Editor’s note: The Journals have been profiling the self-declared candidates for mayor. This is the sixth profile in our series. We have previously profiled Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Don Samuels, Betsy Hodges and Jim Thomas. We will be publishing stories on Cam Winton, an Independent candidate, and other new candidates in coming weeks.
Gary Schiff spends so much time talking regulatory reform while campaigning for Minneapolis mayor that it’s possible he comes off sounding a bit wonkish at times.
When this accusation was leveled at the three-term City Council member from Ward 9, he not only laughed, he embraced it.
“Guilty,” Schiff replied, grinning, before offering a clarification. He is, he said, “a policy wonk with a big vision.”
In that vision, the next Minneapolis mayor launches a sweeping revision of the city’s regulatory code, cutting through the red tape that entangles small business owners. He works with the Council to set local hiring goals for city infrastructure projects, a strategy that attacks Minneapolis’ economic disparities by investing in the working class. And he leads change in a way Schiff said a councilman — even the chair of the powerful Zoning and Planning Committee — just can’t.
“As a councilmember, I feel like I’ve done what I can do to work to pull together a coalition of council members to chip away at outdated regulations and get policies passed,” he said.
Schiff was one of the council members behind the 2005 ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, and he authored an ordinance requiring taxis to accept credit-card payments. Schiff stripped away the restrictions on pedicabs, now a common sight on downtown streets. He led the way in easing regulations on microbreweries, and more than half-a-dozen have opened up since the Brew Beer Here ordinance was approved.
Kathy Nelson first met Schiff through the her involvement in the Longfellow Business Association and said he “has a special feeling for small business and entrepreneurs.”
“He gets it,” added Nelson, who used to work for Nelson Electric in the Hiawatha neighborhood, a family business now run by her younger brother. “I feel like he understands what the issues are and what drags us down.”
Schiff said he “believe(s) strongly in performance measures.” He co-authored a change to the city’s comprehensive plan requiring an annual report on a variety of “sustainability indicators” — measures that track quality-of-life, the environment and public health.
As mayor, Schiff would expand that effort, using a similar strategy to target the disparities that divide neighborhoods and classrooms on lines of race and income.
“I believe in an active role of government to help address inequalities and to help the next generation do better,” Schiff said. “And, to me, that’s what progressivism means.”
Faith and unions
Schiff was born Gary Schiffhauer, the youngest of six children in a middle-class family in Youngstown, N.Y., a small upstate town closer to Toronto than New York City. In talking about his family, Schiff often mentions the influence of his grandfather, a union founder and organizer, whose political attitudes were inherited by Schiff’s father.
“I think because my dad was raised in that environment, he was always very political and always writing letters to the editor, always interested in the school board meetings, always had an opinion watching the news during family dinner time,” he said.
In his mother, a public school teacher, Schiff had a role model driven by her Catholic faith and a commitment to volunteerism. Schiff describes himself as Catholic, although he’s more attuned to the liberal strains of his faith.
“I’d say I’m a Kennedy-Cuomo Catholic, not a Santorum Catholic,” he joked.
But there’s baptism, and then there’s “baptism-by-fire,” and the latter is how Schiff describes a galvanizing episode in his teenage years.
Schiff was a member of the class of 1990 at Lewiston-Porter High School, and in his senior year won a competition to paint a mural in a school hallway. The design was inspired by the iconic artwork of Keith Haring and reflected the worldview of a politically tuned-in teenager at the dawn of the ’90s, touching on drugs, the environment, AIDS and apartheid, among other topics, according to contemporary news reports in The Buffalo News.
School administrators later deemed some phrases and images inappropriate, and when portions of it were painted over, the New York Civil Liberties Union challenged the decision in court. The school district won, but the incident had a life-changing impact on Schiff — not least because it led to his coming out as gay to his parents at age 18.
Schiff often retells the story when he meets with high school students. He said it is important for young people “to recognize not all of our rights are automatic.”
“Some of them have been long fought for [and that] I think is something I recognized early on,” he said.
A young activist
Schiff shortened his last name when he left Youngstown and moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, in part, he said, to distance himself from the bullying he endured growing up. He’d applied to every school in the Big 10, and the U of M not only accepted him, “it looked accepting,” he said.
“It was one of the few … Big 10 schools that had a nondiscrimination clause on the basis of sexual orientation, and you bet I read the fine print,” he said.
