Archive for October 2009
My TC Daily Planet story, below:
Ward 5 City Council race: Candidates seek “change” for the North Side
BY ANNA PRATT, TC DAILY PLANET
October 22, 2009
A handful of years ago, Minneapolis Councilman Don Samuels had no intention of running for office. He worked from home designing toys, but neighbors pressed him, saying, “We’re not getting any attention. The community is falling apart, with gunshots every night. This is crazy. Don’t they care? Please go to City Hall and try to make a difference,” he told the audience at the recent city council debate in North Minneapolis’s Fifth Ward.
DFL-backed Samuels, who has four challengers, believes that he has made a positive difference on the North Side, which he says is in an era of “change,” the night’s buzzword, while others called for new leadership.
Despite such differences in opinion, the debate, which took place on the thrust stage of the historic Capri Theater on October 13, was surprisingly drama-free. Candidates spoke passionately and at times criticized the current City Council and Samuels, but not with the same level of intensity that has characterized so many other ward meetings. Five people are eyeing the council seat, as a result of the city’s newly installed Instant Runoff Voting system, which lets voters pick their first, second and third-place candidates, as MPR explains here. Previously, a primary election would’ve whittled down the competition.
Each candidate had two minutes to respond to questions, which centered on revitalization of the impoverished North Side, in addition to citywide challenges, such as the budget, schools, taxes and public safety. The forum drew more than 100 people, including state Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, mayoral candidate Al Flowers and Fourth Ward candidate Marcus Harcus.
A new era for the North Side
Samuels emphasized redevelopments that have taken place on the North Side under his watch, some of which have garnered national attention. The recently rehabbed Capri, where in 1979 pop icon Prince debuted “represents the new direction the North Side is moving in … and momentum for change,” he said.
West Broadway Avenue has the only commercial district in the country that is “unabated by the foreclosure crisis or the downturn in our economy, which is the worst since the Great Depression,” he said. Millions of dollars are already planned to go to heal foreclosures and seed redevelopment on the North Side. In Heritage Park, two developments, including a new senior wellness center and senior housing facility, will be a boon to the local economy. “We will get dollars coming to us no matter what the economic environment is,” he expressed with emotion.
He also touted dramatic reductions in crime. This year, there are 75 fewer homicides in the area compared to when he stepped into office in 2006, which saves the city millions of dollars. About $3 million goes to reacting to every homicide, he said. To prevent police brutality, he supported the purchase of video cameras and tasers containing video cameras, which record what officers are up to. Samuels said he believes that Police Chief Tim Dolan, who has fired more officers in two years than both of his predecessors, is doing a good job, despite “a few significant mistakes. He’s trying to balance the unions and the community,” he said.
Former City Council member Natalie Johnson-Lee, who was defeated by Samuels in 2005 after he was redistricted from the third ward to the fifth was previously endorsed by the Green Party and is returning to the race as a Democrat. Johnson-Lee, who is the executive director of Minnesota African /African-American Tobacco Education Network, doesn’t support Chief Dolan, but she agreed that officers who act out need to be fired.
Highlighting her experience living and working in the community, she claimed that she would be an advocate for the North Side. To get more funding, she suggested looking to the federal government, enforcing minority contracting goals and distributing tax resources equitably. She said she would work with city departments to identify expenses that could be slashed.
To address the racial achievement gap in schools, children need to be encouraged to pursue post-secondary education opportunities. Johnson-Lee, who is considered to be the only major challenger to Samuels, according to MPR, said she’s not re-entering the race lightly and is willing to speak her mind. She told the crowd that she stands for justice. “It’s your seat. I’ve seen what others have done. They sit in the seat and it becomes their seat,” she said.
‘Gimme my money’
Lennie Chism, an owner of commercial and residential real estate, also a Democrat, again and again made the point that small business, which he said built up the North Side, has been ignored in favor of growth in other parts of the city.
He wants to stop corruption in City Hall, which he claimed has stymied change on the North Side. In his view, the community needs to reclaim tax dollars. Dramatically he said, “I’m a voice. I’m different. I’m going in there and asking, gimme my money,” which elicited audience applause.
Chism, it’s worth noting here, is facing theft and domestic assault charges stemming from incidents with his girlfriend, Monika Shannon, who has also obtained a restraining order against him, as the Star Tribune reported. In the Star Tribune story, Chism said he had been set up by Shannon, who he called a “scorned woman.”
Chism blamed Samuels for the number of condemned houses being torn down on the North Side, describing it as a land-grab. He also held him responsible for development projects that don’t hire enough minority men who need to feed their families. (He didn’t mention female breadwinners.)
Chastising Samuels for a rhetorical comment he made in 2007 about burning down North High School, he remarked, “Someone wanted to burn down North High School,” he said. “If I said I wanted to burn down Eden Prairie or Wayzata [high schools], I’d have to go. We’re being told we can’t even have a building.”
Samuels responded that he has apologized over and over for the statement that was made in a heat of passion. As a demonstration of his care and concern, he forged a partnership between North High School and Coloplast, a medical company that made its headquarters this year in North Minneapolis, netting 800 jobs, he said.
Looking for a chance to lead
Democrat Kenya McKnight, who works for the Northside Economic Development Network, which expands existing efforts to develop new businesses by bringing together the resources of area organizations, according to its Web site, said she has been active on social and economic justice fronts.
She claimed that her youthfulness – she’s 32 – wouldn’t be a hindrance and that young people need to be given a chance to lead and not just be assistants. “We need to let young people design what their future looks like, with your support, guidance and wisdom,” she said, claiming that she ran a successful youth entrepreneur program this summer.
