THE WEDGE — Wringing any kind of humor out of the staid mayoral forum format could be considered a success — and by that measure, The Theater of Public Policy scored a win with Wednesday night’s debut Improvised Mayoral Forum.
Did improv theater’s spirit of spontaneity inspire the six leading candidates who took to the stage at Bryant-Lake Bowl? Not really, although a number of candidate quips earned giggles.
For the most part, though, they recycled well-worn policy statements from their previous forums. It was the comedy professionals — six of the theater’s actors, plus host Tane Danger — who got the evening’s biggest laughs from a sell-out crowd of about 100.
The candidates who accepted the theater’s invitation were attorney Cam Winton, City Council members Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels, former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, city Audit Committee Vice Chair Stephanie Woodruff and Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine. All are DFLers, except for Winton, an independent.
Independent candidate Dan Cohen missed the show with a cold, and former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, a DFLer, didn’t respond to the theater’s invitation. Some in the audience hissed when Danger explained Andrew’s absence.
Fine stole the show when, during an exchange on education policy, he surprised everyone by peeling away his blue dress shirt to reveal a Superman costume. There were audible gasps when Fine went to undo his pants, and sounds of relief when the audience realized Fine’s Halloween getup also included the bottom half of the superhero’s outfit.
Fine also delivered what might be considered the clunker of the evening. The discussion briefly turned serious when candidates responded to an audience question about homelessness, and Fine, still in costume, said, “I have flown over the city and seen homeless.” Some in the audience groaned.
The forum didn’t stick to the usual League of Women Voters format, in which candidates have a time limit to respond to each question and give their answers one-by-one. (“We’re used to going one, two, three, and then there’s someone with a buzzer,” Cherryhomes noted.) That favored those more aggressive with the mic — especially Winton, Hodges and Cherryhomes — who tended to dominate the discussion.
The freewheeling format allowed Danger, the bowtie preferring emcee, to change the direction of the debate, interject the occasional follow-up question and score a few laughs of his own.
At one point, the candidates were asked whether the city should continue to make major investments in downtown, along the lines of Block E or the Target headquarters. Woodruff, citing her financial acumen, pledged: “I’m not ever going to make a decision where the city is going to lose.”
Danger noted it would have been “weird” if she’d said otherwise. By cutting through the fluff, he won Winton’s respect.
“You’re a legit moderator,” Winton said to Danger.
In addition to development, the city’s schools and homelessness, the candidates discussed the Minnesota Orchestra lockout and streetcars. After more than 30 forums featuring some combination of these candidates, though, there were few revelations.
Winton provided one. Having already cast an absentee ballot, he revealed his top three choices for mayor: himself in the no. 1 slot, followed by Hodges and Samuels (although he didn’t give the order of those other two selections).
Samuels demonstrated the greatest range of the candidates, shifting between self-effacing humor — he noted his high poll numbers and low fundraising totals made him the “best dollar value” in the race — and impassioned stump speech. He railed against the city’s student-achievement gap and said he had the leadership skills and “fire in the belly” to tackle the problem.
There were two rounds of questions and answers with the candidates, each followed with improvised riffing by The Theater of Public Policy’s acting troupe. The humor occasionally drifted off topic, but the goofy sketches got even the candidates laughing at themselves. Hodges’ and Woodruff’s laughs sounded the loudest from a few rows away.
A Winton comment delivered early in the evening summed-up the entire event.
“This is the strangest debate anybody has ever participated in, and it is awesome,” he said.
To see The UpTake's video of the forum, click here.