Monday, October 28, 2013

THR PRAIRIE EDITOR: Nostalgia And The Future Of American Cities

Most of my readers at The Prairie Editor live in various
parts of the U.S., and not a few come to the website from
all over the globe, from Europe, Asia, South America, not
to mention Canada and Mexico.  So I am going to ask their
indulgence while I relate a political story about where I
live that involves both my earliest political journalism
and perhaps some intimations about the American urban

Minneapolis is in some ways a typical medium-to-large
American city, and in some ways not so typical. I arrived
here several decades ago from Pennsylvania, and almost
immediately immersed myself in the city’s local politics
as a self-taught journalist, having begun to publish from
scratch a monthly tabloid community newspaper that soon
grew to a sizable circulation and was distributed citywide.

In that era there were, as there are today, thirteen wards,
each with a city council member. There was also a mayor,
but most of the real power rested with the city council.
(A similar structure exists in Minneapolis’ sister city, St.
Paul, but the mayor there has much more power.) When I
arrived, twelve of the council members were Republicans,
and only one was a Democrat (in this state, the Democratic
Party is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL). 
Hubert Humphrey had been the DFL reform mayor
of Minneapolis about three decades before, but he had by
then gone on to the U.S. senate, and later the vice presidency
and a run for the presidency in 1968. Another resident of
the city was Walter Mondale who was state attorney general,
then U.S. senator, then U.S. vice president, and then, like his
mentor Humphrey, an unsuccessful candidate for president.

But in the early 1970’s, the general liberalism of the state had
not fully reached Minnesota’s largest city. Throughout the
period when I published my newspaper, however, the DFL
became increasingly dominant in the city. Not only did the
liberals command a consistent majority on the city council,
the new welfare policies of the time drew in numerous minorities
from outside the state, unemployed persons of all backgrounds,
and others drawn to the benefits offered by the city. At the
same time, many of the older ethnic residents who had lived in
the city since the turn of the century were moving to the
suburbs. In this sense, Minneapolis was typical of cities all
over the nation. As the background nature of the city changed,
the needs of the city to create infrastructure, employment,
and to provide for a growing population of senior citizens,
created political pressure that was temporarily resolved by
an increased dependence on city, state and federal tax revenues
and entitlements.

A growing city bureaucracy, aggressively unionized, provided
increased services, but also created a growing public debt,
especially in the cost of public employees pension funds.
By the outset of the new century, there was not a single
Republican on the city council, and no prospect for a
Republican to run successfully for mayor or other city offices.

In contrast to its twin city, St. Paul, Minneapolis had always
maintained itself as the primary entertainment destination
for the metropolitan area, and strenuous efforts, supported
by the construction and trade unions, were made to relocate
the major leagues sports stadiums and other facilities inside
the city. An unusually large state university campus, again paid
for by public tax revenues, was located near downtown, and
fed into the expanding bar, club. restaurant, cinema and
performing arts culture that the city provided. Unlike other
major urban centers in the U.S., Minneapolis was not a
manufacturing city, but had grown from a turn-of-the-century
grain trade and transportation hub to a high tech and medical
technology center, as well as the affluent regional commercial

In short, Minneapolis was able to avoid many of the economic
pitfalls that occurred in so many U.S. cities in the 1970s, 80s and
90s, and its DFL politicians and bureaucrats skillfully employed
public tax revenues to rebuild its infrastructure and to
enhance the various social and commercial amenities that
would maintain it as the entertainment and tourist destination
of the state.

St. Paul attempted to compete with Minneapolis, but although
it was the state capital and housed most of the state offices, it
was not able to attract enough  commercial employment,
especially in its downtown, to reverse its role of playing
second fiddle to its larger neighboring twin city.

Thus, the major league baseball (Minnesota Twins) stadium
was moved from a suburb to downtown Minneapolis in 1974,
and its replacement also to another downtown location in 2010.
The professional football (Minnesota Vikings) stadium was
also moved to downtown Minneapolis, and its replacement,
soon to begin construction, is being built on the same site. The
new professional basketball (Minnesota Timberwolves) arena
was constructed in downtown Minneapolis. Several university
sports facilities, including a large football stadium and a hockey
arena were constructed adjacent to the Minneapolis downtown.
At the same time, the state’s major new theaters and museums
were constructed in or near the downtown, and although St. Paul
sought to house many of these, only the professional hockey
(Minnesota Wild) arena, the state history center and the science
museum were located there.

Virtually all of the sports facilities were built, at least in part,
with state and local tax revenues (or guarantees), as was
a booming increase in the university infrastructure, including
housing, classrooms and faculty offices. However, with losing
sports teams and the prospect of a long-term transformation
of the university experience to online models, much of this
expensive infrastructure might turn out to be overbuilt and

At the same time, Minneapolis officials created incentives to
bring some of the those who had moved into the suburbs back
to the inner city to live. This has, in fact, temporarily stabilized
the city’s population which had been rapidly declining (as have
most U.S. cities in the northeast and midwest) since its peak in
the 1950’s (from over 500,000 to less than 400,000 today).

