Eyes on the mayors office

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October 8, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter

None of Gary Schiff’s five brothers and sisters live in Youngstown anymore. His retired parents also left the Rust Belt city in western New York, near the Canadian border. 

Despite growing up in a deeply Catholic household in a socially conservative city, Schiff credits his early years in Youngstown for inspiring the values that have followed him all the way to the Minneapolis City Council.

“There’s nothing like growing up gay in that environment to make you question your surroundings,” Schiff said. “(But) I still am deeply inspired by the values that I received.”

Youngstown, Schiff said, taught him about the importance of economic opportunities. His Catholic faith taught him about social justice. His pro-union upbringing taught him about organizing for change. 

Schiff, now 40 and serving his third term on the City Council, says he is exploring a run for mayor in 2013. His opposition to the recent Minnesota Vikings stadium deal has thrust him into limelight. He’s also made a name for himself by cutting regulations that have paved the way for a burgeoning microbrewery scene and brought back pedicabs to downtown. 

Schiff, who lives in the Corcoran neighborhood and represents South Minneapolis, hasn’t committed yet to running for mayor in 2013. He says he will make up his mind by January. Mayor R.T. Rybak hasn’t said yet if he will run for a fourth term. Some speculate that Rybak could get a post in the Obama Administration, should the president win re-election in November. 

Schiff said his decision won’t be affected by Rybak’s.

“I’m still running an exploratory process, talking to a lot of people and asking them what do they think the city needs, what do they think the city’s priorities for the future are and seeing what the level of support out there is for my vision,” he said. “I won’t make a decision until January.

Catholic, pro-union upbringing

Schiff said he spent much of his childhood with his mother, who instilled in him “a belief of faith in action.”

He said he volunteered at nursing homes, washed dishes at homeless shelters and said the rosary with the nuns at retirement homes. That was on the weekend. During the week, he helped his mom at the church. 

When Schiff was a teenager, he informed his parents he was gay. Schiff said his mother “did what any good Catholic would do,” she called the Archdiocese of Buffalo and asked for advice. The woman who answered the phone told her to call a progressive organization that helps families understand their gay and lesbian children, called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“I was astonished by the answer she got,” Schiff said. “I will never know the name of the woman who answered the phone that day at the Archdiocese of Buffalo, but she steered my parents toward PFLAG, and they became understanding and learned a lot, and met other parents of lesbian and gay families.”

Schiff said he is still deeply influenced by his Catholic upbringing. 

“I am not a politician who happens to be Catholic. I am a Catholic who is in public service because of my faith,” Schiff said. “My Catholic faith strongly inspires my progressive values to help other people.”

Schiff was also influenced by his grandfather, a union organizer at a time when it was dangerous to form unions. 

“That sense of organizing for change was thoroughly instilled in me by my father at a young age,” Schiff said. 

Schiff made his way to Minneapolis after high school, when he enrolled as a women’s studies major at the University of Minnesota. He would stay here initially “because of love,” but later because of a passion for the city. 

Rise in popularity

Schiff has been a mover and shaker on the City Council for most of his 11 years. In 1997, before he was on the council, he initiated a City Charter amendment to limit city subsidies for pro sports facilities to $10 million. Anything over that would require a citywide referendum.

Schiff authored the city’s smoking ban in 2004. He’s held a powerful spot on the Council for many years, serving as chair of the City’s Zoning and Planning Committee.  

In the last couple years, however, Schiff’s name has been all over the news. 

This spring, he was the most vocal opponent of the stadium deal, giving emotional speeches during public hearings and waving Forbes articles critical of the stadium financing deal. He penned an editorial in the Star Tribune saying the deal should be sent back to the Legislature. 

In June, he challenged conservative radio host Bradlee Dean to a debate over comments Dean made calling South Minneapolis a third world country. Dean never accepted. 

Two summers ago, Jason Sowards was brewing beer in his Linden Hills garage and drafting up plans to open a microbrewery in South Minneapolis. In doing his planning, he discovered that city law would not allow him to sell growlers, or large jugs, of beer from his brewery. 

Sowards said that would have been a deal breaker, because growler sales would help him generate revenue while brewing kegs for bars and restaurants. If he couldn’t do growler sales in South Minneapolis, he would consider crossing the border into Wisconsin.

But then he sent his plans to Schiff, who represents the Longfellow neighborhood where Sowards had found an ideal brewery location for his company, Harriet Brewing. 

Sowards said Schiff sprung to action, creating a Facebook page and pushing for city law changes to allow growler sales in Minneapolis. Those laws passed, and Sowards opened, at the time, the first microbrewery in the city. Today, Harriet Brewing boasts a taproom and hosts live music. Sowards said he has six full-time employees and several more part-time employees. 

“It’s not every day you find someone who is willing to drop what they’re doing and become so enthusiastically involved, and Gary is a very enthusiastic person,” Sowards said. “I was surprised by his eagerness to help and the energy he put behind it.”

