Sharon Sayles Belton
Sayles Belton, Sharon 1952(?)–
Sharon Sayles Belton 1952(?)–
Mayor of Minneapolis
Some observers predicted that residents of Minneapolis, Minnesota were not ready to elect a black mayor. Sharon Sayles Belton proved that notion wrong in 1993, when she won the office by a significant margin over a white male opponent. She took office in January of 1994, after a decade serving on Minneapolis’s city council. In so doing, Sayles Belton became not only the first black mayor of Minneapolis, but the first female one as well.
A Democrat who is best described as middle-of-the-road, Sayles Belton is pushing social reforms as an antidote to the city’s rising crime rate and dwindling tax base. As Patrick Sweeney put it in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Mayor Sayles Belton “eagerly uses the bully pulpit of her position to urge individuals, neighborhoods, and institutions such as churches and foundations to take responsibility for their behavior and the behavior of those around them. Particularly with young people … she offers herself as a role model for achieving success through hard work and commitment to the right values.”
Sayles Belton has described herself as a consensus builder whose race has only strengthened her ability to understand city issues. “This is going to sound hokey, but I’m one of those ’change people,’” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I am a catalyst for change who can help people achieve their vision. … As a woman and an African American, I have had experiences that give me a unique perspective that makes for a good mayor… I‘m better able to get along with other people. No one is going to solve the problems of Minneapolis by themselves.” Having won the mayor‘s race, Sayles Belton is in the process of implementing the agenda she proposed during her candidacy. She has initiated new steps to control crime—especially amongst juveniles—and she has encouraged residents of Minneapolis to stay in the city and to improve their neighborhoods rather than leave for the suburbs.
Sharon Sayles was born not in Minneapolis but in the neighboring city of St. Paul. Her father was a machinist, and the family lived in a comfortable home in an urban neighborhood called Summit-University. The mayor characterized the area in a St. Paul Pioneer Press profile as the kind of place where families knew one another, and adults looked out for each other‘s children—in short, the kind of environment she would like to promote in Minneapolis.
Sayles began her education in Catholic school but transferred
Born c. 1952 in St. Paul, MN; daughter of William (a machinist) and Pearl Marian Sayles; married Steve Belton (an attorney), 1981; children: four. Education: Attended Macalester College, 1969-73.
State of Minnesota Corrections Department, parole officer, c. 1974-83; Harriet Tubman Shelter, a state-funded program for victims of sexual abuse, assistant director, c. 1976-83; City Council of Minneapolis, council member, 1983-93, president, 1989-93; Mayor of Minneapolis, 1994—.
Addresses: Office— City Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55415.
to public school in the third grade. Just as she was starting high school her parents divorced, and her mother moved to Richfield, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul. There Sharon attended East Junior High School and was the only black student enrolled. “I was the first person of color they’d ever had, and it was icky,” she recalled in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In science class, when the teacher asked the students to join hands so they could experience a jolt of electricity, Sayles’s partner was openly reluctant to touch her. “I felt terrible, isolated, [and] alone,” she said.
After ninth grade Sayles and her mother moved into Minneapolis. There she attended the Minneapolis Central High School, where she was a cheerleader and valedictorian of her 1969 graduating class. In her spare time she worked at the local hospital as a “candy-striper.” In the fall of 1969 she began her studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. It was in these years that her interest in politics began. During one semester break, she and other students traveled to Mississippi to register black voters. Sayles was appalled by the conditions she found there, and returned determined to exercise control over her own destiny and that of others as well.
Sayles dropped out of college in her senior year to have a baby. Her pregnancy was normal, but the delivery was complicated, and the child was born with permanent brain damage. The baby’s father “freaked out and took off,” Sayles Belton quipped in the Pioneer Press, leaving her alone to raise a disabled daughter. Thus began the most difficult period of Sharon Sayles’s life. A few credits short of her degree, she was forced to find a job to support herself and her child. She found work with the State Corrections Department as a parole officer and bought a modest home in South Minneapolis. “It was a heavy, growing-up experience,” she confessed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “For a moment, I thought I would become a mess, but then I thought, ’if I fall apart here, what’s going to happen to my daughter?’ [My stepmother] told me, ’You can whine about things or you can do something about them.’ I decided to do something.”
Having come to terms with the pressures of single motherhood, Sayles began working on projects to help her community. In addition to her work as a parole officer— which she says convinced her that more efforts should be made to keep people out of jail in the first place—she founded and helped to run the Harriet Tubman Shelter. The shelter, operated with funds from the state’s corrections department, provided a haven for women who had been the victims of sexual violence or battery.
In 1981 Sayles married attorney Steven Belton. Their family grew as three children were born. Sayles Belton’s disabled daughter was placed in an institution but was brought home on weekends, even though she was partially paralyzed and had the mental abilities of an infant. Of Sayles Belton, former Minneapolis city councilwoman Sandra Hilary contended in the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “I don’t think many people—when they had a husband, little kids, a political career, [and] a social life—would still have time to be this devoted mother to a handicapped child. She is truly committed to that child.”
Sayles Belton was also committed to a career in politics. In 1983 she ran for Minneapolis City Council and won a seat. She served for six years—winning several further elections—and was promoted to the president of the City Council in 1989. In this high-profile position, Sayles Belton worked closely with Mayor Don Fraser, who grew to respect both her hard work and her dedication to the city. When Sayles Belton announced her candidacy for Mayor of Minneapolis in 1993, Fraser—who was stepping down after 14 years in office—gave her his endorsement.
