More than a hundred homeless Minnesotans gathered Wednesday for what they hoped would be a serious gubernatorial forum on affordable housing, health care, job creation, and other issues affecting the state's poorest residents.
Instead, they got a lesson on how hard it can be to swim in the political mainstream when you don't represent a large, reliable voting block. Many had spent much of the last year at the State Capitol trying to prevent the elimination of health insurance and welfare payments for the poor.
They had met with lawmakers and testified in committees where they shared personal and painful stories of drug addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and trauma. For most, it was the first time they had been involved in politics.
Now, several months later, they sat in the Salvation Army's new chapel, tucked in between two homeless shelters a couple blocks from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, and waited for the candidates for lieutenant governor to arrive. There were only four chairs on the stage.
The event attracted one major party candidate - Tom Horner's running mate Jim Mulder. The Independence Party candidate outlined a plan to provide $25 million in new funding to combat homelessness.
"You should not be seen as a math problem," Mulder told the crowd. "You should be seen as valuable contributors to the state of Minnesota."
No one from the campaigns of DFL candidate Mark Dayton or Republican candidate Tom Emmer attended.
“I was pretty sad that no one from the Democrats or the Republicans showed up.”Bryan Sullivan, event organizer
Most of the hour-long forum was spent listening to representatives from several minor parties discuss issues tangential at best to the problem of homelessness: the concerns about the growing hawk population in northern Minnesota, the criminalization of marijuana, and the disparity in liberal arts and research funding at the University of Minnesota.
"I was pretty sad that no one from the Democrats or the Republicans showed up, but it just buttresses our opinion that they don't give a damn about the poor and homeless," said Bryan Sullivan, a formerly homeless man who helped organize the event.
It was difficult to find anyone who disagreed with that statement as the crowd left the chapel and headed next door for dinner. Organizers and audience members added that they were grateful to the candidates who did attend. Two volunteers stayed behind to pop the red, white, and blue balloons they had used to decorate the space.
"Our campaign regrets the scheduling conflict, and in no way intended to disappoint or slight those involved," said Emmer campaign spokesperson Chris Van Guilder in an email.
Emmer's running mate, Annette Meeks, was scheduled to attend, but cancelled late Friday afternoon.
The Dayton campaign told forum organizers they were unable to send anyone due to scheduling conflicts. The campaign also declined an offer to participate via online video conferencing, forum organizers said.
Dayton said the hectic pace of the campaign prevented him and his running mate from attending. "It's just impossible to be everywhere I'd like to be," he said.
A group of homeless and formerly homeless Minnesotans began organizing the forum this summer. They contacted campaign staffers, passed out flyers in shelters and under bridges, and prepared a list of questions.
On the day of the event, they dressed in dark blue shirts with a simple message: Vote November 2. Almost of all the event staff, including the moderator and the cameraperson, used to be homeless.
“We worked real hard at this ... we pounded the pavement.”Michael Watson, event organizer
"We worked real hard at this," said organizer Michael Watson, "We pounded the pavement."
Watson spent the last month handing out flyers and voter registration forms at the shelter where he used to sleep.
"Most of the people, they're so scared that they're going to vote for someone who is going to cut the programs they depend on," he said. "I wanted people to get educated about their choices."
Those in attendance did learn about the candidates' views, but most of the candidates chose not to spend much time talking about homelessness.
Howard Hanson, the lieutenant governor candidate for the Resource Party, spoke out against the growing number of hawks in northern Minnesota, the decrease in the number of resorts throughout the state, and the impact of fetal alcohol syndrome on autism rates.
"Anglers are not having fun anymore," Hanson told the crowd, adding, "Who's happy with this economy?" He reminded the audience that happiness is included in the Constitution.
Oliver Steinberg came dressed in a Bob Marley t-shirt, shorts, and a marijuana leaf belt buckle to represent the Grassroots Party. He said someone from the party called him in the morning and asked him to fill in for the party's candidate for lieutenant governor, Ed Engelmann.
"Who isn't here? The Democrats and the Republicans, the ones that are going to win the election," Steinberg told the crowd.
Moderator Robert Fischer asked Steinberg to describe his party's job creation plan and whether he supports state funding for job training.
Steinberg said, "We'll legalize marijuana. That'll give us a lot of gardening jobs."
When asked about how he would help make transit more affordable, he replied, "We haven't gotten around to that one and that just gives me the chance to make a number of disconnected comments."
Steinberg's views on marijuana received a mixed reception. The audience applauded loudly when Steinberg called the war on drugs an attack on "poor people and colored people."
But when Steinberg said that marijuana is not an addictive drug, many in the crowd shook their heads in disagreement, while others laughed.
The Green Party's candidate for lieutenant governor, Dan Dittmann, apologized for arriving about half an hour late. Dittmann voiced his concerns regarding the funding structure at the University of Minnesota, which, he said, prioritizes research over the liberal arts.
He received loud applause for saying, "Tax the rich," but his remarks on how to address the lack of affordable housing were met with silence.
"There wouldn't be any need to formally construct new homes," he said. Instead, he said, the state should put people to work by renovating vacant foreclosed properties.
Mulder's remarks received the most applause from the crowd. He said the revised General Assistance Medical Care program has failed to provide adequate medical care to low-income residents, and he voiced his support for early enrollment into the expanded Medicaid program. Mulder did not outline a specific plan to create jobs, but said the government should provide better transit options for low-income city residents who find work in the suburbs.
He received the loudest applause when he said that social workers and people on welfare are burdened with too much paperwork. He said that some people have to sign their name more than a dozen times to receive benefits.
"That's stupid, just plain stupid," he said.
Ecology Democracy Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel arrived just as the other participants were making their closing statements. Pentelran up to the podium, took off his bike helmet, and asked if he could address the crowd.
"Everyone in our society should have food, housing, education, and a decent job," he said, as the audience applauded.
Steinberg had some parting words for the crowd. "Thank you for listening while we build our castles in the sky," he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Oliver Steinberg was a stand-in for Dan Dittman. In truth, Steinberg was standing in for Ed Engelmann. MPR News regrets this error.