Sowards credits Schiff with helping to get the ball rolling on what has become a city trend. Breweries are opening all over Minneapolis.  

Criticisms

Critics of Schiff say he can be erratic, take credit for the work of others and flip-flop on issues. 

In 2005, Schiff authored an idling truck ordinance after Longfellow neighbors in his district complained that Metro Produce, 2700 E. 28th St., was keeping them awake at night as refrigerated trucks idled while being loaded with produce. 

The ordinance passed, and city staff quickly cited Metro Produce several times for breaking the ordinance. The company filed a lawsuit, and a district court judge ruled that the idling truck ordinance was unconstitutional and broke the Commerce Clause. 

As a result of the judgment, the city settled with Metro Produce for $2.3 million in taxpayer money. 

Schiff says that then-City Attorney Jay Heffern never advised the City Council that the ordinance might be ruled unconstitutional. He also disagreed with the judge’s ruling because he didn’t consider livability issues. Three council members who voted for the ordinance were also attorneys. 

Heffern could not be reached for comment. 

On Dec. 23, 2005, Schiff voted in favor of giving City Council members a $200 a month car allowance. Then, a few months later, he voted against doubling the car allowance to $400. He responded to a Star Tribune questionnaire in 2009 during his re-election bid for City Council: 

“I voted against the creation of a $400 monthly car allowance, and I have never claimed it. Council members who use their personal vehicles for work should be reimbursed for actual miles driven only.”

Schiff did vote for creation of a car allowance, even if he rejected the increased reimbursement later on. 

 “At the $200 level, I was fine with it, but I wasn’t fine with it at the $400 level, because I calculated, and under the federal government guidelines for reimbursement, you’d have to drive to Duluth and back twice in a month to be eligible for $400 worth of reimbursement,” Schiff said. 

Steve Struthers lives in the East Phillips neighborhood. Schiff represents Struthers on the City Council. Struthers says his values align closely with Schiff. He praised Schiff for standing up to the same-sex marriage amendment, for helping get breweries back in Minneapolis and for changing regulations to allow pedicabs downtown. 

But Struthers, a graduate student and Greek tutor, says that while Schiff has done a good job working on citywide initiatives, he hasn’t fought for his constituents in Ward 9.  

Struthers lives a block from the Smith Foundry at East 28th and Longfellow. Sit long enough in Struthers home, and you’ll feel a constant vibration. A pile of laundry on his bed shakes. A glass of water quivers. 

Struthers said the Foundry’s noise has increased over the past decade, and his home rattles almost around the clock. It makes sleeping and studying difficult, Struthers said. 

Sruthers has asked Schiff on many occasions to get city staff out to measure the vibration, but Schiff hasn’t obliged. Struthers doesn’t want a change an ordinance, he just wants existing ordinances enforced. He and other neighbors are working on a class-action lawsuit, which he says is likely to implicate the city along with the Foundry.

“I’d like someone to prove they’re a strong advocate for their own district before they start running for an office beyond that,” Struthers said. 

Schiff said city environmental staff has spent more time working on Smith Foundry in the past year than any other city property, and says staff has measured vibration in Struthers’ home. The city found that the Foundry had violated three of four night time noise standards. Two of those, Schiff said, have been remedied. The third, Schiff wrote to neighbors, was scheduled to be dealt with when Smith Foundry spent $112,000 on an upgrade in June. 

Schiff said Struthers has criticized the council member for misinterpreting the law, which he says in untrue because it’s not his job to interpret city ordinance, it’s the responsibility of the city attorney. 

Implications 

of 2012 election

Exactly what the 2013 mayor’s race will look like could hinge largely on what happens on Nov. 6, when President Barack Obama takes on Mitt Romney for a second term in the White House. 

If Obama wins, he could choose Rybak for a post in his administration. Rybak was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 election. He was co-chair of Obama’s Minnesota campaign. Rybak is currently serving as one of five chairs of the Democratic National Committee, traveling all over the country stumping for Obama. 

If Rybak doesn’t run, the field for his seat is likely to grow beyond Schiff. If Rybak does run again, Schiff will face an uphill battle. 

Rybak’s spokesman, John Stiles, said the mayor is still undecided on running for another term.

“The mayor is considering it, but has as much energy for the job as he’s ever had,” Stiles said.

Rybak has been a largely popular mayor. He has been elected all three times with over 60 percent of the vote. In 2009, he got almost 74 percent of the vote. 

Schiff has mixed reviews of Rybak’s tenure, praising him for results-based management but criticizing him for flip-flopping on stadium subsidies.

Schiff said Rybak’s decision won’t affect his. 

“I’m going to make my decision independent of his decision,” Schiff said, “and really base it on what I hear from people, and what people in the neighborhoods are telling me.”

Reach Nick Halter at 

nhalter@mnpubs.com.