Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sharon Sayles Belton - Part 2
by Mesa Kincaid
I would like to get back to some of the issues facing us here at home if I may. Some serious things have happened to Minneapolis since you left office as mayor. What can you tell us about the enormous number of school closings that are taking place in Minneapolis?
I think the issue of the school closings was traumatic for a lot of people. Particularly those who lived in neighborhoods that had schools located in them. I live in a neighborhood where a lot of schools were closed.
The truth of the matter … the actual truth of the matter … the absolute truth of the matter is that when Carol Johnson was still our superintendent … Carol Johnson traveled around the different schools and the different neighborhoods and talked about the fact that … um … this trend already in motion and that the issue would be … worse before it was better. (thoughtfully) And I think people didn’t really want to hear it then and I think it was really hard for them to accept it when it was absolutely critical that the decision be made to close several schools.
So I want to say that the problem was not a new one. I actually remember going to meetings with Carol Johnson and having these early conversations.
There are many parts of the conversations … we had to talk about the fact that some of the parents were not choosing to send their children to Minneapolis schools at all. They were choosing private schools, parochial schools, they were choosing alternative schools, charter schools,
There were other options for them. Those things coupled with the declining enrollment … or one of the reasons for the declining enrollment … made it more challenging for the school district to keep these buildings open.
I don’t think a lot of people didn’t really understand that in some of our neighborhoods there were so few children just living in that attendance area that to keep that school open children were being brought in from other parts of the city. And that was true and there is a high cost for that.
This is a very complex issue.
And while I was very saddened by the reaction that some people had about this decision … I understood it.
The question now is what will you do with the closed school buildings.
Are all of these neighborhoods where there are schools that have been closed … .should all of these buildings be demolished or converted to some other use?
I think that is the question for today.
Who made all of these decisions?
Elected officials have to make tough choices and it isn’t just on the City Council; the School Board is making tough choices all the time, the Park Board is all the time. This isn’t easy work. This isn’t for what I call the faint of heart. People are going to be mad at you. People are not going to understand. People are going to think that you are not sharing with them all of the facts. More often than not all of the facts are being shared but it is just that we don’t want to accept the facts.
So it bodes well on elected officials to develop a pattern of sharing all of the information and sharing it frequently with public meetings and publishing it in public forums.
Schools, businesses, housing, services and quality-of-life issues are just a few of the many areas that you had to deal with daily as mayor. You have strong experience. Can you offer any helpful or insightful suggestions to our current leaders across the state?
I don’t sit as an official in the city of Minneapolis anymore. (smiles) I do love the city and want to see it prosper.
I really believe that if we want our business leaders to feel confident in the city, that they’re prepared to maintain their business and to grow their business, that we really need to be in a dialogue with them around these crime issues that in many cases are really causing people to consider and to reconsider whether or not they want to keep their business in our city.
I have heard that there are people who are just, you know, fed up and really ready to roll up their business. I hope that they don’t.
I hope that instead they will pick up the phone and they will call the mayor and they’ll demand a meeting. Or call their elected official and organize a meeting. A business meeting where citizens and law enforcement can all come together and talk about how we’re going to help maintain a safe commercial corridor. So businesses feel comfortable about offering their goods and services and that citizens feel good about going to those places of business to buy goods.
It is a two-way street.
Well, how do we keep those businesses on the streets? How do we keep commerce thriving in Minneapolis in spite of existing crime problems?
How do we all get together and talk about what we’re gonna do … in this hot spot and that hot spot … what are we gonna do city-wide? Where’s the conversation with the downtown council, where’s the conversation with the Minneapolis chamber, where’s the conversation with the business association in the individual neighborhoods? These are the conversations that need to take place. And they need to take place open to the public so that we can all come and participate and share our views about how we can turn this situation around. It all starts with, you know … me being willing to talk to you and you being willing to talk to me, and quite frankly I don’t care who picks up the phone first. But what doesn’t work is for people to stay in their own space and fret about it, be angry about it, make a decision about it without being in a conversation about how do we fix the problem. So if I had any advice … I would say … somebody pick up the phone.
