Mayoral candidates debate as primary election nears

by Shira Kantor

Wednesday night, six days before the primary election, four of the 22 Minneapolis mayoral candidates debated at Augsburg College, addressing issues that have repeatedly appeared in this summer’s campaign.

Minnesota Public Radio hosted the forum where City Council Member Lisa McDonald, business and community activist R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton fielded questions from MPR, the audience and each other.

Candidates discussed the lack of affordable housing, public safety, neighborhood revitalization, race relations, downtown development and other issues.

Host Gary Eichten began the debate by asking whether Brian Herron’s admission to federal charges of extortion should color the election.

The three challenging candidates agreed it was an important issue and should come into play, while Sayles Belton said Herron’s actions were his own and should not reflect on all of City Hall.

Candidates outlined what their first steps would be to remedy the affordable-housing shortage.

Independent candidate Stenglein said he would contact owners of boarded-up buildings in the city and work with them to renovate the properties adding that he would build housing in currently vacant lots.

Sayles Belton talked of continuing with her “life-cycle housing” plan which aims to house people at all socio-economic levels, admitting added tax levies would be needed to solve the problem.

McDonald defended her own housing plan as the most detailed, while Rybak said he would work on changing state property-tax laws.

In addition to housing development, the four discussed downtown improvement proposals. Each supported expanding current light rail plans and creating a more economically vibrant and inviting city.

Sayles Belton defended public funding for the proposed downtown Target store by saying citizens needed a mid-priced retail outlet and that the long-run benefits outweighed the cost.

Rybak said he wants to see public art gallery crawls return to downtown and emphasized the need for a good central library.

McDonald said she envisions a downtown with more green space, skateboard parks, waterparks and a trolley.

When given the opportunity to question fellow candidates, Rybak asked Sayles Belton how she could enter City Hall without having her hands tied, given that several of her campaign contributors also work for downtown developers.

Sayles Belton explained that the contributors were her friends and supported her ideas before they started working for developers.

When Stenglein said he wanted to see improved and increased maintenance of city streets, Sayles Belton asked how he would fund the proposal. Stenglein said he would consolidate overlapping city and county social initiatives, freeing up dollars the city currently spends on social programs.

The debate will be rebroadcast today at 11 a.m. on MPR.

After the primary elections Tuesday, two candidates will advance to the Nov. 6 general election.