Minneapolis mayor’s race sees large field of candidates file

Published 9:27 am Wednesday, August 14, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly three dozen people want to be the next mayor of Minneapolis, and thanks to the city’s ongoing experiment with an alternative voting system, they all have a shot.

Among the 35 candidates who paid a $20 filing fee by Tuesday’s deadline to get their names on the November ballot are two current and one former city council members, a past Hennepin County commissioner, a Republican trying to make a mark in the heavily Democratic city, an Occupy movement activist who goes by Captain Jack Sparrow and a perennial candidate who listed himself as Bob “Again” Carney.

Minnesota’s largest city is picking its first new leader in 12 years. The popular incumbent, R.T. Rybak, decided against a fourth term. The race to succeed him will probably come down to the handful of candidates mounting sophisticated and well-funded campaigns, but an election model the city calls Ranked Choice Voting has added a dash of unpredictability.

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Under ranked choice, voters are asked to name their first, second and third choices in a race. Candidates who tally more than 50 percent of first-choice votes win outright. But if no one exceeds 50 percent, a series of instant runoffs successively eliminates the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes while redistributing second- and third-place votes until someone exceeds 50 percent.

“The other morning my husband and I spent a few hours trying to figure out ranked choice. It’s not simple,” said Carol Berde, a nonprofit consultant sitting outside a coffee shop near where Lake Street meets the Mississippi River. Berde hasn’t picked a candidate yet, and is unsure of how to effectively deploy her three choices: “There’s a lot of, ‘What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that?”’

Minneapolis used ranked choice in 2009, but Rybak’s lopsided 74-percent win left it untested. This year it’s much more likely to come into play, offering intriguing possibilities for dark-horse candidates.

“It’s a new system, and there are a lot of unknowns,” said Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County Commissioner and one of the race’s top contenders.

Democrats have dominated Minneapolis politics for decades, but the city’s DFL activists left the mayor’s race without a front-runner in June by deadlocking over which candidate to endorse. The top two vote-getters were Andrew, once the state DFL chairman, and Betsy Hodges, now in her eighth year on the city council. Both boast heavyweight support from various Democratic factions, and their similarities on issues outweigh their differences.

That has left candidates with less establishment support eyeing an unconventional route to the mayor’s office by securing more second- or third-place votes. Cam Winton, a Republican attorney and businessman, has mounted a quirky campaign highlighted by attention-getting stunts like holding a press conference standing inside a pothole and demanding better delivery of basic city services.

“I’m going to win because more people will put me second,” said Winton, who is quick to describe ways in which he’s not a standard Republican: his support for gay marriage, his work building a wind energy company, and his Prius.

Minneapolis has a healthy economy and low violent crime, and the city’s population is inching up after decades of decline. Hodges and Andrew both promise policies to grow the population, now at about 388,000, by at least 100,000 people in the coming years through greater neighborhood density and more mass transit and bicycle routes.

“I want this to be a city where it’s easy to live without a car. We can’t say that right now,” Hodges said.

Another candidate employing a second-choice strategy is Don Samuels, a longtime city councilman from the city’s northwest side, with the greatest concentrations of violent crime and poverty. While a Democrat, Samuels has diverged from the party as a sometime critic of public schools and champion of charter alternatives.

“Second choice votes and third choice votes do come into play,” Samuels said. “And that’s where I come in.”