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Candidates’ statement on 2009 election for mayor of Minneapolis
endorsed by Bill McGaughey, Papa John Kolstad, Al Flowers, Bob Carney, Dick Franson, John Charles Wilson
A recent Star Tribune article is headlined, “Low-key mayoral contest depressed Minneapolis turnout, officials say”. Only 45,964 persons cast votes in the 2009 city elections, the lowest since 1902. In contrast, 161,713 persons voted in the 1937 Minneapolis city election. Hubert Humphrey received 102,796 votes when he was elected mayor in 1947. When Sharon Sayles Belton was elected in 1993, the vote total was 103,846.
Admittedly, part of the reason for the low voter turnout may be election fatigue in the year after Barack Obama ran for President. That could not be helped. However, another reason may be, as the headline suggests, that Minneapolis voters were not excited by the race at the top of the ballot, the contest for mayor. It was said that the candidates besides Rybak were political nonentities, lacking both in campaign resources and public recognition. The voters felt there was no contest and, therefore, stayed home.
As Minneapolis mayoral candidates in 2009, we apologize for our low profiles to whomever might have been offended. At the same time, we declare that most of the ten candidates who ran for mayor against Rybak ran active, energetic, and sometimes creative campaigns. We raised serious issues, posted hundreds of lawn signs around the city, distributed thousands of pieces of literature, knocked on numerous doors, appeared at the candidate forums to which we were invited, maintained campaign websites, and otherwise carried out the normal functions of a political campaign. For all that effort we received, between us, about 27 percent of the vote, compared with Mayor Rybak’s 73 percent.
An explanation is required. Based on our perhaps incomplete information, we wish to present an analysis of the mayoral campaign in hopes that this may help produce better turnouts in the future. Apart from our own disappointing election results, the decreased participation in Minneapolis city elections to about 20 percent of eligible voters is a civic disgrace. The health of our democratic system of government depends on an informed citizenry being fully engaged in the election process.
Our first observation is that Minneapolis is basically a one-party town. In the last four years, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party has controlled both the Mayor’s office and twelve of the thirteen offices of City Council members; and this situation will continue into the next four years. Mayor R.T. Rybak was endorsed for re-election by the DFL party. In the races for City Council, all DFL incumbents were reelected and the three vacant positions were all won by DFL-endorsed candidates. Even though the DFL sample ballot arrived late for many voters, the party’s organization and legacy seemed strong enough to win most city elections, especially when voter turnout is low.
Our second observation is that, to win elections, candidates need to communicate with the voters. In a city the size of Minneapolis, it would be nearly impossible for a candidate to knock on the doors of all city residents, shake hands and talk with a significant number of voters, or meaningfully interact with them personally. Political campaigns need ways to amplify the candidates’ message. This can be done at forums where audiences are assembled to hear the candidates speak; or, more effectively, through coverage in the news media. The Star Tribune, for instance, has a paid circulation of over a half-million readers for its Sunday edition. It would take years of campaigning to reach all the people personally who are reached by articles in this newspaper.
In today’s political campaigns, candidate forums and debates are a principal source of information for voters about candidates and their issues because they attract media coverage. There were four forums this year involving all or most of the Minneapolis mayoral candidates: one on August 19th sponsored by Metro Property Rights Action Committee, one on September 19th sponsored by the Waite Park Community Council, one on October 7th sponsored jointly by the Independent Business News Network and Mplsmirror.com, and one on October 29th sponsored by Harrison Neighborhood Association.
Additionally, the mayoral and other candidates were invited to appear at a meeting of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association on October 26th, at a gathering with senior citizens at Ebenezer Tower Apartments on October 27th, and at a meeting of the NAACP in the evening of October 27th. Finally, Minnesota Public Radio hosted a half-hour debate between Mayor Rybak and one of his opponents, Papa John Kolstad, on November 2nd.
Mayor Rybak was invited to participate in all these events. His campaign declined all invitations to events featuring the full set of candidates except for the relatively unpublicized meeting at the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. The event at Ebenezer Tower Apartments, in which Rybak also participated, did not include any candidate speeches but was instead an opportunity for candidates to meet with Towers residents informally. The debate on MPR did not have a live audience. It included only Rybak and one other candidate.