Somebody get in your car and make a trip… make a beeline … out to the business community, you know, the business association, and let’s start talking about what we can do to turn this situation around. Our small businesses are the backbone of our neighborhoods. Our big businesses, in many instances, are the backbone of our regional economy. We cannot afford to lose any of them. In fact, I want to be encouraging more entrepreneurs. I want to be encouraging people to start a new business. We have got a lot of vacant storefronts out there on Broadway and a few on Lake Street. There’s opportunity there, but we gotta help people to know that if they invest in a small business there that we’re gonna make sure their business is safe, we’re gonna give them some ideas of how to protect their investment and how they can grow their business and how they can serve their community.
Feeling safe in North Minneapolis is an issue. I recall conversing with several women who live on Dupont and 26th. I was so disturbed to hear that, nightly, they found themselves saying, ‘Throw the babies on the floor’ to protect them from random gunfire. These are nice women, just living every day and trying to take care of their families. What can they do about this? Where do they start?
Some really great things are going on in North Minneapolis through the churches, and a group called the Mad Dads … they just get on the streets … they drive around and they walk and talk to the kids … and the churches are doing so much now.
We need to step it up and we need to show up. I don’t want us to ever believe that the solutions are in City Hall. There are things that City Hall can do. But the things that we were able to do when I was the mayor of Minneapolis, we did in partnership with the community. The community had good ideas. We learned how to listen. We got on the street. When Minneapolis was having trouble in the downtown, we used to walk up and down the streets of downtown and just wait until the bars let out to see what was happening. I would send people home. I’d ask people to shape up. I’d talk to the ladies who were underdressed … and just say, “Oh, honey, what are you doin’?”
Me. Myself personally. I was out on the street. Not alone. I would take staff, my security officer, Charlie Adams, he would go down there with me. I wanted people to know that not only do I care but I do understand what’s going on. I know what’s happenin’. I see it. I am seeing the stress that the cops are under. I understand the stress that the bartenders are under when they’re trying to deal with their crowds at closing time. I see the traffic jams. I see the people who have way too much to drink and are way too hostile. I didn’t really want to be out at there 2 o’clock in the morning walkin’ the streets but I needed to have credibility with the young people living on the wild side.
Sometimes we forget that you were a working mom almost the entire time that you were in office, weren’t you?
I was a working mom. My children went to school not too far from City Hall so I had the privilege of being able to go over there and watch them do their school programs during the day, dropped them off at school every day and my husband picked them up.
We really tried to maintain a good family life, and I think my kids are good kids.
I still have children at home. My family is very supportive of me. And they know that I am a professional volunteer and that I am always going to be out of the home doing something for somebody. And it is okay with them as long as I go to the grocery store and figure out how the laundry is at least sorted so they can wash it properly and that I am around to reinforce that fact that they are number one in my life.
And what about your husband? Did anyone ever call him Mr. Sharon Sayles Belton?
He actually got a hat from somebody that says Mr. Sharon Sayles Belton. We still have the hat. He never put it on, but we still have the hat. (chuckles) And he used to be called Mr. Sayles and all kinds of things. He found it humorous … on most occasions. (smiles)
You had some pretty impressive co-workers. What was the atmosphere like for you personally in City Hall as a working mom? Supportive?
While I was on the City Council two of my children were born. I found the Council to be very, very supportive of me during my pregnancies. In fact, one of my fondest memories is one of my young son, Jordon, who is now 19 … he came down to City Hall for an event, I am not sure which event now, but he …Walter Dziedzic …who was on the City Council, was walking down the hall on all fours with Jordan riding on his back. So he was giving Jordan a horsey ride down the back halls of the City Council offices. And it was a very fond memory. My colleagues were very supportive.
