Just before the 2001 DFL city convention, the Star Tribune headline read that Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton would get the party nod "barring a convention shocker."
Political novice R.T. Rybak provided the shock. He campaigned against airport noise and public subsidies to large projects such as the Downtown Target and Block E. He promised a more open government with high ethical standards.
After four ballots, the convention adjourned without endorsing. Rybak led the mayor 49 percent to 48 percent. For Sayles Belton, it was the beginning of the end.
This year's DFL city convention is Saturday, May 14, pitting now-incumbent Mayor Rybak against party stalwart Peter McLaughlin, who hopes to provide his own convention surprise.
The endorsement brings party cash, volunteers and, perhaps most importantly, the perception of momentum. The road to the endorsement will be bruising.
Rybak enters the convention touting balanced budgets during difficult fiscal times, affordable housing gains and pushing bus rapid transit on I-35W, among other accomplishments.
He has support from the Sierra Club and a string of elected and former officials, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, six City Councilmembers and McLaughlin's two DFL County Board colleagues, Gail Dorfman and Mike Opat.
McLaughlin is no blank-slate novice: he has a political rsum spanning 20 years, including a stint in the State Legislature. As a County Boardmember, he is widely credited for his leadership on light rail transit and the Phillips Partnership, an effort to turn around the troubled South Minneapolis neighborhood.
He has Stonewall DFL backing (a gay, lesbian, bisexua,l transgendered and friends caucus). He also has four labor endorsements: Firefighters Local 82, AFSCME Council 5, Minnesota Drive (Teamsters) and Steelworkers Local 12103 - and labor is always well represented at a DFL convention.
A referendum on Rybak
The race appears less about McLaughlin's credentials than about Rybak's first term.
Rybak downplays differences between himself and his challenger while McLaughlin plays them up. Both focus on Rybak's record.
Rybak says he had made the best of a tough situation. He tackled state-aid cuts and city pension problems not of his making. He charted a course to repay internal borrowing debt passed on by the previous administration. He and the Council created five-year budgets to help make better long-term spending and taxing decisions. He warns of going back to the days of irresponsible spending that contributed to the current problem.
Rybak frames the contest as one over who has a more compelling vision for the next four years. He talks about replicating successful South side partnerships on the city's North side.
McLaughlin talks about improving public safety, building stronger neighborhoods and supporting education. He's played offense, using the metaphor of a city at a "crossroads." He criticizes the public safety cuts under the Rybak administration and says violent crime is rising.
Ask McLaughlin about city wage policies and whether he supports the current 2 percent salary cap, and he turns the discussion to Rybak, the 2001 convention, and what he calls Rybak's "Broken Promises Tour."
Rybak didn't keep his "holier-than-thou" promise not to hold fund-raisers in nonelection years, McLaughlin said. He adds that the mayor did not keep promises to oppose public funding for a stadium or to create 24-hour snow plowing.
At a recent debate, McLaughlin pressed Rybak to repay the city for a $42,000 glossy office newsletter mailed citywide at taxpayer expense. It highlighted the mayor's accomplishments; State Audtior Pat Anderson called the campaign "self-promotion," and Rybak later agreed to pay the city back $10,000 to compensate for the promotional aspects.
McLaughlin sent an e-mail to potential supporters April 22 titled, "On the level: McLaughlin for Mayor." It had four articles, all criticizing the mayor: "R.T. buys way out of political problem," "Mayor promotes a Band-aid solution to graffiti," "Do what he says, not what he does," and "Tired of style over substance?"
McLaughlin said when he tries to bring up differences between the two candidates, the Rybak campaign accuses him negative campaigning.
"He is trying to put me in a box" of not allowing any negative comments, McLaughlin said. "How did he [Rybak] get elected? He got elected by saying really negative things about the former DFL mayor, really negative things, over and over and over again."
Rybak said McLaughlin is lurching from one attack to the other each week.
