Don Samuels might have been a Jamaican gospel music star. Instead, his improbable path led him to the Minneapolis mayor’s race.
Samuels, who chairs the Minneapolis City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee, is one of eight candidates waging the most active campaigns in the race. A Star Tribune poll published last month showed him tied for first place with independent candidate Dan Cohen. Each had 16 percent support in the crowded, 35-candidate field.
Samuels grew up in Jamaica, one of 10 children raised by a Pentecostal minister.
He taught himself to play piano, and by age 18, he was leading the Don Sam Singers, a popular gospel group. But after two years touring the country, he decided he didn’t want to be a professional musician.
"I was kind of an idealistic Christian kid. And the idea that you were going to get popular for Jesus -- have fans for Jesus -- I couldn't reconcile it,” Samuels laughed.
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Plus, he wanted an education. At age 20, he gave up his music career and moved to the United States.
He enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York City and studied commercial art, which he thought sounded like the kind of art you could get paid for.
After he graduated, he took a job as a toy designer. As a recent immigrant, it took a while to get the hang of the business.
"I didn't grow up with TV. And here I am in an intensely culture-driven industry,” Samuels said. “Everything I designed they said had been done already."
After about a year, Samuels said he started to come up with ideas the company liked. He moved up the ranks of the toymaker Playskool and later moved to Minnesota, where he became part owner of an independent toy design company called Red Racer Studio.
When he wasn't designing toys, Samuels volunteered, first in the church, then for community organizations. He went to seminary so he could minister to the children in his neighborhood.
In 2003, Ward 5 Minneapolis City Councilmember Joe Biernat was convicted on corruption charges. Samuels ran in the special election for the seat and won against the DFL-endorsed candidate.
"People had come to see our campaign as an idea, as an ideal,” Samuels said at his election night victory party. “They were fired up on a level that can only be described as spiritual."
Samuels has a flare for evocative language, and it sometimes gets him into trouble. During a forum on crime prevention in 2005, he brought up slavery, explaining his family was descended from house slaves -– not field slaves.
“The reason that my family got a leg up on the people in our village in Jamaica is that we were in the big house. We saw homework done. They saw books read. They saw the piano lessons. And that's why my wife and I say, 'we want our house to be the big house on our block.' And we're going to open it up to every kid on our block,” Samuels said at the forum.
This didn't go over well with some activists in the African-American community, and the criticism got especially heated on a local cable access show.
“We don't need to hear this about no house [N-word] from the big house,” activist Booker Hodges said on a local cable access TV show.
Hodges was a supporter of Natalie Johnson Lee, who was running against Samuels for City Council, but Hodges’ remarks went beyond politics.
"We have to learn from Nat Turner's mistake, and we have to kill the house [N-word]s,” he said. “We got to kill them, and that's what we're doing on this show."
Samuels then complained to the Minneapolis Television Network, which receives part of its funding from the City Council, and the station suspended the program.
Its host, Al Flowers, sued Samuels, claiming he abused his power as a city councilmember and violated the First Amendment. A jury agreed, but it awarded Flowers just $3 in damages.
Today, Samuels says some African-Americans still don't see him as one of them because he didn't grow up in the United States But he said he feels like part of the black community, and he's passionate about what he sees as a failure of the city's schools to educate black youth.
"I can't stand it. I can't swallow it. It's choking me. It has to change,” he said.
Although the mayor of Minneapolis has no authority over the city's schools, Samuels' campaign website says he wants to “lead a city-wide conversation about how to change the trajectory of education.”
Samuels, who has been outspoken against the National Rifle Association and gun violence, sees safe streets and successful students as his calling.
Cody Nelson contributed to this report.