Because Rybak did not participate in most candidate forums, the media had limited interest in the race for mayor. Neither the Star Tribune, nor any commercial radio or television station, nor any community newspaper gave coverage to the mayoral forums. The debates sponsored by Metro Property Rights Action Committee and by the Independent Business News Network and Mplsmirror.com were videotaped and shown on MTN (Minneapolis Telecommunications Network), the Minneapolis public-access channel. Mplsmirror.com reported the latter event and provided a link to the debate itself. The November 2nd debate between Rybak and Kolstad was, of course, broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio and was also reported in the Star Tribune newspaper.
The big disappointment was that the Minneapolis chapter of the League of Women Voters failed to sponsor any debates between the mayoral candidates, citing lack of resources. It did, however, sponsor debates in several City Council races and in races for membership on the independent boards. It was also linked to a mailing by a group that favored abolishing the Board of Estimate and Taxation (which Rybak also favored). Even when a moderator was found for a possible debate, the League demurred.
The relative lack of campaign coverage forced the non-Rybak candidates to seek creative ways of gaining publicity. Bob Carney produced humorous documentaries about trying to locate the elusive mayor in a series of videos titled “R.T. and me”, reminiscent of Michael Moore’s effort in the 1980s to find the chairman of General Motors. Among other things, his search turned up the fact that the published address of Rybak’s campaign was a UPS box on Hennepin Avenue. The videos were posted on Carney’s own website.
Carney and other mayoral candidates also staged press conferences in the atrium of Minneapolis City Hall to call attention to the lack of debates and to the lack of internal auditors to check Minneapolis city government. KMSP-TV covered the former event; and the Star Tribune, the latter. Finally, four mayoral candidates sang patriotic songs on the plaza of the Hennepin County Government Center, across the light-rail tracks from City Hall, at noon on November 2nd. KSTP-TV and Minneapolis Public Radio covered that event. The Star Tribune ran a large photo of the singers in the Metro Section on the following day.
Otherwise, the large commercial media published or broadcast news reports that tended to depress interest in the mayoral race. Their reports emphasized two themes: First, Mayor Rybak was said to be so far ahead of the other candidates in fundraising and public acceptance that the election campaign was effectively over. The result was a foregone conclusion. (Why, then, bother to vote?) Second, some of the other mayoral candidates besides Rybak were presented as ridiculous figures who were either running for office as a lark or because of pathetic personal delusions. While the ridiculing reports centered on one or two individuals vulnerable to such labeling, they tended to taint the entire group of challengers as members of a lunatic fringe.
A report that aired on KSTP-TV’s local news program on the evening of September 25, 2009, illustrates the first type of coverage. The report was about the mayor’s races in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where both incumbent mayors were reported to be far ahead of their challengers. A college professor of political science (an authority figure) was quoted to the effect that the two incumbent mayors were virtually certain to be re-elected. In the Minneapolis race, Al Flowers was the only challenger mentioned; what audiences needed to know about him was that he had less than $1 left in his campaign fund, compared with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Rybak had.
When KSTP-TV covered the singing event on November 2nd, the segment that aired on its late-afternoon news show again stressed how little money these singing candidates had raised to fund their campaigns. The two candidates who had spent less than $100 were quoted in the aired report while the other two, who had spent $900 and $14,000, were not. Viewers were left with the impression of candidates who had done little since they filed for mayor in July. They were “desperate for attention”, the report said.
An example of the second type of coverage is a column by Jon Tevlin that appeared in the Star Tribune on October 14, 2009, titled “22-year-old’s mayoral bid rests totally on awesomeness.” After taking a swipe at several of the minor candidates, the column focused on the whimsical campaign of Joey Lombard, a 22-year-old musician who had used the title, “is awesome”, to identify his political orientation. Much of the column concerned attitudes toward his running for Mayor by Lombard’s parents (who first thought it was a joke and then warmed up to the idea) and by his girl friend (who dumped him.)
