Seizing center stage

A profile of Ralph Remington: actor, activist, politician

He wears a big grin, carries plenty of quick quips and has a contagious, bellowing laugh.

But behind Ralph Remington’s jovial personality is an earnest desire to make a difference. It’s a yearning for change he developed as a child and carried throughout his life as an outspoken activist, actor, theater director and politician.

The rookie 10th Ward Minneapolis City Council member’s colorful past comes full circle at City Hall, where he brazenly speaks his mind and stands firm in the face of opposition, even if his vote stands alone. In his words, “I don’t scare easy.”

During his first year as an elected official, Remington hasn’t held anything back. In short order, he’s turned out to be one of the most vocal and controversial city representatives.

“I view politics as a passionate occupation,” he told his colleagues at a recent meeting.

He drew public attention last year for his lone stance against the appointment of Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and his confrontation with members of the police union.

Remington also got people talking when he engaged the Southwest community in the creation of the small area land-use plan for Uptown. The plan is in the works during a period of intense development and uncertainty surrounding the future of the area.

Not everyone is pleased with Remington’s leadership style, however.

Some question whether he has followed through with his campaign slogan: “I will bring your voice into the room.”

But Remington, a self-proclaimed populist on most issues, said his campaign promises are his priority and he has much to do in his ward, though he is also considering a run for mayor.

He delights in the immediate changes municipal leaders can bring about in a community and said he intends to make passionate politics his long-term occupation.

“I think he’s found his stage in another location,” said Noel Raymond, one of Remington’s former theater colleagues. “He has a whole new venue to showcase what he’s good at.”

Two hats

“In this job, you’re working for the city and the people,” Remington said of his role on the Council. “You’re wearing both hats all the time, and that’s the hardest part.”

Serving a broad range of constituents while keeping an eye trained on voluminous city regulations (especially development rules), has proved challenging for Remington, he said. The learning curve has been steep and he’s still trying to get up it, he said.

At Council meetings, the largest roadblock has been splitting hairs over issues, he said.

“We’ve got a bunch of Democrats and a Green guy,” Remington said. “Sometimes its harder than fighting someone who is diametrically against you.”

Remington takes a brasher approach to Council meetings than most of his colleagues. He said he takes a holistic approach to each issue and keeps an open mind, but if he feels strongly about something, he brings out his drama voice and doesn’t hesitate to get personal with his colleagues.

When Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said at the Council’s Feb. 23 meeting that he opposed allowing a resident in Remington’s Ward to have a greater amount of impervious surface on his yard than permitted by zoning, Remington showed his fire.

“In the future, if any chair wants to go against me about something in my ward, I would appreciate a heads-up,” Remington said.

Remington’s former aide and campaign manager Lisa Miller called such outbursts “oh my God moments” that Midwesterners might not be accustomed to, but said reason follows Remington’s passion.

“He’s not afraid to say what he’s thinking and that makes us uncomfortable sometimes,” Miller said. “But it starts something.”

Council President Barbara Johnson (4th Ward) said Remington’s aggressive style doesn’t keep him from interacting with other council members. “I’ve always felt I could disagree with him and have a conversation with him the next minute,” she said.

One of the issues pitting Remington against Johnson and the rest of the Council was the appointment of Police Chief Tim Dolan. Remington was concerned that the selection process was not thorough enough.

But his vote against the chief’s appointment hasn’t hindered his relationship with Dolan, who said he feels comfortable working with the council member.

Remington also raised eyebrows when he held a press conference to announce that he felt threatened by members of the Minneapolis Police Federation, which supported him during his campaign. That relationship is still rocky.

“Ralph seemed very pro-policy, pro-public safety and very willing to work with us,” said Federation President John Delmonico. “Clearly that isn’t the case.”

Both Remington and Delmonico said they wanted to improve their relationship, but pointed fingers at each other when offering reasons for a lull in communication.

Remington’s conflict with the police union, his solo stance against Dolan and push for reforms to the Civilian Review Authority, which evaluates complaints against police officers, earned him points with some members of the black community. But most of that community is outside his ward.

“I’m elected in an 80 percent white Ward and I’m African American,” Remington said. “That puts me in a unique position.”

He said he doesn’t view himself as “the black man in the room,” noting that his race is only one identifier, but it’s a characteristic many in North Minneapolis are quick to relate to. Remington was elected in one of the whitest sections of Minneapolis during a period of increasing violence in the black community in the northern part of the city.

