Minneapolis mayoral candidates debate one last time before election

Minneapolis mayoral candidates posed
From the left: Minneapolis mayoral candidates Cam Winton, Stephanie Woodruff, Mark Andrew, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Jackie Cherryhomes, Bob Fine and Dan Cohen at the final debate before the election in Westminster Presbyterian Church on Nov. 1, 2013.
Amanda Snyder

This is the most hotly contested mayor's race Minneapolis has seen in 20 years. Three-term incumbent R.T. Rybak isn't seeking re-election. Thirty-five candidates have filed to run for his seat. The ones waging the most active campaigns have debated more than two dozen times.

The eight leading candidates -- six DFLers and two independents -- debated on Friday for the last time before Tuesday's election. In an hour-long forum organized by MPR News, they discussed where they think the city is wasting money -- and where it should spend more. On many issues, most of the candidates are closely aligned. But they have different priorities for the city budget.

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One point of friction is a proposal to build a streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue.

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"If we're going to grow our city the right way, we need to bring more people here, but not more cars here," said candidate Betsy Hodges, a city council member who supports the $200 million proposal. Businesses are more likely to invest along streetcar lines than on bus routes, because they know transit is there to stay, she said.

Streetcars have spurred billions of dollars in development in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., said Council member Don Samuels, who also supports streetcars. Investment near the light rail line in Minneapolis is "already up over $1 billion," he added.

Minneapolis mayoral candidates final debate
Minneapolis mayoral candidates speak at the final debate before the election in Westminster Presbyterian Church on Nov. 1, 2013.
Amanda Snyder

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew also supports the streetcar proposal. Jackie Cherryhomes, a former city council member, is pro-streetcar, but doesn't like the city's plan to pay for them.

Other candidates strongly oppose it.

The money would be better spent on after school programs and providing children with tablet computers, said software executive Stephanie Woodruff, a DFLer endorsed by the Independence Party.

Former Council member Dan Cohen said he also opposes the project, its cost and proposed route. He called the streetcar "an expensive toy," but said he might reconsider his opposition if the Lake Street Kmart that interrupts Nicollet Avenue could be torn down.

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine and attorney Cam Winton are in the anti-streetcar camp, too.

Candidates were asked to briefly address where the city is wasting money.

Winton, an independent supported by the Republican Party, said Minneapolis and Hennepin County have several duplicative departments. "Each of those enterprises currently has its own IT department, HR department, 911 system, etc," Winton said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Dan Cohen surpasses three sentences
Minneapolis mayoral candidate Dan Cohen surpasses his three sentence limit at the end of the final debate in Westminster Presbyterian Church on Nov. 1, 2013.
Amanda Snyder

Winton would try to merge those city and county departments. That's a proposal Andrew has criticized in the past, though he said the city could save money by eliminating middle managers.

"We still have too many managers managing managers in the mid-level positions in city government," Andrew said. "In some departments, those have actually grown as basic services have been cut."

Only one candidate is running on a pledge to cut property taxes.

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine pledged to cut the tax levy 5 percent. He didn't propose specifics, but said the independent park board has been able to limit property tax increases by auditing its operations.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have a city run as efficiently and providing such a high level of service as our nationally renowned park system?" Fine asked.

Cherryhomes also wants to cut unspecified inefficiencies. Rather than a tax cut, she proposes to increase spending on basic services.

"Where I think we need to spend more money on our public infrastructure, our roads, our curbs, or gutters, the things the city is responsible for," she said. "We need to spend more money on creating jobs, affordable housing and we need to redirect some of our money in the public safety area."

The candidates avoided direct confrontation in their final debate. There have been plenty of testy exchanges over the course of the campaign, but after today's forum, they all sang "Kumbaya," literally.

After 30-some debates, they decided to head into the final weekend before the election on a positive note.