This was an amusing article from a certain point of view but not flattering to the group of this year's less-known candidates. Lombard himself, who received 439 votes in the election, was probably helped by the coverage; he finished ahead of four other candidates with serious messages. The column’s net effect, however, was to reinforce the image of the candidates challenging Rybak as a collection of goofs and oddballs who could not be taken seriously as mayoral candidates. (At his election-night victory party, Mayor Rybak was asked who was his second choice for mayor in the Ranked Choice Voting. “Let’s just say they were awesome,” he responded. The whole election seemed to be a joke.)
Still another theme in news reporting of the mayoral campaign was that the significant fact of this year’s election was that Ranked Choice Voting would be used for the first time, not that Minneapolis voters would be choosing a mayor for the next four years. Under such cover, the media “covered” the city elections hardly mentioning any candidates running for office.
An example of this was an hour-long program that aired on radio station KFAI-FM on October 14, 2009 on “Truth to Tell”, titled “City Elections 2009”. The program was about Ranked Choice Voting and the proposal to abolish the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Former Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser and former City Council member Joan Niemiec were guests on that program but none of this year’s candidates for city offices.
Two weeks later, on October 28, “Truth to Tell” did a show titled “Candidates in Review” pertaining to the Minneapolis mayor’s race. Again there were no candidates but a panel of local journalists who were supposed to discuss, among other things, “Does Mayor R.T. Rybak face any serious competition?” Evidently not. Judging from the election-day article produced by a publication represented on this panel, the verdict may have been that the mayoral election this year was pretty much a lark.
Those who wielded journalistic megaphones were thus able to overpower the message of individual candidates and shape the image that the voting public had of the mayoral contest. The type of coverage they chose to give the campaign probably decided the election. Mayor Rybak, a media savvy politician who used to be a newspaper reporter and publisher of an alternative newspaper, won by a landslide. At the same time, the lack of a real contest for mayor has left a sour taste in many people’s minds, especially since Rybak announced his candidacy for Governor of Minnesota three days after winning the mayoral election.
We are left, therefore, with no uncertainty in the election results but lingering questions as to what went wrong from the perspective of the losing candidates and also, I would add, of public-spirited citizens who deplore the poor voter turnout. It may therefore be useful to identify both the positive and negative elements in this election.
First, it should be said that one of the most positive aspects of this campaign, from our point of view, was that the “minor” (non-Rybak) candidates developed a spirit of camaraderie in the later phase of the campaign as we faced a common challenge. Unlike some political campaigns, we did not attack each other or try to gain an advantage over our fellow candidates. Instead, our goal - elusive as it turned out - was to try to stop Rybak from achieving a majority of First Choice votes. We coined a term, the “insurgency”, to describe what we were trying to do.
It may be that the new Ranked Choice Voting system contributed in part to the cooperative attitude between candidates; but a more important factor may be the character of the candidates themselves, if we may say so ourselves. The “insurgent” spirit became most evident during the event at Harrison Neighborhood Association on October 29 when the mayoral candidates, chafing under a time shortage and overly tight rules, took the debate into their own hands.
With respect to candidate forums, those who sponsored such events deserve credit for keeping our democratic traditions alive. Those who have traditionally sponsored debates or forums but did not do so in this case deserve criticism, especially the Minneapolis chapter of the League of Women Voters.
It is fair to say that Mayor Rybak himself, even though the “Rose Garden” strategy of appearing to be above the political fray gained him easy re-election, did a disservice to the democratic process in his refusing to debate the full group of mayoral opponents. In declining invitations to appear at candidate forums, he effectively shut the media out of those events. The commercial media may not have found it useful to cover forums that did not include the leading candidate. The mayor showed disrespect, not only to his campaign rivals, but to the people of Minneapolis in running for an office which he did not intend to keep if he was elected Governor of Minnesota next year. Judging from the election results, city voters did not seem to mind.