Council Member Don Samuels (5th Ward), who came under fire recently for comments he made about North High School, said Remington has been an ally on the North Side. But Remington said juggling priorities in the 10th Ward while reaching out to the North is challenging.

Ron Edwards, president of the Police Community Relations Council, which applauded and agreed with Remington’s stance against Dolan, said he wished Remington could do more for the black community, but understands the constraints of his job.

“Our most creative spokesperson resides in the 10th Ward and that’s a hell of a difficulty,” Edwards said.

Within his ward, Remington said he has tried to improve communication with residents by attending neighborhood meetings and hosting discussion sessions including weekly one-on-one meetings and monthly “Breakfast With Ralph” and “Happy Hour With Ralph” sessions. The happy hour session is a laid back affair at which Remington can be found in a flannel shirt and baseball hat, sipping a beer.

Remington said he’s a populist on most issues and tries to please as many of his constituents as possible, though he knows he won’t make everyone happy.

Sonja Hayden, president of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, said the council member hasn’t agreed with the organization on everything, such as the approval of plans for Mozaic, a large condominium and hotel project planned for the heart of Uptown, but he has listened.

Howard Verson, president of the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG), said the organization would like improved communication with Remington.

“Sometimes we have been in the dark about things,” he said.

During a CARAG meeting last year, Remington refused to answer questions about Lyndale Avenue construction asked by resident Gay Noble, who ran against him in the Council race.

The incident created tension between the council member and some CARAG residents, who have become less comfortable asking Remington questions.

“That was really based in political tension from the campaign,” Remington said about the incident.

The Lyndale Avenue issue was also to come up at a Council meeting, Remington said, and he told the neighborhood group he would have more time to address it there.

One of the most prominent issues in Remington’s Ward is development. He started the development of a land-use plan for Uptown last summer, instituted a moratorium on building height last fall and has been involved in numerous discussions with developers, city staff, residents and other stakeholders about various projects planned for the area of Southwest he represents.

Stuart Ackerberg, president of prominent Southwest development company The Ackerberg Group, said he didn’t know what to expect from Remington during the council member’s campaign, which touted “smart development.”

Ackerberg is currently involved in Mozaic and a project called Lake Calhoun City Apartments at West Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard.

“As long as a council member is open minded about development, that’s all I can ask for,” he said. “And Ralph delivered.”

Remington said he views every issue with an open mind. His parents brought him up that way.

Early activism

Remington was born Ralph Satterthwaite (pronounced sat-er-thwate) on Jan. 2, 1963 in West Philadelphia.

He later changed his name to Remington, the last name of a former girlfriend, to help his acting career. Remington is proud of the change and said “one of the most powerful things an African American can do is name themselves,” since many names in the culture were given by slave owners.

The new name surprised his parents, but if it meant success for their son, they supported it. The council member’s parents, Ralph and Sadie Satterthwaite, said they taught Remington and his two younger brothers to be the best at whatever they chose to do. It was a lesson Remington’s father learned during his career as an illustrator.

“I learned you don’t just have to be good, you have to be exceptionally good,” Ralph Satterthwaite said.

The Satterchwaite home was constantly abuzz with debate about politics, school, religion and other issues, Remington’s parents said. The couple taught their boys to question everything and always keep an open mind.

“I wanted my kids to stand up and face the world and whatever challenges came along,” Ralph Satterthwaite said.

Remington started asking questions early on. After reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in fourth grade, he protested celebrating Thanksgiving. “My mom made me, but I had a scowl on my face.”

In seventh grade, Remington organized his first demonstration when he rallied students against standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Support for the protest seemed strong initially, but when the time came to recite the pledge, only a handful of Remington’s classmates stayed in their seats. He and his followers were suspended.

“That was my first lesson in organizing.”

Inspired by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Remington also started a student newspaper during his middle school years. The paper served up stories about poor school conditions and juicy afterschool relationships between teachers, Remington remembered, laughing.

He went on to attend Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where he majored in drama and minored in dance. Still an activist, Remington led a walkout because of poor quality books and materials and other student issues. The act led to the school’s first student elections, and Remington was elected President.

More walkouts and protests followed, and school conditions improved, Remington said. His brother, Eric Satterthwaite, 41, said he was amazed at Remington’s drive and ability to organize. Eric Satterthwaite guessed back then that his big brother would end up in politics.

