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Political beginnings in the 2001 contest for mayor of Minneapolis and related activities

by Bill McGaughey


Bill McGaughey’s statement

As a landlord activist in Minneapolis, I was not primarily concerned with electoral politics but eventually went that way. My greatest commitment as a landlord came in the summer of 2001 when I became a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis after the group’s leader, Charlie Disney, dropped out of that race. Although the result of the primary election was disappointing, the mayor’s race may have whetted my appetite for political candidacies in the future.

This site contains the following writings:

a. Activities related to the landlord group’s “political committee” in 1997
b. The failed mayoral candidacies of Charlie Disney and Bill McGaughey
c. A post-election singing event
d. Results of the 2001 Minneapolis city elections
e. More about the 2001 general election


a. Activities related to the landlord group’s “political committee” in 1997 (recollections of Bill McGaughey written in December 2015)

Minneapolis Property Rights Action committee (MPRAC) formed a “political committee” to support candidates favorable to our cause in the 1997 municipal elections. Our friend Barbara Carlson was running against the incumbent mayor of Minneapolis, Sharon Sayles Belton.

I sent out a fundraising letter to landlords in our group and others sympathetic to our cause. It yielded $2,000 to $3,000 as I recall. This money was turned over to the political committee. For the most part, these were not landlords in our group but others sympathetic to our cause.

The political committee operated in an entirely different way than MPRAC. Robert’s Rules of Order governed its meetings. Resolutions were offered and votes were taken. A secretary took notes and produced meetings.

By contrast, MPRAC was an “action committee” that operated by consensus under Charlie Disney’s leadership. Charlie was the magnetic personality that held the group together. He always claimed that it was not his personality so much that explained his success but the willingness to make “thousands of phone calls”. But Charlie was on top of things and a master of motivating others to do work that contributed to the organization. It had no organizational structure to speak of.

I acted as a self-appointed deputy to Charlie. He called me the group’s “chief writer” but I also acted as a strategist and organizer of protest activities.

signs of trouble

I have to say that I became contemptuous of the political committee after it met on a bimonthly basis since the spring of 1997 and by the late fall seemed to have accomplished nothing. It was working on bylaws and such rather than helping candidates.

Some time in October - about a month before the November election - I attended a meeting for the purpose of giving the group a list of lawn-sign locations, as I recall. The group voted to delay campaign operations for another week or two. Disgusted, I took the lists back. This high-handed act may have caused some hard feelings.

I think Jens Christensen eventually took charge of the money and gave much of it to Jim Graham who was running for City Council in the 6th ward. He lost, as did everyone else that the political committee supported. Charlie was angry at Jens for having squandered the money but I thought it was OK if candidates were actually supported. By then, the money was all gone.

After the election, Charlie and I had lunch, or coffee, with two of the newly elected City Council members whom we had not supported: Paul Ostrow, who later became president of the City Council, and Lisa Goodman, a major power player on the Council. Goodman made a point of how we had supported her opponent in the election. All I could say is that it was not us landlords but our “political committee” which had not been effective. I admired her frankness.

I have to say that even if the political committee failed, it brought me and the group into contact with interesting persons whom we would not otherwise have met. Among them was Alan Shilepsky who was the Reform Party’s candidate for Secretary of State in 1998, the same year that Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota with the same party. I followed Alan in political matters, eventually becoming active in the Reform and Independence parties.

introduction to political people

The chair of the political committee was Jim Jacobson. On his own initiative, he published a free-circulation newspaper, the Property Owner. It was published for several years. Afterwards, the Watchdog newspaper, published by Jim Swartwood, took its place. These newspapers added greatly to the group’s ability to influence public opinion. Jim Jacobsen now lives in eastern Montana.

Charles Test, the political committee’s secretary, was also state chair of the Minnesota Libertarian Party. He was also one of the participants in MPRAC’s original lawsuit. Charlie Test was active in MPRAC in its early days.

