The race is on

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December 20, 2004 // UPDATED 4:56 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scottl Russell
Scottl Russell

County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin will challenge incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak in the 2005 election

County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has made it official: He will run for mayor of Minneapolis in 2005, challenging first-term incumbent and fellow DFLer R.T Rybak.

As mayor, McLaughlin said he would focus on crime, boosting the police force, and creating partnerships to strengthen public schools and neighborhoods.

McLaughlin, 55, announced his candidacy Dec. 16 in front of Cap's Grille, 5000 Hiawatha Ave. S. He disembarked from the 10:02 a.m. light-rail transit (LRT) train to a crowd of approximately 60 supporters and media representatives.

"Our city's foundation is cracking," he said. "We face a shrinking public school system, climbing murder rates and increasing property taxes. Each of these is a serious problem. Together they threaten our future. These challenges require a focused, effective leader with a record of achievement and the ability to get tough things done."

McLaughlin -- who lives in the Ericsson neighborhood near Lake Hiawatha -- is well known among DFL faithful and has a long political resume.

Supporters in the crowd included Jon Olson, president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, who said he backed McLaughlin because "the police department needed the resources to keep the city safe."

Other attendees: James Cook, executive director of Sabathani Center, Whittier activist Barb Lickness; Billy Binder, aide to former Council President Jackie Cherryhomes; Ventura Village project manager Jim Graham; and Jana Metge, a Phillips resident and Citizens for a Loring Park Community staff.

McLaughlin has served on the county board since 1991 and was a driving force behind LRT.

McLaughlin served in the Legislature from 1985 to 1990; his legislative connections and knowledge would help Minneapolis lobby at the Capitol, he said.

He last won an election in 2002 with 77 percent of the vote. His district now includes downtown and South Minneapolis east of I-35W. He would be up for election in 2006. He said he would keep his Commissioner's job during the mayor's race.

Rybak has not formally announced he would seek reelection (see sidebar), but he has hired a campaign manager and plans to hold a Dec. 31 fundraiser.

Approaching the bonfire

In a pre-announcement interview in his 24th-floor Hennepin County Government Center office, McLaughlin pointed to the dry erase board hanging on the wall. It had a colored map of a number of key transit projects, with a "1" by the Hiawatha line, a "2" by the Northstar Corridor and a "3" by the Central line that would connect Downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"This is what I look at every day from my desk," he said.

He notes all the transit lines point to Minneapolis. "It [the map] says those high density corridors reinforce Minneapolis as the center of the regional and state economy," he said.

McLaughlin said he is someone who can get big things done through business partnerships and get to a handshake.

McLaughlin is a founding member and current co-chair of the Phillips Partnership, a group of business and government leaders that formed in the mid-1990s to stabilize and rebuild the troubled southside neighborhood. He repeatedly referred to the Partnership as the model he would follow as mayor.

Outside of the Phillips neighborhood, the group may be best known for pushing the I-35W Access Project, a plan to create a full interchange at Lake Street and new ramps at 28th and 38th streets.

This is what McLaughlin says he tells neighborhood groups: "If you are going to get big things done in this society, you have to be firm enough in your convictions and have enough faith in yourself that you can go near the big fire, go near the bonfire, to draw the energy from the bonfire.

"And by the bonfire, I mean large business interests. And you have got to know how to communicate with them, so ultimately they get to a handshake with you, to invest or do what you want or what the community wants to be done."

Some critics question whether the community is in the driver's seat on the Access Project. They say the project emphasizes costly road-building to get workers and customers to a few big businesses.

McLaughlin notes that the Access Project "is not universally loved," but adds, "I view [it] as correcting one of the great errors of the past. When 35W went in, there wasn't decent access to Lake Street. The interstates are arteries of commerce in the modern American economy. You need to be connected to them."

Cops: Get off the roller coaster

McLaughlin called crime a "number one" issue. He said murder rates and police response times are up, and the city has cut community policing.