The city now has significant U.S. black, Hispanic, Somali, Native
American and southeast Asian populations which have grown
dramatically in the past few decades.

With the middle class flight to the suburbs, the Republican base
in the city vanished. Offering increasing welfare benefits, local
DFL officials have created a new and very large base in the city.
Today, there are no Republican or truly independent members
of the city council. In fact, the very liberal city council (which
includes Green party members), as well as the DFL mayor,
have been easily elected and re-elected for years, with the only
changes arising from retirements.

This brings me to this year’s city elections. In the inner city
ward in which I live, adjacent to downtown and including
two distinctive neighborhoods in both the northeast and
southeast, the incumbent city council member has served two
four-year terms, and is running for  a third. This pattern of
long-term DFL liberal incumbents running for re-election is
true of most of the rest of the city.

But much to most observers’ surprise, insurgent younger DFL
figures arose this year in this and many other wards, and they
either defeated the incumbents for their party endorsement or
prevented their re-endorsement. Some incumbents have already
prematurely retired, and many are running again without party
endorsement. Although there have no reliable polls in the wards,
it is believed that several of the insurgents might win, especially
if there is a citywide anti-incumbent “wave” sentiment.

To complicate matters, the three-term mayor has retired, and
city officials voted to conduct the city elections using a so-called
“ranked-choice” system in which voters are invited to list
their first, second and third choices for each office. As a result,
the candidate with the most votes does not necessarily win.
Calculating the 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices, a process is used to
produce a winning candidate who has more than 50% of the
vote. This system, unfathomable to most voters, has resulted
in 35 candidate for mayor, including two Republicans!
Many of these candidates are former or present city council
members,or have otherwise relatively serious credentials.
The complicated, hard-to-understand ranked choice
experiment has understandably created not a little confusion,
and could seriously dampen voter turnout in what is normally
a low-turnout off-year election.

In the city council races, the contests are not so much
ideological as they are generational. Most of the challengers
are as liberal, or more so, than the incumbents, but the
challengers inevitably have been critical of the incumbents’
fiscal priorities, including such issues as the public part of the
funding of the new Vikings stadium and a costly proposed
public new streetcar system.

In my ward, the challenger is a young man who has
attacked the fiscal record of the woman incumbent (who is
old enough to be his mother). He apparently has the support
of many of the younger voters, and other new voters, in the
ward, as well as of the public labor unions (most of whose
members live outside the city). Aside from his call for some
prudent public city expenditure, I can detect no ideological
difference between him and the incumbent. His support from
the public employees union suggests he will do little or
nothing about the public pensions issue (where a large part of
the city’s expenditures go.)

At a recent fundraiser for the incumbent, there was a sizable
turnout. The DFL governor has endorsed her (he is one of the
few statewide DFL elected officials who can defy a DFL
endorsement; he won the DFL gubernatorial nomination
by defeating the party endorsee in 2010), and was only absent
from the event because of a recent medical operation. But the
star endorser of the evening was none other than former U.S.
senator and vice president, Walter Mondale, and the crowd
was made up of many in the DFL establishment, including
two former city council presidents, the current president,
several former city council members, and numerous senior
DFL consultants, operatives, lobbyists. activists, and long-time
constituents, most of whom I first met in those halcyon days
decades before when I covered and wrote about Minneapolis
city politics, and many of whom I had not seen for years.

Since I have, for more than the past two decades, covered
only national politics, the reunion with so many local DFL
figures from long ago was laden with a certain nostalgia
for the passions of almost-forgotten battles and contests,
long-submerged or now-extinct issues, and warm
recollections of another political era. But at the same time,
I was able, beyond any of these emotions, to assess the current
campaign as, on the one hand, primarily a confrontation of
generations, and on the other hand, possible signals of the
intended directions of a new generation of urban liberals
and self-proclaimed urban “progressives.”

The outcome in this race, and in so many city races this
year, is uncertain. As always, turnout will be critical. and
as I have pointed out, this year’s turnout will be
complicated by an experimental voting system which
few understand.

What is absent here, and in so many cities in America, is
a competitive opposition party and a different set of
solutions to the challenges and the problems that these
same cities all face. This is NOT the fault of the DFL and
of those who now lead and control most urban centers in
America. Minneapolis is not Detroit, but it does potentially
have some of Detroit’s fiscal problems ahead. While some
government-sponsored projects have succeeded, others
have not (at, of course, the taxpayer’s expense). Some on
the current city council and some of the challengers even
support the city takeover of the electric utility, now
privately owned and run, a notion considered by many of
all parties in the state to be wildly irresponsible.

If a conservative or centrist economic vision of urban
governance is absent in Minneapolis and other U.S. cities,
it is because the many conservatives and centrists in the
nation choose to remain active exclusively in the suburbs,
exurbs and rural parts of the country. As the “progressives”
continue unchecked to govern in the cities, more and more
Detroits likely will appear.

If this continues, the current polarization and extreme
divisions in American politics will not only go on and on,
they will intensify.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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