Voters in Minneapolis’ Ward Nine would be justified in feeling a sense of déjà vu as they scan lawn signs this fall — or when they are handed their ballots on Election Day, Nov. 3. This year’s contest for city council features a rematch between incumbent DFLer Gary Schiff and his Green Party challenger from 2005, Dave Bicking.
A third candidate, Todd Eberhardy of the Independence Party, adds a fresh face to the race and something new to the Minneapolis campaign season: He is likely the only candidate in the city who can print his own lawn signs. Like Bicking, who owns a one-man car-repair shop, Eberhardy has a small business: a sign company.
As for Schiff, last year he was mulling a run for mayor if R.T. Rybak didn’t run again. But Rybak is running for re-election this year (and, it seems, for governor in 2010), so Schiff is seeking a third term representing Ward Nine in south Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, Bicking has gained name recognition since his run last time — in part due to his daughter, Monica, being one of the RNC8 activists who were pre-emptively arrested before the 2008 Republican National Convention and charged with terrorism.
For father and daughter, it used to be the other way around: Monica would complain that everybody seemed to know her from her dad’s activism and campaigning, but she didn’t know who they were. Now, with the RNC8 defendants still in the news as they await trial a year after their arrests, Dave Bicking says he is getting used to people saying, “Oh, you’re Monica Bicking’s dad.”
Shades of 2005
It was also a three-way race in 2005, when Schiff won with 59 percent of the vote to Bicking’s 30 percent. Dave Shegstad, a third-place finisher in the primary that year, mounted a write-in campaign for the general election under the slogan “Smoke Out Gary” (a slam on Schiff for his backing of the city’s anti-smoking ordinance) and drew 10 percent.
This year, Sept. 15 is technically the city’s primary election day, but it will pass without an election and without winnowing the field. That’s because the city’s new system of instant runoff voting (IRV) eliminates the need for a separate primary election. Even DFLer Khalif Jama, who decided not to mount a campaign in Ward Nine and tried to withdraw from the race after the deadline to do so, will last past September.
For Minneapolis voters, it will be their first time using IRV since they approved it by ballot referendum in 2006. The new system means voters will rank their choices among the candidates in each race. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the first-place votes, the second-rank votes of the lowest-placing candidates will be distributed among the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until one candidate can claim the votes from more than half the ballots cast.
That’s gone some way toward Schiff’s challengers replacing competition with a measure of cooperation. In 2005 the primary forced Bicking and Shegstad to battle each other for a place on the general-election ballot.
This year, Bicking and Eberhardy have rubbed shoulders at gatherings of candidates who call themselves “Unified Insurgents,” and Bicking wants the supporters of each to rank the other as second choice. Eberhardy’s game but says some of his supporters won’t do it.
A progressive patch
Ward Nine has some of the most Democratic-voting precincts in the state, judging by ballot-box support for Barack Obama last year that reached into the 90-percent range, and the percentages backing U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (in the 80s) and Al Franken (in the 70s).
Greens can fare well there too. In 2005, the Green Party’s Annie Young, an at-large park commissioner, garnered the most votes in eight of the ward’s 11 precincts.
It’s also a politically aware place, with the highest rate of voter-turnout (73 percent) among wards in the central part of the city.
Bicking calls Ward Nine “very progressive” — a term he voluntarily applies to Schiff as well. Schiff is “one of the better council members,” Bicking says, as well as “one of the most progressive.” (Schiff’s resume includes work for the organization once known as Progressive Minnesota (now TakeAction Minnesota).
Schiff is also one of the council members who most frequently votes with Cam Gordon, the only Green Party council member and the only Green office-holder in Minneapolis besides Young.
Bicking touts his own progressive activism on international, national and local issues dating back to opposition to the war in Vietnam. He links problems that extend far beyond ward boundaries, like the United States’ pace-setting rate of incarcerating its citizens, to local efforts like restorative justice.
Eberhardy isn’t convinced the ward is the progressive bastion it’s cracked up to be. “It’s not too liberal of a ward, from people I’ve talked to,” he said. He finds people respond to his gripes about slack city services, lack of support for small businesses, and fee hikes and tax increases.
Taxes, et cetera
On that last point, Schiff agrees. “The biggest issue is property taxes” for Ward Nine voters, he says. “It’s a problem the city’s going to have moving forward.” In contrast, he points to crime trending down and progress on populating homes made vacant by the foreclosure crisis, which he acknowledges has hit the ward hard.
(Eberhardy says he’s living proof such properties can turn around: He lives in a formerly condemned house that his renovation “saved from the wrecking ball” 14 years ago.)
For Schiff, a key indicator about the ward is one word — “quiet” — that he says he hears from a variety of quarters, including from parents no longer afraid to send their sons and daughters to the corner store for milk because drug-sellers no longer hang around.
But Eberhardy and Bicking both question how long that corner store will hang on, in a city that they see as unsupportive of small business. Expensive assessments, for example, are especially grating when an urban makeover is ill-suited to the area.
“East Lake Street is not Eat Street,” Bicking says of the ward’s main thoroughfare that got a recent re-do but in his view still lacks the pedestrian cachet of restaurant-themed Nicollet Avenue. It’s unlikely, he says, that “while I’m waiting to have my heavy equipment serviced at Peterson’s, I’ll go across the street and have my cat neutered.”
Eberhardy, who also drives a school bus, only has to look down at the city’s streets for a reminder of what inspired him to seek elective office for the first time. He sees “potholes that have been there all summer” and clogged gutters that he recalls being clean when he was growing up in the ward. He’s not fond of new fees like the one for stormwater runoff. “They charge extra money to drain the water and then they can’t drain it,” he says.
The fall campaign
Bicking and Eberhardy will have to take a much bigger bite out of Schiff’s support even to send IRV ballot counting to a second round in which one or the other might hope to sweep past the incumbent on the strength of second-choice votes.
Schiff says he keeps up his door-knocking every night — even if he hasn’t kept up his campaign website since last spring. Bicking has updated his site, expanding beyond the issues of police accountability and stadium subsidies he ran on last time, and has closed up his repair shop for a month to devote more time to the race.
Eberhardy doesn’t have a campaign website or, he confesses, many resources. “Money for campaigning, I don’t have any,” he says. “Volunteers are far and few between.” A demanding work schedule doesn’t afford him many leisure hours, but he says, “All my free time goes into the campaign.”
This is the second in a 13-part series on Minneapolis City Council races to run every Monday and Friday, now through Oct. 16. On Friday, Ward 10.
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