"People don't want a nasty, negative campaign," Rybak said. "I was hoping this could be an uplifting campaign full of new ideas for the voters. I will continue to offer that. I am disappointed that is not how Peter McLaughlin has chosen to spend these past few months."
Rybak said McLaughlin focused on a small part of his record. The mayor said he promised not to accept campaign donations from people doing business with the city and to release all donors' names upon request, more than law requires and, Rybak added archly - more than McLaughlin has done.
Rybak said he also kept promises to add affordable housing and to "stand up against neighborhoods being turned into runways and freeways.
"I said I would reform the budget of this city. I delivered five balanced budgets and paid down $17 million in debt," he said. "Promise made, promise kept."
Regarding the specifics of McLaughlin's criticisms, the mayor said he held a New Year Eve fund-raiser in 2003 to have money to defend Council allies Barret Lane (13th Ward) and Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), who were being wrongly attacked, he said.
The city considered 24-hour snowplowing but crafted a different system, based on public input, he said.
The city ethics panel said the law regulating official newsletters was unclear and the panel did not require his campaign reimbursement. The Rybak campaign paints its $10,000 payback as holding itself to a higher standard.
Where's the money
When McLaughlin charges Rybak with underfunding police and fire services, Rybak fires back that McLaughlin is making campaign promises that "stretch from here to Cleveland." The mayor said McLaughlin owes it to the voters to present specific budget plans explaining how he would pay for more public safety.
McLaughlin proposed saving money by merging the city and county 911 centers, Rybak said. The city studied it, and it was a nonstarter. The Council rejected it.
McLaughlin has accused Rybak of leaving millions of dollars on the table in pension savings - money that could pay for more public safety. At least in the case of the Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund (MERF), Judy Johnson, its executive director, said she didn't find fault with the Rybak administration, and the mayor had dealt with the problem while the former administration let it languish.
Pressed on how he would pay for more police and fire, McLaughlin is vague: "We will work it through. There are ways to do that," he said.
"I don't have a comprehensive budget package here, but we will get one - I have made clear what my priorities are," McLaughlin said. "What you do is that you invite the firefighters to the table to figure out what ought to happen. The mayor didn't do that."
Stadium wild card
The new Twins Stadium proposal brings an old issue front and center in time for the convention. It is an issue that sparks strong voter reaction - the fact that stadium backers want to avoid a referendum speaks to its political volatility. The plan depends on a 0.15 percent countywide sales tax.
McLaughlin is part of the thin County Board majority supporting the sales tax.
Even before the latest stadium deal burst on the scene, McLaughlin criticized Rybak for breaking his 2001 promise on the stadium subsidy. As a candidate, Rybak ran against public subsidies to private corporations and benefited from the anti-subsidy position, McLaughlin said.
Yet shortly after getting elected, Rybak supported a ballpark plan with public money.
Rybak defends the postelection switch, saying the Twins faced contraction and St. Paul floated a competing stadium proposal, and the new circumstances forced him to "step up to the plate" on day one.
Jim Niland, an early Rybak supporter and 2001 city convention floor leader, is now backing McLaughlin. Niland, political director for AFSMCE Council 5, opposes the stadium subsidy and said he was upset with Rybak's switch.
Although McLaughlin supports the subsidy, Niland said he has more respect for someone who is up front about his position and sticks to it. (Rybak said he and Niland had a falling out because Niland wanted a job and Rybak couldn't deliver given the budget problems. Niland said the falling out was over policy, not a job offer.)
As for the current stadium plan, Rybak initially was not taking a position because the city did not have to take a vote, according to his staff. Interviewed April 30, Rybak said he supported the sales tax. He called it part of building a good community, like a Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center or the new Central Library project.
The stadium is not a priority, and he would prefer a regional sales tax pay for core services, Rybak said. "There isn't a big difference between Peter and I on this issue," he said. "If I was on the County Board, I would vote for it."
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