“He would take on a cause in a minute,” he said. “And when all else failed, he would take it to the streets, literally.”

Ralph and Sadie Satterthwaite became accustomed to getting phone calls from school about their oldest son’s most recent demonstration, but they didn’t mind. An English teacher once told them not to kill his spirit, Sadie Satterthwaite said. They didn’t.

“You could see the greatness in him,” Sadie Satterthwaite said.

Remington also led students on marches for causes outside of school, such as obtaining affordable housing in Philadelphia. He remembers being called racial epithets, being hit with bottles and receiving little protection from police. His father warned him that trying to be a change maker could lead to an untimely death, Remington said.

“After I got used to the thought that the most anyone can take from me is my life, I was OK,” Remington said. “That set me free.”

Renaissance man

Since high school, Remington has worked numerous jobs in big cities throughout the country.

One of his earliest career goals was to become the first black president of the United States, his mother said.

“When he ran for the Council seat I said, ‘Boy, it looks like you might be on your way,’” she said.

Remington also aspired to be a preacher at one point and spoke from the pulpit a few times at the Baptist church his family attended. He surrounded himself with tapes of speeches by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and practiced delivering his own words, but he soon discovered that he was more interested in the politics of preaching.

For many years, Remington’s real passion was theater. He had been acting since he played Santa Claus in a second-grade school play.

Drama was his focus throughout high school, and he later earned a drama degree with concentration in acting and directing from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after graduating from college in 1984, he started acting with a children’s theater company, hoping to eventually start his own theater. Drama was directly linked to Remington’s constant desire to make change. He saw it as a medium he could use to reach people.

In his later acting years, Remington said he turned down what he called “shuck and jive” parts he thought negatively portrayed African Americans.

“I wanted to do something that meant something,” he said. “I wanted people to think more deeply about the society we live in.”

But he put his acting career and dream of starting a theater on hold for a while when he joined the Army in 1985.

“The more I learned about my country and dissent, the more I loved it and wanted to serve it,” he said.

Remington was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, where he worked as a multichannel communications equipment operator in a video van stationed in the forest.

Remington said his service comes in handy when speaking against the war in Iraq. He recently led his fellow council members in the passage of a resolution calling for an end to the conflict.

He also organized protests during the Gulf War in 1991 and was arrested for lying down in the middle of a busy New York street.

New York was his home for several years after his honorable discharge from the military. He returned from Germany with a fashion designer named Andrea Moseler, whom he had met during his stay. The two married in 1988, but the relationship was short-lived.

After several years spent acting for a New York theater company, Remington took a job in Minneapolis in 1991.

The new job was acting for Illusion Theater in a traveling show about AIDS awareness and prevention. When the tour ended, Remington applied for a position with a Minneapolis organization that, at the time, was named Pillsbury Neighborhood Services. It has since been renamed Pillsbury United Communities.

He was hired there to teach theater to at-risk teenagers and developmentally disabled adults, but the organization would eventually give him the opportunity to expand Pillsbury House Theater after less than a year on the job.

“Over time, as he was doing his work, he convinced his supervisors that the theater could play a larger role,” said Tony Wagner, president of Pillsbury United Communities. “We basically gave him the go-ahead.”

Wagner said theater was always part of the organization, but not on a professional level. By 1992, with Remington’s leadership and support from the Pillsbury staff, a $500,000 union theater was up and running.

“He has a very forceful personality,” Wagner said. “For some people, that’s difficult Š Personally, I like that kind of person, even though he drove me crazy sometimes.”

One former Pillsbury United Communities colleague attempted to file a restraining order against Remington after a dispute over the organization’s racism policy, but it was thrown out in court.

Noel Raymond, managing director of the theater, was hired as a program specialist under Remington and considered him a mentor. She said Remington pushed for huge, seemingly impossible and unaffordable projects, but somehow they came to fruition.

The performances were often racially charged and edgy, she said.

“He was about taking a subject matter that’s controversial and opening the door to communication,” Raymond said. “He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and challenge accepted practices and notions.”

Remington left Pillsbury House Theater in late 1999.

“I had done what I had set out to do. I felt it was time to explore the movie and television realm.”