In answer to several questions, she repeatedly brought up that the police department and City Council have lost taxpayer money in various legal settlements. She wants to bring back former Police Chief William McManus, who took a job in 2006 leading the San Antonio, Texas police department.
Community members need to be informed and involved so that they can hold the city accountable, she said. In regards to balancing the budget, she acknowledged that she doesn’t have ready solutions. “I’m only getting a great deal of experience balancing my own fiscal life,” she said.
Roger Smithrud, who works in the Star Tribune’s mailroom, has support from the Independence Party and Republicans. Smithrud, who previously ran for the state House, hadn’t filed a campaign finance report as of October 18, nor had Chism, according to online Hennepin County records and McKnight was reportedly late doing so (required for campaigns that spend $100 or more).
Smithrud said he’s running because he believes that some of his neighbors have been unfairly targeted by city inspections, forcing them to move out. He thinks that many of the condemned houses that have been scheduled for demolition are restorable and could be beneficial to the community. Also, he sympathizes with those who are having a hard time making ends meet.
Veering off-topic at times, he often found himself searching for words and apologized for losing track of questions. About closing the achievement gap, he called for new ways of teaching, trailing off with, “It takes a town to raise a child, or a city. It takes a group of people. I can’t remember the old phrase.”
At the end of the forum, four of the candidates declined to offer a second choice for City Council under the belief that it would be self-defeating under the new system to do so. Johnson-Lee said, however, said she’d throw her support behind McKnight, who she has helped train as a leader, asserting, “I’m a person of my word.”
Samuels, however, had the last word, which seemed to effectively wrap up the circumstances on the North Side: “If we want developers and contractors to come in and do justice in our community, we’ve got to be diplomatic and fair and strong,” he said. “That’s the kind of leadership this community needs.”
My story in the TC Daily Planet, below:
Minneapolis mayoral candidate Al Flowers files lawsuit, denies having pot
BY ANNA PRATT, TC DAILY PLANET
October 11, 2009
Minneapolis mayoral candidate Al Flowers filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County on Wednesday, Oct. 7, alleging that authorities set him up when he was recently cited for marijuana possession in conjunction with a search warrant investigation at a Crips gang member’s Edina home. He denies having pot, saying that cops on the scene construed it that way, while also stealing property from him and violating his constitutional rights.
In the 11-page complaint, he goes so far as to question the validity of the search warrant, because of the role of a confidential reliable informant (CRI) in the investigation, criticizing them as “criminals themselves” who often provide bad information. Further, he says the court schedule won’t permit him to clear his name before the November election.
Flowers, who is one of 10 people running against Mayor R.T. Rybak, was present when the Hennepin County Violent Offenders Taskforce (VOTF) conducted a surprise search warrant at the Edina home of Crips gang member Brandon Michael Wilson at 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 23, according to the warrant and Hennepin County Sheriff’s spokesperson, Lisa Kiava, who said she couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
According to the warrant, and the county sheriff’s office, Wilson had been selling cocaine and large amounts of marijuana. It also states that he’d been arrested seven times for narcotics violations, mostly crack cocaine, including sale to an undercover officer. Wilson had also been arrested once for a handgun-involved assault, it continues, and four times for domestic assault. A Dakota County complaint separately shows two pending fifth-degree felony drug charges against Wilson.
Wilson was arrested and booked in the Hennepin County jail based on “probable cause” for weapons violations, Kiava said. In Flowers’ case, she said that the courts would decide whether to fine him. State statute dictates that the fine could run from $128 to $300, but it fluctuates, Kiava explained, adding that the amount could be less. As for the circumstances surrounding Flowers being “physically there,” when VOTF executed the warrant at the home, she said she didn’t have any other details about his relationship with Wilson. “[Flowers] wasn’t the target of the search,” said Kiava.
At the home, officers found mailings for Flowers, along with his wallet, ID and an advertisement for him, according to the warrant receipt. (A baggie with marijuana “blunts” was found in the same bedroom as one of the mailings, it states.) Other baggies of marijuana, miscellaneous gang photos, a handgun, digital gram scale, $860 cash and more, was listed.
In his press release and complaint, which names Hennepin County Deputy Erik Fleck, Deputy Matt Lunde, Sergeant Joe Poidinger and five John Does, Flowers claims that officers took from him $240 and a laptop computer, but didn’t inventory that. “Law enforcement likely assumed the laptop computer contained campaign information. Law enforcement had no legitimate need for the laptop computer, or the Mayoral campaign information, or the $240,” the complaint reads.
He also states that he was ordered to put down his cell phone and that it was later “”found” in a certain room in order to support the implication that he was somehow connected to the marijuana.” Earlier this week, Flowers, who describes himself on his Web site as a community activist, father and small business owner, characterized the event as politically motivated, saying in another press release that “‘opponents of change’ would use every tactic under the sun to discredit our campaign and silence the many citizens who are demanding more from status quo politicians.”
In the press release, Flowers, who wants his property returned and $50,000-plus in damages, says that he’s suffered various forms of harassment, including the citation and having his home condemned, because he’s “running for Mayor on a platform of truth, and reform of law enforcement and other government.” The Star Tribune recently reported that Flowers paid $468.98 fine on a past-due water bill at the Southwest Minneapolis home he rented, which lifted a city condemnation order.
The Star Tribune adds that in 1999, he pleaded guilty to possessing a small amount of marijuana. His attorney is Jill Clark, who has represented him in other lawsuits, including against the city of Minneapolis and Councilman Don Samuels, as the Minnesota Independent mentions.
Calling these latest actions a smear campaign, he states, “with over 60 percent of us having some sort of trumped up charges filed against us by the police during our lifetimes, none of us would be able to enter the home of any friend or family member for fear of having some guilt-by-association accusation hurled at us by the police and drive-by media.”