Mayoral race enters final day

by Shira Kantor

It was their last chance.

After months of planning and campaigning, of tearing up each other’s plans for affordable housing and neighborhood improvement, of gnashing teeth over crime and downtown development, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and R.T. Rybak had at it for the last time in a Sunday evening Minnesota Public Radio-sponsored debate at the Minneapolis Central Library.

There were the usual questions and accusations about lack of experience and poor visibility, about style versus substance.

Rybak continued to sell himself as a precedent-setting new player on the field, while Sayles Belton touted her record – specifically in the arenas of crime and education.

But the roughly 100-member audience also delivered questions, zeroing in on issues such as Minneapolis’ growing immigrant population, coal and steam plant pollution and the effect lowering property taxes for the homeowner would have on the renter.

Rybak said supply and demand need to be balanced in the affordable housing domain to keep rent rates low. He said he would work to repeal “antiquated laws” which made it difficult to restore boarded-up buildings that could provide much-needed housing.

He said zoning codes should be attacked in addition to simply solving the crisis with “the city’s checkbook.”

“We will hit the ground running on housing options,” Rybak said.

Sayles Belton said quality affordable housing should be sought over quantity. She said “tough rules” on lead and other adverse aspects of low-cost housing would have to be established.

“We want our children to be safe,” she said.

Both candidates said more active measures are needed to integrate new immigrants to Minneapolis. Sayles Belton said she was concerned with improving school programs to accommodate students whose second language was English, while Rybak said the City Hall workforce should be diversified.

The debate heated up when moderator Gary Eichten allowed the candidates to ask each other questions. Sayles Belton said Rybak accepted contributions from certain citizens who, she said, have business before the city.

Rybak has said he does not accept money from parties currently working with the city because he doesn’t want to enter City Hall with his hands tied.

“If you’re going to challenge somebody,” Sayles Belton said, “you’re going to have to live up to your own rhetoric.”

Rybak asked Sayles Belton to name the contributors in question, promising to return any money from interested parties.

Rybak said Sayles Belton accepted more than $10,000 from parties involved in the construction of the new Target store downtown. He has said the $62 million subsidy for the project – which the mayor supported – should have gone toward basic city services first, such as neighborhood improvements and the Central Library.

Sayles Belton said she has been a longtime supporter of upgrading the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis, saying she voted for the new library referendum, as well as pushing for improving branch libraries throughout the city.

But Rybak said the mayor has allowed the initiative to languish. He said he worked on a task force 10 years ago that tried to propel the issue to the forefront of Minneapolis’ agenda, but to no avail.

The end in sight

For Sayles Belton, it’s a race that might not have ever come to pass. Last year, rumors flew placing Sayles Belton in Al Gore’s presidential administration had he won the 2000 election. But she said she had always intended on running for a third term.

“She’s a dynamic leader and national voice,” said Randy Schubring, a Sayles Belton spokesman. “And, sure, just as anybody in public office (who is) successful, they’re discussed for certain positions, but that never came to be.”

Rybak, who became a contender in this year’s race after an upset in the May DFL convention – in which the party refrained from endorsing a candidate – rose to the ranks of Sayles Belton’s most formidable opponent after his primary victory left her trailing at number two.

This is Rybak’s first run for public office, but rather than weakening his campaign, the Internet consultant and community activist has used his newcomer status to play up a “fresh air” in City Hall angle.

For now, Sayles Belton is focusing on reining in votes and improving her visibility. Campaigners dropped 150,000 pieces of Sayles Belton literature over the past two weeks, and beginning today, voice mail messages featuring former President Bill Clinton encouraging voters to choose Sayles Belton will be sent to 50,000 area households.

And despite recent media polls that have placed Sayles Belton behind her opponent, Schubring said Sayles Belton remains unflinching.

“This is certainly the toughest battle she’s been in,” Schubring said. “But she’s confident.”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 primary election, Minnesota polls had the two candidates in a statistical dead heat. The most recent Star Tribune poll showed Rybak leading with 54 percent of likely voters, with Sayles Belton hanging on to 34 percent. Twelve percent were undecided.

Nevertheless, Schubring said, “the only poll that counts is the poll that’s on election day.”

Laura Sether, a Rybak campaign spokeswoman, concurred.

“I know our poll numbers look good, but with these off-year elections it’s difficult to determine who’s really going to turn out,” Sether said. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”