Commissioners stadium tax vote gives challengers political ammunitionby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will vote Tuesday to levy a county-wide sales tax to help pay for construction of a new Minnesota Twins stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The county was granted permission by the Legislature to pass the tax increase without putting it to a vote by taxpayers. Four of the seven commissioners say they'll vote for the tax. Three of those four commissioners are up for re-election this fall, and their opponents say, the stadium tax vote is a hot issue.
Minneapolis, Minn. — County board election campaigns generally don't get a lot of public attention, but this year may be different. Commissioners Peter McLaughlin, Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein are expected to vote for the stadium tax and all three are running for reelection. Commissioner Randy Johnson, the fourth vote for the stadium tax, is not up for election.
Farheen Hakeem, who's challenging McLaughlin for his seat, says the ballpark issue has offered her an entry point to talk about her campaign platform.
"I've talked to other people about child protection, affordable housing and ending homelessness," she says. "But for some reason they're not as passionate. They say, 'Yeah, we really want to protect children, but I really hate this stadium deal.'"
On a recent Saturday Hakeem, a member of the Green Party, is out in a south Minneapolis neighborhood door-knocking for votes. She's carrying a clipboard to help her document the responses she gets at each residence. So far, the few people who have answered their doors, haven't had much to say about the stadium deal.
Hakeem says the stadium tax issue is not her main reason for running. But she says Peter McLaughlin's decision to support the stadium over the objections of many of his constituents sends the wrong message.
"That's very patronizing, to say, 'I know what's best for the county more than the average citizen,'" says Hakeem. "If you strongly believe that it's best for the county then you need to do your part to educate people within your district to make sure it is a good deal and they understand it. But if you don't have the people's support, then how can you make such a decision? Isn't it your job to represent the people?"
McLaughlin, who's been on the County Board for 15 years, says he has listened to public opposition to the plan, and he's sticking to his 'yes' vote.
"I don't believe that leadership is sticking your finger in your mouth and then holding up to figure out which way the wind is blowing," he says. "That is not leadership. Leadership is looking at the facts and figuring out how you make something positive happen. And that's what we're doing here."
McLaughlin says he's championed other projects that, at first, were not popular and would have failed at the ballot box. He cities the Hiawatha light rail line. McLaughlin says by approving the sales tax to fund the ballpark, he and other commissioners will keep the Twins in Minneapolis, and in turn keep millions of people coming to the city each summer to watch baseball.
"This ballpark, it's a hard deal, it's a close deal," he says. "The economics of big-time sports stink. But you've got to decide, if you're responsible as an elected official, for the health of a city and a county, whether you're going to try to keep that activity, three million people a year, in your city."
Other political challengers disagree.
"I don't believe this has any benefit, whatsover, to the county or the city, for that matter," says Tom Reynolds, director of the Whittier Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis.
Reynolds is running against Commissioner Mike Opat. Opat was the county's lead negotiator of the deal with the Twins. Reynolds, who opposes the ballpark tax, says Opat and the other commissioners who support the tax are not acting in the best interests of county residents.
"The real issue, I believe is do we spend public money for a private individual? And to me, I believe that as a public official you have a duty and a fiduciary responsibility to really do what is good for all of the citizens of the county," he says.
Opat acknowledges the criticism he faces for backing the ballpark deal. But he doesn't think it will be a central issue in his re-election. Opat, who's served on the board since 1992, says the Twins stadium is just one of many projects he's supported.
"There's a lot of other things going on in Hennepin County's first district that I think people know about." he says. "The Brooklyn Park library, the new Brookdale Library. We have a new housing project that we've broken ground for for people with MS up in north Minneapolis, that's going to be a brand new thing on the southern part of the Humboldt Greenway. And we're doing things to help new immigrants work with police in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center."
Besides Reynolds, Opat faces opposition from Mary O'Connor and James Wirth. McLaughlin faces two challengers. Besides Farheen Hakeem, Jan Nye is also running. Steve Wellens and Gregory Gray are running against Mark Stenglein.
Only one county commissioner up for reelection is unopposed. That's Gail Dorfman. She's voting against the stadium tax.
- Morning Edition, 08/29/2006, 7:24 a.m.