By Maya Rao
Star Tribune 

Mayoral candidates try to appeal to American Indian audience


Chants and drum beats opened a mayoral forum Thursday evening at an American Indian art gallery, where the gaggle of candidates criticized Columbus Day and promised to include local tribes in their decision-making if elected.

Contenders have also appeared this election season before crowds of African-American and East African citizens, pledging to create more diverse administrations and lift up all corners of the city. But this latest event was a first for some of the candidates, who acknowledged that they had little interaction with the American Indian community.

“I’m a lesbian, so I know what it feels like to be an underdog and always be fighting for civil rights,” said first-time political candidate Stephanie Woodruff, in an effort to connect with the audience at the event hosted by the Native American Community Development Institute.

For at least the second time in recent weeks, candidate Merrill Anderson interrupted the forum seeking to be seated with other candidates who had been invited. To the cheers of supporters, he assumed the seat left empty by Mark Andrew, who did not attend due to what his campaign described as a scheduling conflict. That absence created another interruption, when Cam Winton publically grilled a young representative – who was sent by Andrew to give opening remarks – about the candidate’s whereabouts. (The emissary, who told Winton to check with the communications office, then apologized to Andrew on Twitter for “fumbling” the question.)

While candidates generally pronounced support for no gaming without Indian tribes, Dan Cohen called for a downtown casino and said one tribal casino in Mystic Lake does not solve the issue of providing jobs for Indians in Minneapolis. (On his campaign Web site, Cohen writes that a permanent tribal monopoly on operating casinos is “beyond a reasonable settlement” for the past treatment of Native Americans.) Following Cohen, Jackie Cherryhomes received a round of applause when she vowed never to support a downtown casino.

As eight candidates whizzed through their talking points on closing the achievement gap and creating jobs, one questioner from the audience joked that it was like mayoral speed dating.

Here’s a look at how they answered several questions.

Addressing a question on how they would support urban agriculture and eliminate barriers to healthy, affordable food:

Cherryhomes said her dad worked with communities for years on community gardening, and that his biggest frustration was that they could not get ahold of empty lots for permanent gardens. She said that when her father died eight years ago, she promised him that if she did nothing else, “I would figure out how to get those lots free.”

Winton said he’d like to bring in the fire department to work out ways to distribute water from fire hydrants to community gardens, and use trucks to bring in fertilizers and seeds and transport produce. Additionally, he suggested relaxing “overly restrictive” ordinances on the types of animals people can have in urban agriculture.

Woodruff said the issue is dear to her because she grew up on a farm in Iowa, where the family ate well despite being poor after her father left them when she was only 13. She wants to market the vacant lots online so that people can step up as owners, and said that such gardens could pull people out of poverty..

Council Member Betsy Hodges said she is working to make land available for urban agriculture, and suggested ordinance changes to free up those parcels. She noted that some people have resisted the idea and believe lots should have other uses, but that urban agriculture is good for the economy and livability and creates a better environment for people.

Anderson said that Victory gardens -- planted during World War I and II -- were effective in winning the war and that the idea should be put into play again in order to “repeat the old victory.”

Bob Fine said he has supported community gardens as a park board commissioner and that he’s the only candidate who is a true urban farmer, raising four chickens. He’d like to expand opportunities for others to do the same.

Council Member Don Samuels said his father grew up on a farm in Jamaica but did not teach his children in Kingston how to grow produce because he expected them to “do better and work in offices.” Samuels said he was pleased that people are again turning to the land, and wants to ensure there is no empty land where people want to farm.

Cohen said he would cut regulations to make more land available, and also suggested educating children on the value of organic and healthy foods so that they could preserve the effort.

Addressing a question about how they would ensure American Indian students, who lag other groups in academic performance and graduation rates, succeed in school, and how they would ensure those children have access to American Indian language and cultural opportunities:

Cohen said they need role models in schools to allow children to know their heritage, and that the city must work to get jobs for their mothers and fathers so they can provide for them.

Fine said the mayor should take the lead in lifting poor graduation rates among Native American students and must work with that community and the school board on a long-term solution.

Anderson said he was an organizer in former Mayor Don Fraser’s office to create a study group in the basement of Sabathani Church that eventually grew into Sabathani Community Center. He said the city could provide a quiet, safe place for students to study after school and something similar, but on a larger scale, could be replicated today.

Cherryhomes said we will not be one city when we have a huge disparity in children not graduating from high school, which leads to unemployment among Native American men. She said she supports education that is “culturally specific” and that there must be jobs and secure housing throughout the city.

Samuels said that a lot of people talking about closing the achievement gap between white and minority students “are thinking a little bit here, a little bit there,” but he’s thinking of reversing it, drawing on lessons from 10 high-performing minority urban schools that he convened.

Hodges said that Native American students are some of the most mobile in the Minneapolis school system and that has a “huge impact” on their achievement. She said the city must build affordable housing to ensure stable communities sand families.

Winton said we won’t achieve common goals on education by convening another program or blue-ribbon commission. He proposed cutting red tape to spur growth in private sector jobs, and going “toe to toe with the status quo obstructionists,” the teachers’ union.

Woodruff said that if non-white children’s test scores do not increase in her first year of office, she would dedicate half her salary toward the issue. She’d like to take advantage of learning labs in existing park buildings and ensure no child goes untableted.


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