Schiff said he also chose Minneapolis for its “diversified economy” and “promising future.” After growing up in a Rust Belt town where jobs were disappearing, every one of his siblings made a similar choice; none of them remain in western New York State.
Schiff returned a few years ago for his 20th high school reunion.
“There’s not a single store that my mother shopped in when I was growing up that is still open,” he said.
On campus, Schiff participated in gay and progressive student groups, protested military discrimination policies at a Board of Regents meeting and organized a street patrol in response to violence against gays. Before graduating, he organized and directed the Progressive Student Leadership Exchange, a student-led effort to oppose anti-gay ballot initiatives.
“This was transformative for me, because it was the beginning of understanding true coalition politics,” he said.
That led to a 1996 move to Washington, D.C., where Schiff continued the work for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that works to protect the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Within a few years, he was back in Minneapolis working for Progressive Minnesota — and that’s when he first had a real impact on city politics.
In 1997, the group successfully rallied voter support for two amendments to the city charter, one that made Minneapolis Police accountable to the city’s civil rights ordinance and another that made a public vote a requirement for spending more than $10 million on a sports stadium.
In 2001, Schiff was back in school working on a master’s degree in urban planning when he launched his campaign for the vacant Ward 9 City Council seat. He won, leaving the degree uncompleted to begin his City Council term.
On the Council
Long before Mayor R.T. Rybak announced in March that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term, Schiff looked like someone with ambitions to lead the city, and two lengthy profiles written last year (including one in this paper) suggested as much. They also described occasionally rocky relationships with his colleagues.
Schiff said he pushed for change as a councilmember and noted “that doesn’t come without a price.” And he used the vote on the city smoking ban as an example of his ability to rally support. In that case, Rybak and several council members, including then-President Paul Ostrow, were skeptical of enacting a city ban ahead of potential statewide ban, but the measure ultimately passed with just one vote against.
Schiff later sparred with Rybak over the mayor’s support of public subsidies for the Vikings stadium and lost. In 2011, Rybak vetoed the use of one-time funds to prevent the layoff of 10 firefighters, a measure Schiff supported.
Noting those disagreements, Schiff nonetheless praised Rybak’s “optimism” and ability to “sell the city.”
“That’s absolutely the type of mayor I’ll be,” he said.
Schiff’s support for firefighters won him the endorsement of the department’s union this spring.
“Gary was one of the few publicly outspoken council members who really tried to curb some of these cuts to staffing,” said Mark Lakosky, the union president. “That’s why we had to get behind him.”
Schiff said he’d aim to bolster police and fire staffing by emphasizing training and capitalizing on a coming wave of retirements, replacing higher-paid older employees with new recruits.
When the Schiff-authored ordinance requiring taxis to accept credit cards was overwhelmingly approved by the City Council last year, it was over the objections of some taxi drivers. At issue were the bank transaction fees that often came out of drivers’ pockets.
Since it’s the city that sets meter rates, drivers had no leeway to hike prices and make up the difference, explained Yemane Mebrahtu, president of the Minneapolis Taxicab Drivers and Owners Association.
Mebrahtu said the City Council “didn’t have enough understanding” of drivers’ objections when they passed the ordinance, but added that drivers were partly to blame for poorly communicating their concerns to the council. Today, there are the beginnings of a dialogue, he said, and now Mebrahtu supports Schiff for mayor.
“Gary is willing to work with us,” he said.
Aaron Day, president of Blue Construction, said he first met Schiff through the Longfellow Business Association. A building contractor, Day often works on new restaurant projects, including several that came before Schiff’s Zoning and Planning Committee.
He said Schiff helped him navigate challenging zoning and ordinance issues on several of those projects, including the Fulton Beer taproom near Target Field and Icehouse restaurant on Nicollet Avenue. And when Schiff didn’t support the full scope of a mixed-use project at 26th & Cedar in Ward 9 — where Cedar Food and Grill was reconstructed following a 2011 fire — Day said the council member was “very open with the fact he wasn’t going to support it.”
“I would have made more money and built a bigger construction project there if my customer had gotten his way,” he said, but added that Schiff’s “honest opinion” was preferable to the “lip service” he’s gotten from some city officials.
Said Day: “I sincerely believe that Gary is a real advocate of small business in Minneapolis and is more interested in understanding the plights of small business than most politicians are.”
Education: Bachelor's degree in women's studies from the University of Minnesota