Craig Miller, a landlord in Camden, was active in the Republican party. He was friendly with Barb Johnson, who became chair of the Minneapolis City Council. After he moved to Rogers, Craig brought us in contact with Republican state legislators in that area such as state senator Warren Limmer. In short, Craig was our guide to state politics.

John Williams was a landlord whom I had met years earlier - in the 1970s - because he operated a group home on Pleasant Avenue where my brother, David, stayed for a time. John was a social visionary. He had some eccentric ideas that he applied to his housing community. I think John Williams moved to Florida - at least, I have lost touch with him. But, as an ideas man, he was my kind of guy.

Barbara Carlson, the mayoral candidate in 1997, became a close friend of Charlie Disney’s. They often played bridge together. I once joined them at a bridge-playing session.

Jill Waite later became an attorney who took on radical causes. She might have gotten into trouble with the legal establishment. Jim Goldstein has died.

Jens Christensen was a leading light of the political committee. He had once represented the 6th ward on the Minneapolis City Council. His expertise in political matters was quite valuable. He, too, has died.

The political committee met at Nora’s restaurant, named after Nora Truelson. Nora’s son, Trygg, was an expert table-tennis player coached by Charlie Disney. Nora used to have a Christmas party at her home to which we were all invited.

The Truelsons operated Porky’s fast-foot restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul for many years. When light rail went in, Porky’s sold its facility to an religious organization that houses senior citizens. The city of Minneapolis killed Porkys on Central Avenue in Minneapolis. Trygg Truelson was its owner and manager. There is a new restaurant called Trygg’s on the Lake Street site where Nora’s used to be located.

b. The failed mayoral candidacies of Charlie Disney and Bill McGaughey

After Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton came out in favor of easier expungement of Unlawful Detainer records having kept MPRAC for months in the dark about its proposals for better relations between landlords and the city, MPRAC members felt they had been had. Some expressed the opinion that MPRAC executive director Charlie Disney ought to run for Mayor if only because the campaign would provide a platform for pro-landlord issues to be raised. Charlie agreed. His campaign was underway at the beginning of May.

Charlie's campaign

Charlie sought the DFL nomination for mayor at the DFL city convention at Sy Melby Hall on the campus of Augsburg College. Charlie, Bill McGaughey, and others attended the day-long convention. Richard Bear, a delegate, put Charlie Disney’s name in nomination. Bill McGaughey, wearing a hat with “Mickey Mouse” ears, gave the nominating speech. In the end, Charlie received only 6 votes. The real news at the convention was that R.T. Rybak had managed to prevent the incumbent DFL mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton, from winning party endorsement.

Between May and July, the Disney campaign did some leafletting and other activities but failed to catch fire. Disney himself was disillusioned by the lack of active support from MPRAC members. In the end, he failed to file the papers to enter the mayoral primary. At the same time, he suffered a major heart attack. Charlie also resigned his leadership position at MPRAC.

Bill McGaughey jumps into the race

Bill McGaughey, a member of MPRAC’s executive committee, filed as a candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis in July 2001. (He had previously announced his candidacy for the same office in 1997 but dropped out of the race when Barbara Carlson, a landlord sympathizer, became a candidate.) For personal reasons, McGaughey had limited time to campaign; he was out of town for much of the time. In a week of active campaigning, he distributed several thousand leaflets attacking the incumbent city administration while carrying a picket sign around town.

The primary election was held on September 11, 2001. McGaughey had two reasons to feel gloomy. First, the massive attack on the World Trade Center towers and on the Pentagon on that day cast a pall over the election. Second, McGaughey received only 143 votes in the mayoral primary. This was good for a twelfth place finish in a field of twenty-two candidates.


c. An election eve singing event - a press release

“To our friends in the media: Though you were not interested in our political ideas, perhaps you would like to hear us sing.

You are cordially invited to the first (and maybe last) performance of the EXCLUDED MAYORAL CANDIDATES CHORUS singing a variety of patriotic and other songs.