Alice Rainville had a baby shower for me at her home and we had a really beautiful cake. It had a stork on it with a little brown baby being carried by a stork in a diaper … and it was so cute! And everybody from City Hall was invited to the party … and that was for Jordan too … my first baby.
So people were really supportive.
It was wonderful!
People were very accommodating … if your children were sick, you went home. Everybody understood that. And … it had everything to do with that fact that we were colleagues. And we all had families. Your family came first. Everybody did their job, but our families were important to us.
You never read about those nice times in the workplace at City Hall in the newspaper do you?
They never see the times when people are providing their colleagues with every courtesy and decency. I think the thing that is important to remember is that there are debates in City Hall and people feel very strongly about the debate but after the debate is over, then we have to get back to working together to try to find solutions. And the people we’re fighting with on issue X might be the people you are partnering with on issue Y. You can’t take it personal. There are policy differences that are philosophical or whatever.
There were very colorful and strong women in Minneapolis politics at the time of your service … Barbara Carlson, Jackie Cherryhomes, to name a couple of them. It was kind of magical at that time?
When I came to City Hall in 1984 the president of the City Council was Alice Rainville. So Alice Rainville was the role model.
She was the role model for me as a leader. That doesn’t mean that we agreed on all the policies. She had a different set of policies that were important to her, and some we shared. My belief was certainly that I could be the City Council president because she had already been the City Council president. My belief was that if you were the City Council president you could possibly be elected mayor. I mean because people had an opportunity to see you in a city-wide leadership role. As the City Council president I tried to play a city-wide leadership role. Why? Because it was an opportunity to do that. It was, as far as I was concerned, part of the job description. To take an interest in all of the issues that were going on across the city. To be knowledgeable about all of the city-wide issues so that you could effectively represent the City Council. So I took that very seriously and I learned a lot of how to do that from Alice. I learned how to do that from other people, like Kathleen O’Brien, who had spent a lot of time in City Hall and chaired the Ways and Means Committee. Again a position that requires you to speak broadly about the financial issues that affect the city.
The City Council members were quite well known at the time and are responsible for much of the real Minneapolis that we know today. Do you think about them or still consider them to be role models?
Yes. There were other role models in City Hall. There were other role models that took care of other things. Barbara Carlson was a spokesperson for part of the downtown. She was attuned to the issues of the business community.
Dennis Shulstad was a conservative voice for the citizens of Minneapolis. While I may have disagreed with him, it was important for me to listen to what he had to say. Charlee Hoyt was a voice of moderation. She was progressive, but she was moderate. It was important to listen to her. So there are a lot of voices in City Hall who were slightly different from your own but important to listen to them.
My partner for years, my colleague for years — I say partner because we sat together for so many of them — was Brian Coyle. And I learned a lot about progressive politics from Brian Coyle. I learned a lot about issues affecting the gay and lesbian community from private conversations with Brian Coyle. He was one of the strongest advocates for social justice on the City Council. I learned a lot from him.
I learned a lot about just working people from Sandra Hillary. A lot of people don’t remember … Sandra was a down-to-earth … just … grassroots woman. She had a career as a waitress for all of her life. She came to City Hall and she had heard everything. No-nonsense woman. I just enjoyed getting to know Sandra Hillary. (grinning)
And Walt Dziedzic. I had fun with Walt Dziedzic … but Walt Dziedzic and I were as different as night and day … but there are things that you learn from listening to Walt Dziedzic.
Steve Cramer, very smart guy. Steve and I …you know, we were competitors. He ran for mayor same time I did. But we were colleagues before we were competitors. And after we were competitors we were able to be colleagues again. So Steve works as executive director for Project for Pride in Living. I’ve done some special things with Steve Cramer through my current job, which was a wonderful to do. So some of these relationships you have and they go by the wayside and others you maintain because there is a friendship and a bond that will never go away.
Life is a continuum. You’re supposed to learn and grow.
