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October 7, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels are similar in many ways. Both have taken career paths that have led them from corporate America to public service. Both have similar goals for their ward - reducing crime and poverty and increasing home ownership and economic development.
But that's where the similarities end.
Johnson Lee came to the city in 1992 from Philadelphia and previously worked at the Minneapolis Urban League mentoring young people.
Samuels is a Jamaican immigrant who's lived in the United States for more than 20 years. He became a community activist after moving to north Minneapolis in the early 1990s.
Johnson Lee is a member of the Green Party. Four years ago she upset a heavily favored DFL incumbent to gain her seat. Samuels is a DFLer who represents a neighboring ward. But redistricting after the 2000 Census pulled Samuels' north Minneapolis home into Johnson Lee's turf. Instead of moving into the new third ward, Samuels chose to stay and challenge Johnson Lee.
At a recent debate the tension Johnson Lee and Samuels is evident. "Natalie sits here, well dressed in a pink suit and as she says dignified, while behind her is a slough of very nasty campaigners," says Samuels from the stage of the North High School auditorium.
During the debate, Samuels accuses Johnson Lee of leading a group of activists who've attacked him. One of them has compared Samuels to klansman David Duke and Adolph Hitler. Another has filed a lawsuit against Samuels.
"And they have weekly, about three hours a week lambasted me as a klan member, as a hater of black people, because I'm honest enough to talk about some of the vulnerabilities of our community, how we don't like ourselves," he says.
Johnson Lee tells the audience she's not responsible for any of the comments made by her supporters.
"There are some people offended by some of the things that my opponent has said," Johnson Lee says. "And they have decided to do something about it. That has nothing to do with me."
The main controversy over what Samuels said, and the response it elicited starts back in March of this year. Samuels spoke at a community forum on crime prevention. He told the audience that he and his wife made a point to move into a neighborhood challenged by poverty and crime because they felt they could make a difference there. Samuels told the group that the inner city needs more black middle class families like his to move in and serve as role models.
To illustrate why some black families have advantages others do not, he cited his Jamaican heritage.
"I say all the time that my great grandfather on both sides were mulatto men," says Samuels. "They were descended from the last slave in the family. Mulatto slaves. And the reason 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. That's why my wife and I say, our house is the big house on our block. And we're going to open it up to every kid on the block."
Samuels comment struck a nerve with some African Americans because it highlights some of the divisions created during slavery. It recalls a painful history of how forced unions between white slavemasters and black women created a color caste system that put lighter skinned black Americans above darker people. Samuels says he's not proud of that history, but says black people should not be afraid to talk about it.
But some of Johnson Lee's supporters say Samuels is not the one to lead that discussion.
"A lot of white people may not know this, but that's why it's so offensive to us - when someone tells us they're from the 'big house'. We don't need to hear this about no nigga from the big house, excuse my language," says Booker Hodges in a clip from a cable access show that was broadcast last May.
Hodges is a columnist for the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, the state's oldest black newspaper. He lives in the fifth ward, his wife works in Johnson Lee's office and he supports Johnson Lee, but doesn't work for her campaign.
Hodges says statements about slavery and others Samuels has made about race show that he doesn't understand black people and doesn't like them.
Hodges is the one who compared Samuels attitudes about race to those of Hitler and David Duke. Hodges has also likened Samuels to the house slaves who sabotaged rebellions by field slaves like Nat Turner.
"We as a people, one, in Minneapolis, have to unite. And we have to learn from Nat Turner's mistake and we have to kill the house niggers," Hodges said on his broadcast. "We have to kill them. And that's what we're doing on this show. We're trying to kill the house niggers."
Samuels took that comment as a personal threat and filed charges. Hodges says he didn't threaten Samuels. But he apologized. The charges were dropped.
However, the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network, which broadcasts the show, temporarily pulled it off the air. The show's producer, Alfred Flowers, has filed a suit against Samuels. He alleges that Samuels and other city officials told MTN to pull the show, violating his First Amendment right.
Samuels denies that he violated Flowers' freedom of speech. And he says the suit is a tactic by the Johnson Lee campaign.
But Natalie Johnson Lee says she's not running a negative campaign. And she says the Samuels campaign is trying to bait her and get her to act like the stereotypical "angry black woman."
For its part, the Samuels campaign has taken aim at Johnson Lee's husband Travis Lee. Lee publishes a monthly magazine that focuses on the local R&B and hip hop music and club scene. Lee's paper has been critical of Samuels. Samuels has called the publication a "porno mag" because it has run an advertisement for a strip club.
Johnson Lee says neither Hodges' television show nor her husbands' publication speak for her. But she's not about to tell people who support her to be quiet.
"If you open your mouth and you say things and you're going to speak boldly about different issues, you just may get attacked," says Johnson Lee.
She is referring to other statements Samuels has made about racism. Samuels says racism is omnipresent in America, as well as in his home country of Jamaica. He says racism is so powerful it causes black people to look down on themselves. Samuels says he knows better now, but when he grew up he was taught that dark skin, kinky hair and thick lips were ugly.
But Johnson Lee says she didn't learn that.
"I was raised in America," she says. "And I was not raised to hate black people. In fact I was raised to love black folks. And it was something that you had to learn how to do because sometimes -- as a quote from Malcolm X -- sometimes you have to love us more than we hate ourselves."
The campaign for the fifth ward may leave some lasting scars on the candidates and some of their supporters. But there may be some good that comes out of this.
Al McFarlane, publisher of Insight News, has sponsored several candidate forums between Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels. McFarlane says both candidates are capable of serving the ward well. He says the competition between the two should be seen as a sign of progress.
"We need to get used to challenging each other because that's how we get better, that's how the candidates get better; that's how our community gets better," says McFarlane. "And we cannot let our interest or our opportunities be taken for granted by us or by anybody else. So every vote, Natalie has to work for. Every vote, Don has to work for."
There may be more pressing issues than race in the fifth ward. Unemployment is high, there's a shortage of economic activity and serious crime is higher here than in other parts of the city.
Historically, election turnout in north Minneapolis has lagged behind the rest of the city. But McFarlane and others predict that the intense contest between Johnson Lee and Samuels may inspire more voters, particularly African Americans, to go to the polls on November 8th.