We expect to have at least five singers there and perhaps some instrumental accompaniment. Our talent is drawn from a pool of candidates for mayor of Minneapolis.

Where: Peavey Plaza, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis

When: Monday, September 10, at noon

Pavarottis we may not be, but some of us can carry a tune. See you there!

Our repetoire includes twelve well-known songs including “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “America, the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”

Release date: September 8, 2001”

(Bill McGaughey’s comment: “This appeal to the news media actually worked. And so it was that, on the eve of September 11, 2001, I made my singing debut (and, to date, only appearance) on Twin Cities commercial television giving voice to patriotic expressions during the 10:00 p.m. news.”)  


d. the general election of 2001 and its aftermath

The year 2001 represented a peak in MPRAC’s political activities. The general election in November saw the replacement of the incumbent mayor with challenger, R.T. Rybak. Rybak had come to Disney earlier in the year seeking MPRAC’s support. He met with group representatives at the French Meadows restaurant. Rybak also appeared at MPRAC meetings three times during his campaign for mayor and often engaged the group in private discussions of issues.

More significantly, MPRAC played a key role in removing the Minneapolis City Council President, Jackie Cherryhomes. A member produced a leaflet asking Jackie twenty-one embarrassing questions which ACORN distributed throughout the ward. On election day, more than a dozen MPRAC members participated in events to support the challenger, Green Party candidate Natalie Johnson Lee. One member rented a sound truck that circulated throughout the ward. Others were poll watchers or drivers to take voters to the polls. In a miraculous upset, Johnson Lee won the election and became the 5th Ward’s new representative on the City Council.

After the 2001 election, MPRAC faced sobering prospects. On one hand, while being ignored by the media, it had proved its political clout. On the other hand, there was a change in leadership. Charlie Disney resigned from the group. Its Executive Committee selected Eve White as the new leader. Rybak, however, failed to appoint Eve or other MPRAC members to his twelve-person housing task force. Instead, it was stacked with representatives of housing nonprofits.


e. more about the 2001 general election

Throughout 2001, a large sign was positioned at the front of the hall where members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee held their monthly meetings. This sign identified four City Council candidates, termed “the dirty four”, whom the Property Rights group opposed; and there were four candidates whom the sign said this group favored.

Members of the “dirty four” included:

Joan Campbell, 2nd ward
Joe Biernat, 3rd ward
Jackie Cherryhomes, 5th ward
Kathy Thurber, 9th ward

It is significant that three of these four Council members will not be returning. Council member Thurber decided in March not to seek reelection. Her place will be taken by Gary Schiff, who was endorsed at the DFL ward convention. Joan Campbell, in the 2nd ward, placed third in the September 11th primary behind Cam Gordon and Paul Zerby, the eventual winner. Jackie Cherryhomes, the City Council President, was knocked off in the November 6th general election by Natalie Johnson Lee. Of the “dirty four”, only Joe Biernat was reelected. (He was later sent to prison for illegally accepting gifts from a plumbers' union.)

The sign also indicated that the group favored these candidates:

Paul Ostrow, 1st ward
Barb Johnson, 4th ward
Lisa Goodman, 7th ward
Sandra Colvin Roy, 12th ward

All of these candidates easily won reelection. Even before Cherryhomes’ defeat, it was announced that Paul Ostrow would seek to be elected President of the City Council and Lisa Goodman would seek to be elected Vice President. The November 6th election makes their election to those positions a virtual certainty.

At a later meeting before the election, M.P.R.A.C. members pencilled in the names of Robert Lilligren, Dean Zimmerman, Barret Lane, Shane Price, and others under the “good” category. We took no position with respect to the 9th, 10th, and 1th wards although, prior to the DFL convention, a member spoke with Gary Schiff about possible support.