With respect to the print media, a positive aspect of the campaign was the fact that the Star Tribune editorial board invited all the mayoral candidates to present their views at meetings held on October 21st and October 22nd. While the editorial which appeared in the paper on Sunday, October 25th, endorsed Rybak’s re-election with the comment that “none of Rybak’s opponents is prepared to be mayor” and while the editorial cast dubious aspersions on three candidates’ claim of deficiencies in internal auditing, it was generally issues-oriented and even conceded that the insurgent candidates had some good ideas. Also, the Star Tribune editorial page gave lesser-known candidates an opportunity to present further views in a Counterpoint feature published several days later.
With respect to news reporting, a low point was reached early in the campaign when the Star Tribune reported a scandal involving mayoral candidate Al Flowers that concerned an unpaid water bill and condemnation of his home. Another article about alleged marijuana possession appeared two months later. Both scandals were later found to amount to nothing, but readers were inadequately informed of that fact. The original accusations were prominently positioned in the Metro section; the exonerating developments, buried in the back pages.
The reporting improved from our perspective when an article appeared on how Mayor Rybak was ducking campaign appearances with the other candidates, citing scheduling conflicts when the mayor was actually engaged in other campaign work. Another Star Tribune article that was directed at issues rather than personalities concerned candidate claims of deficiencies with respect to the internal auditing function. This, too, was a positive development.
With respect to coverage by community newspapers, the Minnesota Daily, a student-run newspaper at the University of Minnesota, provided perhaps the most thorough reporting of the mayor’s race although it was selective in the candidates covered. Southwest Journal and the Downtowner provided thumb-nail descriptions of the mayoral candidates and their positions. City Pages, NorthNews, and perhaps other newspapers included little or no coverage of the mayor’s race although some other races were covered. Southside Pride had a semi-humorous column on this race shortly after the candidates filed but we lack knowledge of further coverage.
Hill and Lake Press sent questions to the mayoral and other candidates but published responses from the mayoral candidates on line, excluding them from the printed newspaper. Responses from candidates for other offices appeared in the printed newspaper.
With respect to the electronic media, the best coverage was that provided by KMSP-TV (Fox News) when it covered a press conference held by the insurgent candidates at Minneapolis City Hall on October 20th, stressing the mayor’s refusal to debate his opponents. KSTP-TV (ABC affiliate) also covered the mayor’s race, although its coverage of candidates challenging Rybak’s re-election was generally negative. The other two commercial television stations, WCCO-TV (CBS) and KARE-TV (NBC), were missing in action.
The community radio station, KFAI-FM, gave each mayoral candidate two minutes of air time in October. Candidate John Charles Wilson was interviewed once on KSTP-AM. Other than this, we know of no other radio stations covering the Minneapolis mayor’s race.
A more positive influence on this year’s race was Minneapolis Telecommunications Network which gave each candidate a chance to produce his own show for a modest fee. Additionally, this public-access station hosted a major debate in studio and aired the Property Rights debate (to which all candidates were invited) held at another location. The Minneapolis e-democracy forum provided an opportunity for all the candidates to communicate directly with its 1,100 subscribers via email.
Electronic newspapers also played a role in the campaign. The most thorough coverage was given by Mplsmirror.com, which not only co-hosted a debate but featured frequent news coverage and allowed candidates to make personal statements on videos linked to this site.
A less constructive role was played by MinnPost.com whose election-day posting ridiculed one of the minor candidates. A national blog called “Boing-Boing”, also up on election day, featured an article in the same vein. (It elicited more than a few chuckles among subscribers to the Minneapolis e-democracy forum.) Minnesotaindependent.com chose to feature Lombard, the “awesome” candidate, in its election-day article.
MinnPost.com did run a serious article earlier about candidate Bob Carney’s proposal for a “Sky-bi” transit network in Minneapolis. However, Mplsmirror.com was clearly the leader in news coverage given to the 2009 Minneapolis mayoral campaign.
The neighborhood associations of Waite Park and Harrison are to be applauded for hosting candidate forums although, in Harrison’s case, the paid facilitator mismanaged the time allowed for the mayoral and Fifth Ward council events. Metro Property Rights Action Committee and Independent Business News Network should also be commended for hosting mayoral debates.