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Sparks fly at Minneapolis mayoral debate
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Minneapolis mayoral candidate Marcus Harcus interrupted a three-way debate Wednesday night, demanding to be included on the stage. He was eventually allowed to participate. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Candidates for Minneapolis mayor offered their visions for dealing with public safety issues during a sometimes contentious debate Wednesday night. Organizers invited Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McGlaughlin and Green Party candidate Farheen Hakeem to the forum, but before it was over a fourth candidate forced his way onto the stage.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Crime and public safety are the central issues in this year's election. Peter McLaughlin said the city is suffering because Mayor Rybak cut police officers as a budget balancing measure during his first term. He said police are now chasing 911 calls at the expense of community policing.

"It's not just the number of officers, it's what the reduction in officers has done," McLaughlin said. "It has compromised the ability of the police department to do modern, effective relationship-based policing."

"That's a nice vision, Commissioner McLaughlin," Rybak countered, "but you have not once shown how you would pay for it."

Rybak said the budget cuts were necessary to keep the city afloat during tough budget times. He said he's created community partnerships to increase police presence, increased corporate dollars for after-school programs, and his latest budget adds another 71 police officers to the force.

Rybak said he's balanced six straight budgets while McLaughlin was busy making campaign promises.

"You can't say you want more SAFE officers, more police officers, more firefighters and want to give AFSCME a 7 percent raise, and then have people's property taxes go through the roof," Rybak said. "You have to make tough choices."

The rhetoric between the two DFLers became so spirited that Green Party candidate Farheen Hakeem scolded them and told them to play nice. Hakeem said instead of focusing on the number of cops on the street, the next mayor should look at the root causes of crime.

"There are not enough after school programs in our park and recreation centers," Hakeem said. "There's not enough positive choices, not enough programming for them. When they are down and out and have nothing better to do, they're stuck in the situation where they're given the choice of gangs, drugs or guns."

As mayor, Hakeem said she would require more diversity training for police officers, to help build better relationships between the police and people of color. She also wants to require businesses that receive city contracts or city subsidies to give their employees a living wage.

"We don't have enough jobs for people to earn a living wage, so they go to things like drug dealing and prostitution," Hakeem said.

The three candidates also discussed the importance of neighborhood revitalization programs, gang activity in the schools and efforts to improve the downtown retail sector.

Then candidate Marcus Harcus wanted to give his views on the issues. About an hour into the debate, Harcus stood up in the balcony of the auditorium and scolded the organizers for not allowing him into the debate. Harcus and his supporters started shouting, clapping and chanting, "Let Marcus speak!"

After five minutes of banter, Harcus was allowed on stage. He didn't want to honor the debate format at first, but agreed to abide by the debate rules after the crowd started booing him.

He said the city needs to focus on giving people higher paying jobs and creating better opportunities for young black men.

"We've been called an endangered species. These cats who don't have any education, who don't have any hope to make livable wage employment," Harcus said. "If you don't have any options you're going to get desperate, and desperate people do desperate things."

While Harcus and Hakeem focused on the issues, McLaughlin and Rybak seemed to focus more on each other.

McLaughlin said Rybak could have kept more police officers on the force if he would have agreed to a pension buyout proposed at the state Legislature. Rybak said the plan was misguided and that McLaughlin was playing with numbers.

"When we looked at the homicides in Minneapolis last year, 70 percent of the people involved in those homicides were on Hennepin County probation," Rybak said. "Now I can sit up here and do about 30 Willie Horton ads, and say that you took your eye off of the ball on all of that. But that would be wrong."

Rybak insisted that he focused on the right priorities during his first term as mayor. He repeatedly mentioned that he balanced the budget and reduced the city's debt burden. McLaughlin argued that paying down that debt was a mistake, since violent crime has gone up.

"If your house has got a gaping hole in the roof, and water's pouring in and it's undermining the whole house and the foundation, you don't say you're going to double up on the mortgage payments and just keep paying that off, and we're not going to care what happens to the house. You pay attention to fundamentals," said McLaughlin.

This may be the last debate between the three major candidates before the Sept. 13 primary. The top two vote-getters in that election move on to the November general election.

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