Minneapolis mayoral candidates talk energy issues at environmental forum


On June 25, the day that President Obama unveiled his ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gases and focus his second-term agenda on fighting climate change, Minneapolis mayoral candidates faced off in an environmental forum at Washburn High School to debate the future of energy and transit in their city.

Unfortunately for the White House, Obama’s speech commanded little attention, playing second fiddle to breaking stories about the Supreme Court’s ruling that could undercut the Voting Rights Act and fugitive NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden’s whereabouts. In Minneapolis, too, the environment got short shrift as the green forum — which featured six mayoral candidates and was sponsored by the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society and other environmental groups — generated less excitement than previous debates.

Retired television news anchor Don Shelby, who moderated the green energy forum, lamented after concluding remarks that he wished the debate had been held in front of a packed-house at the Northrup Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. Instead, Tuesday night’s forum at Washburn attracted approximately 100, most of whom seemed to work in the environmental sector. The debate saw none of the fireworks that exploded between candidates and audience members during the One Minneapolis forum on race relations June 6, nor did it rival the raucous and inconclusive DFL nominating convention on June 15.

Shelby opened the forum by asking for a show of hands from candidates who believe in man-made climate change. DFLers Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels, and independents Cam Winton and Dan Cohen all raised their hands. But after that short-lived show of unanimity, some key environmental policy differences emerged during the 90-minute wonky policy-speak forum.

Right out of the gate, independent candidate and private-sector booster Cam Winton attacked DFLer Mark Andrew, and others, for their unequivocal support for publicly financed solar panels. Winton, who works for Duke Energy, which has Xcel Energy has a client, doesn’t believe the sun shines enough in Minneapolis to make solar panels viable. Winton instead called for a multi-pronged approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

Andrew, though, called for solar panels on all schools and public buildings. A former Hennepin County Commissioner who left office in 1999, Andrew founded the environmental marketing firm GreenMark in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire warnings. Andrew boasted that he was the only candidate with any environmental pedigree, and took much of the credit for the Minneapolis Hiawatha Light Rail line and the Midtown Greenway bike path.

Playing the role of outsiders attacking the insiders, Winton and Andrew each criticized current DFL City Council members Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels. Winton opposed the City Council’s approval of a plan that would fund part of a $200 million streetcar line through downtown and across the Mississippi River on the grounds that streetcars cost $40 million per mile, whereas buses cost only $2 million per mile. “Please show me your money tree,” he asked of Hodges and Samuels.

Andrew lambasted the City Council for failing to collaborate with other cities to reduce waste, and claimed that Minneapolis’ recycling effort has not gone forwards, but backwards.

Winton, who might call himself a Republican in a city that had more of that endangered species than Minneapolis, appealed to local government-private sector solutions such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), in which private businesses invest in energy efficiency and renewables and get repaid through property tax breaks. PACE has worked for businesses in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, he said.

“What works in Edina won’t work for all residents of our city,” candidate Jackie Cherryhomes responded. “Minneapolis needs to create green jobs.” Other candidates also bristled at the implication that what succeeds in affluent Edina would sell in Minneapolis. Neighborhoods with lower property values, they argued, would need more local government support.

“We must ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,’ ” Andrew said, quoting Chairman Mao (didn’t Nostradamus warn this might happen?) to say that green projects could be financed in multiple ways.

Hodges, who chairs the City Council’s budget committee, offered technocratic solutions to make Minneapolis more environmentally efficient, while standing up for light rail. “My goal is to make Minneapolis a city where you can live without a car,” she said. “Investors prefer rail over tires. When we make permanent investments in rail, businesses will make permanent investments around it.”

Hodges, who pointed out several times that she is the candidate endorsed by the Sierra Club, also added that she prepared for this debate by candlelight. Her home still doesn’t have power following last week’s mega storm.

Samuels, the city councilman from poverty-stricken North Minneapolis, lamented how the 19th Century era streetcars were abandoned during the post-World War II automobile boom, calling that “a shameful part of our history”. He advocated bringing them back, not just to reduce automobile usage but, using a somewhat convoluted argument, implying that fewer dimly lit bus stops would reduce crime.

In a nod to the unique plight of his district, Samuels claimed partial credit for the 100 green homes that Habitat for Humanity is building in North Minneapolis. “The worst tragedy would be if we became the greenest city (in the nation) with the largest (income) gap,” he said.

All candidates paid lip service to smart growth strategies that encourage walking, biking, public transit and concentrating new developments in high-density neighborhoods. Cherryhomes admitted that she drives too much, saying, “I’m an example of what doesn’t work well.” Dan Cohen, highlighting the advantages of urban apartments over single-family homes, offered this visual description: “People want to live vertically.”

Moderator Don Shelby asked the candidates whether they supported the idea of the city forming a public utility. Hodges answered that she was uncommitted, but that Xcel Energy, the city’s current supplier, should be pushed to increase its renewable energy standard to 10 percent. Samuels and Cherryhomes also wouldn’t commit.

Winton, who has business ties to Xcel, said the city should renew with Xcel in 2014 — but on a five-year basis, not a 20-year, contract — because “municipalizing” the city’s utility between now and next year would be all but impossible. Winton warned, however, that getting more energy from renewables will increase the price of energy, and not the other way around, as is often claimed in environmental circles.

Winton clashed with his fellow candidates on one final topic: What should be done about the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), a waste-to-energy facility in downtown Minneapolis that releases pollutants into the air. In the interest of families living “downwind”, Winton all but called for a moratorium on waste burning at HERC, adding that depositing trash in modernized, underground landfills would be superior.

He added a jab at Cherryhomes for her ties to Covanta Energy, which reached the unpopular conclusion that HERC’s emissions were “within acceptable limits”.

The event was co-sponsored by Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES) and the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA), along with MN350, the League of Women Voters, Windustry, Environment Minnesota, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Fresh Energy, the Will Steger Foundation, Cool Planet, Minneapolis Energy Options and the Citizens Climate Lobby.