You can’t be the mayor of Minneapolis without having some experience with St. Paul. How was your working relationship with St. Paul’s elected officials?
One of the things that we tried to do while I was in the position of mayor was to reach out to our colleagues across the river.
First of all, St. Paul is my hometown, so I really wanted to do that. We actually started doing that when I was on the City Council. And when I was Council president, the Council president in St. Paul was Bill Wilson. There is a photograph that was in the Pioneer Press that shows Bill Wilson and I in the middle of the Ford Parkway Bridge shaking hands. Council president to Council president, so that was kind of the beginning. We tried to have some meetings to talk about whether or not there was something we could do to have a more unified zoning code. So that the developers that were coming in and out of our cities had an easier way of interacting with the cities because we had more things in common. That actually didn’t go anywhere, but it was a good exercise.
We actually went on a tour of St. Paul and we brought them on tour of Minneapolis. So that we could again learn more about each other’s city. Because there was a lot of rhetoric out there about conflict between the two and that was counterproductive.
Were there conflicts or problems?
The dark side of that competitiveness was that some of the developers of the larger projects, where they were thinking about whether they wanted to be in Minneapolis or St. Paul, would, in our opinion, really try to leverage one city against the other for public support and we wanted to try to put a stop to that.
How about the mayor of St. Paul? Did you know him?
When I was elected mayor, we did have the opportunity to actually sit down and visit with Norm Coleman. In fact, when Norm and I were both elected at the same time, I went to his inaugural and he went to mine. Much like you see R. T. Rybak and Chris Coleman, you know, sharing. And my relationship with the mayor of St. Paul continued to be really good and positive until he switched parties. And then when he switched parties, it changed a little and we went back to where we were with business as usual and we were scrapping against each other for development projects.
In fact, I remember actually being livid that … uh … Lawson, which was in Northeast Minneapolis, left Northeast Minneapolis and moved to downtown St. Paul. So it’s a lovely building, I have gone into the building several occasions. But every time I pass it, I can’t help but be reminded that the public subsidies that St. Paul offered them to move to St. Paul were greater than what we offered. And, of course, everybody says it isn’t about the money, it is about employees and some other things. I am not sure I will ever be convinced of that.
But, again, that was the negative side of what happens to public resources, taxpayers’ resources, when cities don’t learn how to cooperate and to work together. It is one economy in many ways. And the bottom line is that sometimes taxpayers can get leveraged in and that’s not really … healthy.
Did you patch it up with people you campaigned against in past elections? John Derus and the others?
Yes. Yes. Yes with everything. I always believed that that was the campaign and it wasn’t personal. Now sometimes people cross the line and when they do they have to apologize. And … I am certainly one for calling you out and seeking your apology when you cross the line. And if somebody thought I crossed the line I would expect that they would ask me for an apology also. I did not have to apologize to anyone for anything that I did during the course of a campaign. I really tried to keep myself in check and try to conduct my campaign in the way that I wanted people to treat me.
You really haven’t spoken out much since your defeat to R. T. Rybak. Is there a reason for your silence about Mayor Rybak?
One of the things that I have never done since I lost the mayor’s race to R. T. Rybak is that I have never taken any opportunity to criticize him for any of his policy decisions. And that decision has served me well.
And I chose not to because the citizens of Minneapolis chose R. T. Rybak to lead them. They didn’t choose me; they chose him. So he needs to lead and he needs to listen to them.
He ran for re-election just recently and he was re-elected. So R. T. Rybak is the mayor of the city. And so I am making a decision not to criticize the mayor of the city. I think that if citizens have concerns about some of the policy decisions that he is making, I encourage them to call the mayor. They called me up. Call the mayor. I encourage them to visit City Hall. They came down sometimes en masse to visit with me. And I would encourage them to do that.
No criticism. Then how about advice for the mayor?
