Minneapolis City Council debates are generally polite, drowsy affairs. But Ward Five has a reputation for boisterous, even unruly, political discourse.
That might explain why more than 100 people showed up at the Capri Theater on Tuesday night to watch the five city council candidates debate the issues. Among those in the audience: state Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, Ward Four city council candidate Marcus Harcus and mayoral challenger Al Flowers.
Despite Ward Five’s reputation for fiery political rhetoric, the debate was generally civil and issues oriented. The focus was primarily on bread-and-butter concerns: crime, economic development, education and taxes.
“Change” was a theme frequently invoked by the four challengers. “We need a change in leadership,” said Kenya McKnight, a first-time candidate who is running as a Democrat. “You can’t get change if you keep re-electing the same people to the same offices.”
But incumbent Don Samuels, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate, insisted that the North Minneapolis ward has been well served by his leadership, citing a dramatic reduction in homicides in the area as evidence. “In the worst of times, with the economy being as bad as it has ever been since the Great Depression,” he said, “it is hard to believe that North Minneapolis continues to see growth and development and reduction in crime.”
Lennie Chism, who is also running as a Democrat, was easily the most aggressive in challenging Samuels. He repeatedly assailed the incumbent for his purported shortcomings. In response to a question about the achievement gap for minority students in Minneapolis’ public schools, for instance, Chism invoked the incumbent’s controversial remark in 2007 about wanting to “burn down” North High School.
“I’m of the belief that if I said I wanted to burn down Eden Prairie or Wayzata or any of those places, I would have to go,” Chism said. “Our community is being told that we should not even have a building.”
He then resorted to a naked appeal to North Side pride. “We won a couple championships with North High,” he said. “It is the pride of our community.”
Samuels acknowledged regret for the statement. “I think I’ve apologized over and over for that statement,” he said. But he went on to argue that his rhetorical gaffe is being used as an excuse to not seriously address the achievement gap.
“I am passionate about the young people in our community,” Samuels said. “If they’re not learning, we as adults are failing them. And we must stop the nonsense now!”
Police misconduct was a topic that came up often. McKnight suggested that the city’s budget woes wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t repeatedly paying out money to settle civil-rights lawsuits. “The residents of North Minneapolis feel like there’s a shakedown,” she said.
McKnight also came up with a novel answer to the question of whether police chief Tim Dolan should be retained. She called for the return of the prior chief, William McManus. Of course, McManus left his post in Minneapolis three years ago to helm the police department in San Antonio and isn’t likely looking to get his old job back.
It’s often been suggested in recent years that the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department be eliminated and that the state take over responsibility for investigating discrimination claims. But that cost-saving proposal didn’t find much support from the Ward Five candidates.
“Once you get to the Capitol you’re lost,” said Natalie Johnson Lee, another Democratic challenger. “We need to make sure that it remains right here in the city so that our neighborhoods can access it.”
Johnson Lee previously held the city council post, but lost to Samuels four years ago. She argued that the area’s residents were better served when she was at City Hall.
“After watching and seeing and observing, I had no choice but to put my hat in the ring to go back,” she said. “We need good representation for the city of Minneapolis. We need people who are compassionate for the people.”
Roberst Smithrud, who is running with support from the Republican and Independence parties, struggled to communicate his message. In response to a question about rising property taxes and declining property values, he spun himself into rhetorical collapse.
“Sorry, I’m not as prepared for this question as I thought I was,” he acknowledged. “I’m thinking that the best thing is to try and cut our expenses as best we can so that we have less need for the money.”
Even well-worn political clichés failed to rescue Smithrud. “It takes a town to raise a child,” he said in response to a question about education. “Or it takes a city to raise a child. It takes a group of people. I can’t remember the old phrase.”
The audience responded with sympathetic applause.
Chism came up with the shortest answer of the night. When asked about his plans for bringing environmentally friendly policies to City Hall, he had this to say: “There isn’t but one type of green I want to bring to North Minneapolis.”
The final question of the night dealt with Minneapolis’ new instant-runoff voting system. The candidates were asked who they would recommend as their second choice. Despite the relatively civil tenor of the debate, all but one of them declined to endorse any of their rivals. Johnson Lee was the only candidate to offer support for a fellow challenger. Her second choice: McKnight.