So he moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of taking his career to the big screen as an actor and writer. He got an agent and did some acting, including an appearance as a prison guard in the television series “The Practice.” But he missed community theater and left L.A. in 2000 to pursue a different opportunity in St. Paul, where he was hired as executive director of the Media Artists Resource Center, an organization that supports independent media artists.

There, Remington engineered a merger with another organization called the Independent Feature Project. He and the director of the merged company agreed that only one of them was needed to operate the newly formed conglomerate, so Remington decided to pack his bags again.

He and current wife, Mary Remington, a massage therapist he met at a marketing expo in 2000 and married the same year, moved to Washington, D.C., where Remington was hired as artistic associate and director of community engagement at theaters Arena Stage and Living Stage.

In 2001, lingering divorce bills from his first marriage and debt from his days as a freelance actor and writer in L.A. caught up with Remington, and he filed for personal bankruptcy.

“Really, everybody in this life is up against it. Many are just one or two paychecks away [from financial ruin].”

Remington said he is disappointed by how bankruptcy is viewed as a crime and hopes to change that perception as an elected official.

Remington stayed in D.C. until 2002, when the theaters’ education budget was reduced, he said.

He returned to Los Angeles with Mary and started writing screenplays and looking again for acting roles. Whenever Remington worked as a freelance actor and writer, he tried to secure other work to pay the bills. He’s been a bartender, waiter, telemarketer and flight attendant.

In 2003, he got a job working in L.A. as a ticket agent for America West Airlines. The working conditions there appalled him, he said. Employees were forced to work long hours to keep their jobs and also faced unemployment for missing work because of illness, he said.

So Remington called in the Teamsters and unionized the ticket agents at America West.

“I couldn’t stand the fact that they were mistreating people,” Remington said. “I have a low tolerance for injustice. I just do. I can’t stand it.”

Remington and his wife made their last cross-country move in 2004, when he took a job with touring children’s theater Climb Theater in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

Then a few of the friends and colleagues started tapping him on the shoulder about the approaching Minneapolis City Council race.

Taking the political stage

Remington remembered the City Council in Philadelphia.

His memories weren’t fond.

“In those days, councilors actually got into fist fights,” he said. “There were fisticuffs on the floor.”

He thought if he were to get into politics, it would probably be on a national level. When Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone died, Remington was furious about Republican Norm Coleman taking the seat.

“I wanted to get that seat,” Remington said. “I was sick to my stomach that Coleman had that seat because of what happened to Wellstone. That was a travesty.”

But Remington, who lived in the 10th Ward where a Council seat was open, started looking into the possibility of running in the 2005 election. He attended Council meetings and liked what he saw.

“I could see the immediate impact of municipal politics,” Remington said. “You can make a decision on Friday and the change will be made on Monday. That’s amazing. That appealed to me.”

To learn more about how to be a politician, Remington signed up for Camp Wellstone, a training ground for progressive politics. Remington proved to be a powerful speaker at the camp, where he coined his campaign slogan: “I will bring your voice into the room.”

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) attended Camp Wellstone with Remington and recalled thunderous applause after his stump speech. “He was so purposeful,” she said. “He’s a really rousing person.”

Remington also met a graphic artist named Lisa Miller at the camp. Miller later became his campaign manager and, for a few months after the election, his aide. For no pay, Miller ran what turned out to be a successful campaign, with Remington winning the 10th Ward seat by a margin of 9 percent.

“I never stopped working for him, and I never thought he couldn’t win,” Miller said.

Neither did Mary Remington, who went door-to-door with her husband during the campaign. In a few instances, she remembers confronting individuals who were clearly uncomfortable speaking to a black man.

“There would be situations where people wouldn’t look him in the eye,” said Mary, who is white. “Some people wouldn’t open their door,” she said.

Those situations were rare but eye-opening, she said. Remington said he would expect such encounters in any part of the city.

His campaign focused on quality-of-life issues such as smart development, safe neighborhoods and efficient transportation. He also wanted to make his office more transparent and open to public input.

Future service

Running for mayor in 2009 has been on Remington’s mind lately. It’s early, but the council member said, “We live in the age of the eternal campaign.”

He said there’s also a possibility he’ll run for Ward 10 again.

Passionate politics is his long-term goal. “As long as the people will have me, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

The activist turned actor turned politician said he feels he’s in the right place. He sleeps well and doesn’t regret a thing.

“There are no accidents,” he said. “As a middle-aged man looking back; it’s been something else.”