The city of Minneapolis is beloved by many. And the thing that I would really hope that the mayor and the members of the City Council would do is to work together. I would really like to see the mayor and the City Council do everything they possibly can do to ensure that we have a safe summer and a fun summer for our children and for our families. That is really important to me.
I would hope that they would continue to work together to ensure that our economy is growing and that we have jobs for the people who live in the city and the surrounding areas. And that these jobs are jobs with a future. That they are paying a decent wage and that they have a future.
And these things are absolutely achievable when the mayor and the City Council get on the same page and have a shared vision.
Are they not working together?
I don’t want to suggest in any way that the City Council and the mayor are not working well together. I just think that it is always a good idea when people are always challenged to do their best and then do better.
I think the fact that a lot of people are not aware of what the priorities are is an indication that we need to do more to convey that to the citizens. And there are a lot of ways to do that so that people are aware of what we are trying to accomplish and how we are trying to go about getting it done.
And I think the mayor and members of the City Council would all agree that they would like to see more of our citizens engaged. And I would underscore that.
Would you answer a question for me from the campaign? It is about the $17 million that we keep hearing about. What is that from? Was the city of Minneapolis in debt up to $17 million?
I don’t know what this is … is this the $17 million with Target?
I never heard anything about it associated with Target. It is a claim that the city had a need for $17 million somewhere that Mayor Rybak had to handle after he took office.
I think you should … ask the mayor … what the $17 million question is because I am not sure that I am the best one to answer that.
I think that the mayor absolutely believed that the city of Minneapolis needed to raise more revenue to cover some of its indebtedness. I think the mayor of the city of Minneapolis believed that with cuts in LGA [local government aid] that the money had to be made up somewhere else.
So I don’t really know which one of these scenarios the mayor might be using to frame this particular problem.
Again … I would … ask the mayor … to be … to give you the answer. (smiles)
Was the city in debt $17 million?
Again, I have no idea what the mayor is talking about.
So if the mayor is talking about having to close a gap in LGA … okay … I think that is reasonable, that is reasonable. If he wanted to pay off the city capital debt at a higher pace … okay … at this point I would be guessing … and that is never smart. (smiles)
One of the things that happens in politics a lot is administrations change. People have to have a framework for advancing their policy positions or their philosophy … and not being a member of the mayor’s Cabinet I would hesitate to comment on what I think that might be. So I would offer these general observations.
But I think if people have questions and they don’t understand … then they should ask the mayor … to just break it down. (bigger smile)
Was he a gentleman to campaign against?
You don’t really get a chance to campaign with your competitors in a mayor’s race … the only time you really interact with them is in a forum … when you’re doing a debate. Otherwise, people are usually really cordial, you know, during a campaign.
People might misrepresent what you’ve done, but you kind of expect that. And you often have with a campaign structure a chance to rebut any inaccuracies. I think the candidate R. T. Rybak used the debate as an opportunity to contrast his ideas about his city against mine … so he did that on occasion … and on others he would say … she is a great mayor and I am going to do everything that she did only differently … so, I mean … that’s the campaign, that’s the way it goes.
I really expected the debates to go the way they did. This is what candidates do in a debate. They contrast themselves to what you did. The thing about it is that if you’ve got a record, you have got something to compare it to. I have a record. So he could look at the record and he could say I didn’t like this, I would never do that. Well how do you know you’d never do that … you never had a chance to do that …
You get a chance to do that in a campaign … those are just the givens of a campaign.
You bothered by anything that happened in the campaign?
I don’t have any axes to grind regarding a campaign. They are what they are. It is a competition. At the end it’s the public’s decision … the public decided. I really spend very little time trying to analyze … it is not a good use of my time. I haven’t done that in many months … years.
Did you vote for him this last time around?
Quickly before we go now, how would you say that Mayor Rybak is doing in Minneapolis?
He is the mayor.
You know what?
I think this. (smiles)
I think R. T. Rybak loves this city … and he is doing … his best.
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