The issue could resonate with voters. During the City Council's recent Truth in Taxation hearings, many residents said the city needed more police.

"We need to get off the roller coaster of the police force numbers going up and down," McLaughlin said. "We need to make a commitment to having a police force that is at an appropriate level for the job in a large urban center. We are now swinging below that number."

According to police and city data:

The city police force peaked with 938 sworn officers in 1997. It dropped to 871 officers in 2001, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's last year. It now stands at 788, or 150 officers fewer than 1997.

According to police data, top-priority 911 response times rose from 7 minutes, 18 seconds in 2000 to 8 minutes in 2004.

City murders peaked in 1995 with 97, hovering between 43 and 46 per year from 2001 to 2003. The city has had 49 murders this year through November.

Rybak and the City Council leaders have been forced to make police and other cuts because of declining state aid, internal service fund debts from previous administrations, long-standing pension problems and debt from the new Downtown library. (At a recent Council meeting, Rybak noted the city had lost funding for 80 officers because of federal cuts to the so-called "Clinton cops.")

Rybak and city leaders have been forced to cut police because of falling state aid, debts from previous administrations and long-standing pension problems. The city lost 80 officers due to federal cuts to the so-called "Clinton cops" Rybak said during a Council meeting.

For the first time, the city has a five-year budget and current leaders say they are "paying off the credit card."

McLaughlin said he didn't have "an exact number" of new cops, but said the city was "down 150."

His challenge will be to find the money. If he wants to add back all 150 cops, it would cost $11.2 million, or 4 percent of the city's General Fund.

He cited his work finding alternatives to higher taxes or offsetting cuts.

For example, the county has offered to do the city's 911 dispatch, which would save Minneapolis $4 million a year -- freeing money to hire cops.

Asked several times whether he would continue the city's five-year budgeting, McLaughlin did not give a direct answer.

"I would bring the same kind of disciplined approach that we've used over here," he said of the county, noting it had a Triple-A bond rating, the highest given.

McLaughlin deferred when asked to evaluate Bill McManus, Rybak's choice as police chief. "I think that the people are still getting to know the chief," McLaughlin said.

Neighborhoods: A place for innovation

He expressed concern about cuts to parks and libraries, but he saved his strongest criticism of Rybak for his handling of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, a 20-year, $100-million-plus effort to let neighborhoods direct some city spending.

The mayor had tried to "kill" NRP through restructuring proposals, funding battles and efforts at stronger city oversight, McLaughlin said.

"I think the approach on neighborhoods this mayor has taken has been just wrongheaded," McLaughlin said.

During the 2001 election, Rybak ran on opening government's doors. The mayor has talked about redefining community involvement in broader terms than NRP. Those proposals have yet to surface.

City-NRP strains have been obvious, pushed by tight budgets. An election consideration: NRP includes neighborhood leaders who are politically active.

The mayor and Council have pushed NRP to dedicate more money to affordable housing and say that neighborhood-directed spending should be more closely linked to City Hall-established priorities.

McLaughlin said NRP was intended to be a "change strategy" and the mayor's efforts "have been harmful to that primary goal of innovation."

Schools: They can't go it alone

The Minneapolis School Board runs the schools, not the city. McLaughlin said he is fearful about the public schools' future.

"One of the jobs of the mayor of this city ought to be to be out there, using the power of that office, using his influence, to build a strong network of community support around the public schools," he said.

Again, he cited the Phillips Partnership as a model to draw in private-sector and non-municipal money and involvement.

"We are going to have a hard time solving the problems of the Minneapolis public schools, just within the confines of the budget of the Minneapolis public school district," he said.

Check out the sox

As the campaign plays out, candidate McLaughlin will stake out any number of positions. For instance, he supports public financing of a downtown baseball stadium, "if the public interest is protected," he said.

He will work to distinguish himself from Rybak. As the interview wound to a close, he was asked if he wanted to add anything.

"I do match my socks," he said, a reference to Rybak who intentionally wears mismatched socks. "It says a little bit about how I do my work."