. Also, only one candidate, Gary Schiff, promised to abide by the DFL endorsement. Andrew, Hodges and Cherryhomes gave an “I will, but we’ll see what everybody else is doing” answer, with Samuels, Winton and Thomas saying they’d stay in the race regardless.