Sayles Belton turns conflict to consensus

Mpls Star-Tribune 9/21/90 by Jon Jeter

Inside the mayor's conference room, the meeting had started well. The two sides exchanged playful chatter before getting down to the business at hand. Around a huge conference table sat Mayor Don Fraser, his aide, plus City Council President Sharon Sayles Belton and several Minneapolis police officers, who had come to fight Sayles Belton's proposal to create a civilian board to review charges of police misconduct.

Sayles Belton was flashing that smile, which so often disarms her adversaries and charms her supporters, when the police fired their first shot. They made it clear that these liberal politicians, who sat in their tidy offices and went to committee meetings all day, were interfering with cops on the city's sometimes-mean streets. A civilian review board would cripple police.

For a second, there was a tense silence. Then, according to Rip Rapson, the mayor's chief deputy, Sayles Belton leaned forward, glared at her critics, and spoke in a quiet, yet unmistakeably firm voice: "I know these people (criminals) as well as you do. I was out there," she said, referring to her previous position as a Hennepin County probation officer. "These people were my clients and my adversaries, and you need to know that if you do your job right, then I'll be there for you."

With just a few sentences, Sayles Belton had won, if not their admiration, their begrudging respect. And she'd left an indelible impression on Rapson.

"She defused a potentially explosive situation in a way that I don't think anyone else could have, not even the mayor," he recalled.

For nearly seven years, Sayles Belton has worked that kind of political alchemy at City Hall, turning conflicts into consensus. Not everyone agrees with her liberal views. But few if any, are unimpressed with her skills as a politician - her energy, intellect, charisma and compassion. She is, in City Hall jargon, a "player".

To understand Sharon Sayles Belton the politician, says her husband of 10 years, you must understand the 39-year odyssey of her life: from peppy high-school cheerleader to single mother struggling to raise a disabled child, from pre-med student to parole officer, from advocate for victims of sexual assault to president of the Minneapolis City Council to mother of a 4-week-old boy.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, she can display Napoleonic wrath with anyone who challenges her. Yet she can also cry, says her husband, Steve Belton, "with the proper reading of the Yellow Pages."

Sayles Belton comes from a close-knit family. Her father was a University Av. car salesman, one of the first blacks in the Twin Cities to sell new cars, said Belton. Sayles Belton's mother is an evangelist; her stepmother, to whom she is very close, a bio-statistician.

"Sharon's ability to sell comes from her dad, her enthusiasm and committment to a cause comes from her mother, and her discipline comes from her stepmother," said her husband, a Minneapolis attorney and former president of the Urban Coalition.

But perhaps more than any other experience, says Sayles Belton and others, the birth of her daughter, Kilayna, might have had the greatest impact.

Sayles Belton was an unwed mother and a student at Macalaster College when Kilayna was born, brain-damaged and severely disabled.

Steven Belton says it probably was the most difficult time in his wife's life, struggling to care for a special child on a modest salary as a Hennepin County parole officer.

"I think it was, quite frankly, nearly debilitating for her," he said. "It was difficult for her trying to get services for Kilayna - child care, transportation, speech therapy. It's not like you can just go to the neighborhood latchkey program. I think she felt, at times, like giving up, if you can measure something like that."

Many said that the ordeal nurtured her compassion and devotion to the handicapped, family, and children's issues.

Sayles Belton is generally one of the leading liberal voices on a liberal council. She speaks up for programs that some see as costly or problematic, such as a proposal to provide healthcare benefits for the domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees and a plan to locate a youth center next to the Timberwolves' new basketball arena.

But that added responsibility didn't stop her from taking on one more: her third child, born in August.

It's a hot, muggy August afternoon, and Sayles Belton, after a 10 hour parade of meetings, finally has a chance to sit down and peruse the stacks of messages and on her desk, before she rushes off to another meeting.

Sitting down is no longer ease for Sayles Belton: doctors say she will deliver her child in two days, and her girth makes life a bit more snug.

But that is not her main concern at the moment. An aide has pointed out papers that deserve immediate attention. Sayles Belton does not like what she sees.

City inspectors have condemned a 39-unit apartment building in her district, the city's Eighth Ward. The building, with an open sewer and infested with roaches, must be closed before month's end. Twenty-six households, including at least 50 children, would have to find new homes within three weeks.

"I can't let (26) households be put on the streets before the end of the month," she said. "I can't let that happen."

Two days later, city and county workers have found possible homes for nearly all of the 26 households, although about half are allowed to stay when the building is cleaned later in the month.

"It's the first time I've ever seen the city and county work together like that to find homes for people," said Cathy Lattin, a Sayles Belton aide.

Since Sayles Belton took office in 1983, housing and economic development have been dominant issues in her ward, which includes five inner-city neighborhoods.

She nudged the City Council into renovating the 3100 block of Clinton Av. S., a street that had been siezed by "crack" dealers and users. The city spent $1.8 million to buy and refurbish 13 houses and apartments, and replace with large apartment buildings with houses. At the southern edges of the Phillips neighborhood she has engineered the transformation of a boarded-up bakery into an apartment building for low-income tenants, and the revilalization of a rundown apartment complex that was long a sore spot for neighboring senior citizens and police.

But that has not been nearly enough for some residents, critical of the ward's increasing drug problems, crime and prostitution, decaying housing, abandoned duplexes and fourplexes, and the community's diminished resources.

"Central has lost a lot, and she's supposed to be representing us?" said Ernest Vinson, a Central neighborhood resident. "Where was she when they tore down Central (High School) last year.

Still, colleagues and peers, even those who typically oppose her positions, praise her.

"She's one of my favorite people," said Dennins Schulstad, who represents the city's 12th Ward and is the council's lone Republican. "I certainly have had my disagrements with her, but I have a great deal of respect for her motives, sort of like I felt about Hubert Humphrey. She wants to have a better Minneapolis."

She also wanted to have another child before she turned 40, she said, even if that meant taking time out from her hectic schedule as the city's second-most-powerful elected official. She's now at home with Coleman, a wide-eyed, robust baby who is fast approaching 9 pounds.

Juggling the demands of city government and her husband, two sons, and Kilayna sometimes means "that your family gets the short end of the stick," she says. "I try not to be out five nights in a row. We still find time to go to the Como Zoo and Valleyfair."

Still, her family could keep her from seeking higher political office, she says. She has long set her sights on a seat on the Hennepin County Board, but her political career might be put on hold when her third term comes to an end in 1993.

"I don't know what I'm going to do next. I've got a family that I love dearly."

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