With respect to the Mayor’s race, the sign indicated that the mayoral field included “an embarrassment of riches.” This was because three of the four top contenders - Rybak, McDonald, and Stenglein - were considered our friends. I would resist labelling Sayles Belton an enemy despite the strong desire among Property Rights advocates for sweeping change. We tried to hold off on mayoral preferences until after the primary election, but were unsuccessful. Individual members went various ways.

Charlie Disney, our executive director, announced his own candidacy for Mayor shortly before the DFL city convention but dropped out for health reasons. After Charlie’s departure, I ran for Mayor on the “Affordable Housing - Preservation” in a candidacy intended to raise issues and remain noncommittal with respect to the major contenders. I finished 12th among the 22 mayoral candidates.

R.T. Rybak, the eventual winner of the 2001 mayoral contest, came to the Property Rights meeting twice after the primary - once for an hour on the night after the primary election and then a month later. He challenged the group to draw up a list of specific proposals to improve city government which he might incorporate in his 90-day action plan if elected. The landlords met and submitted about twenty suggestions in various areas. These proposals were mentioned in a Star Tribune article on Rybak’s and Sayles Belton’s positions on affordable housing.

Rybak took heat from some quarters for talking with members of the Property Rights group. It should be remembered, however, that Rybak’s late step-father, Chuck Metzge, was a landlord and early contributor to Charlie Disney’s fledgling movement. His mother, Lorraine, who played a key role in her son’s successful campaign, was constantly reminding landlords of that fact.

what impact did we have?

What impact did Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee actually have on the election? The greatest impact came about, perhaps, in the exposure which candidates received to audiences of the group’s cable-television show. This hour-long show airs twice on Fridays on the regional cable-television station, Channel 6, and on MTN. The group purchased additional air time in the months before the election so that we could help our political friends. Jim Swartwood also put together a special program before the primary which turned out to be a debate among the minor mayoral candidates.

Except for the 2nd ward where we invited all the principal contenders - Campbell, Zerby, and Gordon - to discuss and debate issues on an equal footing, our practice was generally to invite only our friends to benefit from the paid air time. Rybak, McDonald, and Stenglein all appeared for at least an hour (two hours in McDonald’s case because she also filled in for a “no show”) early in the year. They had all come to our group seeking support.

Of the City Council candidates, Natalie Johnson Lee was the most frequent guest; she was present at three or four meetings. Of the other successful candidates for City Council, those appearing on the cable-television show included Barb Johnson, Dean Zimmerman, and Robert Lilligren. Numerous unsuccessful candidates for City Council, especially in the 3rd and 6th wards, were also invited to participate on the show.

Members of M.P.R.A.C. also helped the winning candidates in other ways: giving lawn-sign locations, contributing money, participating in literature drops, etc. The most remarkable effort was certainly that in the 5th ward where Jim McCauley lined up at least a dozen landlord volunteers to drive voters to the polls, do poll watching, and other chores. In an unusual alliance with us landlords, Minnesota ACORN dropped literature for Johnson Lee which included a list of 23 unanswered questions addressed to Jackie Cherryhomes, written by a member of the landlord group.

Cherryhomes, the City Council president, blamed (we would say, credited) the landlord group for her defeat in a post-election interview with WCCO-TV. The WCCO web site included this statement: “The City Council President said that a group called the Property Rights Action Coalition ran a ‘difficult’ campaign against her. The group protested last summer in front of Cherryhomes’ house, objecting to neighborhood revitalization project funding she received for her own residence. ‘In my ward, couple the winds of change with what I think was a very mean, personal attack, and this was the outcome,’ she said.”

We landlords would dispute that our picketing or campaign activities were any meaner than what was needed to get the job done in removing Cherryhomes from her office through the election process. In the absence of mutual good will and open discussion, this is unfortunately what it took to assert our interests effectively.

All in all, the general election on November 6th, 2001, brought a very good night for Minneapolis rental-property owners - in stark contrast, I might add, with their experience on the eve of the September 11th primary election and, especially, the horror of the terrorist attacks that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C. earlier in the day.

See for political cartoon.

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