This endorsement, and the backing of Minneapolis’s most powerful political party, seemed to ensure Sayles Belton’s election as mayor. Her campaign sputtered, however, and her opponent, John Derus, accused her of being soft on crime. Derus promised voters that he would increase the number of police on the streets of Minneapolis, at one point claiming he would hire as many as 150 new officers. Sayles Belton made no such declarations. Instead she suggested that the city’s crime problems could be handled in more creative ways.
Sayles Belton reported in the St. Paul Pioneer Press that as a parole officer she learned that “a lot of people who end up in prison wouldn’t have ended up there if we had intervened earlier.” She proposed job training, an emphasis on public education, and more adult involvement with children in the city. “We are talking about our own children—children who are born to us vulnerable, full of potential, and needing love. They were not born angry and violent. But somehow they absorbed the wrong ideas about what is important in life and how to obtain what they need. They do not seek—because they do not know—the excitement of learning, the satisfaction of accomplishment, the joy of beauty, the comfort of love.”
The race between Sharon Sayles Belton and John Derus was expected to be very close. Instead, Sayles Belton won by earning 57 percent of the vote. Documents disclosed for the public record revealed that she had raised and spent some $500,000 to win the race. Even her opponent, when conceding the vote, called for his supporters to rally behind Sayles Belton and help her to improve Minneapolis.
Sayles Belton was sworn in on January 4, 1994. In her inaugural speech, as printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she said: “Some people say we don’t know what our values are, or that we as a community do not hold values in common. I disagree. I believe we do share community values, values that transcend race, economic status, individual need and ambition, values that constitute the framework of our society and community life… Our values are work, education, respect, and responsibility.”
During her first months as mayor of Minneapolis, Sayles Belton drew praise for her smooth transition into power and her quick but well-researched delegation of responsibility. She negotiated the purchase of the city’s Target Center—home of the National Basketball Association’s Minnesota Timberwolves—feeling that the arena was a vital force in the city’s economy. She also helped to mobilize community response to the fatal shooting of a teenager as he rode his bike to a local gym. Pioneer’s Sweeney noted that Sayles Belton’s leadership style has been “to try to deal with root causes, involve the affected people early in the decision-making process, and appeal to a sense of moral responsibility.”
That sense of moral responsibility—the urge to “quit whining and do something”—has been Sharon Sayles Belton’s own response to the problems she perceives around her in Minneapolis. She wants to see other citizens become as committed as she is to strengthening neighborhood ties, educating children, seeking proper role models for teenagers, and curbing crime. On one point the mayor is firm: Minneapolis must be a color-blind city. “Living peacefully and creatively with diversity is the great American experiment,” she was quoted as saying by the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We are a multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual city…. Diversity fuels our creativity, makes us stronger and more resourceful, and serves, if we let it, as a pilot light for the virtues of humility, generosity, and peacemaking.”
St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 19, 1993, p. A7; October 22, 1993, p. B1; November 3, 1993, p. A1; January 4,1994, p. A1; February 2,1994, p. B1; April 10, 1994, p. B1.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Belton, Sharon Sayles 1951–
Sharon Sayles Belton 1951–
Mayor of Minneapolis
In 1993 in Minneapolis, the largest city in Minnesota, Sharon Sayles Belton outpolled her white male opponent to become the first female and first African American mayor of that largely white-populated city. She ran on a platform that stressed education, crime prevention, city growth, and city unity. “We tried to emphasize our community’s coming together throughout the campaign,” Belton explained to Simeon Booker of Jet. “A lot of people didn’t think it could be done. A lot of people said Minneapolis wasn’t ready. But the people of Minnesota have spoken.” As mayor she has built consensus and set new priorities, increasing public safety resources by $18 million, reducing the size of government, streamlining services, and keeping taxes in check.
While a teenager Belton began her commitment to public service when she volunteered at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. During her college years at prestigious Macalester College, to which she had earned a scholarship, she worked for civil rights by traveling to Jackson, Mississippi, to register voters there. In her last year at Macalester College, Belton became pregnant and dropped out. Although she received good prenatal care, her daughter Kilayna was born mentally retarded, the result of oxygen deprivation. At that time, many retarded children were institutionalized, but Belton wanted to raise her daughter at home and fought for the resources to do so. When the necessary resources were not available, she worked to create them. The mayor would later tell Claire Safran of Good Housekeeping, “It made me a much tougher person. It gave me the drive and commitment that carries over to what I do today.”
Many experiences prepared Belton for the mayorship of Minneapolis. Her work as a parole officer gave her insight into the criminal justice system and those who passed through it. As the assistant director for the Minnesota Program for Victims of Sexual Assault, she worked to build 26 centers to aid rape victims statewide and helped to start one of the first shelters in the United States for abused women, the Harriet Tubman Shelter. In addition to her paid work, Belton used her time and talents to benefit her local community. As a result, in 1984 her neighbors elected her to represent them on the City Council. Within five years she had become council president.
Career: Parole officer, Minnesota Dept. of Corrections, 1973-83; associate director, MN Program for Victims of Sexual Assault, 1983-84; member, City Council, 8th Ward, Minneapolis, 1984-93; president, City Council, Minneapolis, 1989-93; mayor of Minneapolis, 1994-.
Awards and honors: Branch Award, NAACP Minneapolis, 1988; Leadership Award, MN Minority Lawyers Assn., 1990; Leadership Recognition, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian Women of Color, 1991; Distinguished Citizen Award, Macalester Colt., 1992; Annual Award, Natl. Assn. of Minority Contractors, 1993; Public Citizen of the Year, National Association of Social Workers, MN Chapter, 1994; Distinguished Achievement Award, Univ. of MN Coll. of Educ., 1994; Susan B. Anthony Award, MN Ctr. for Women in Govt., HamIine Univ., 1994; B. Robert Lewis Award, MN Public Health Assn., 1995; Alumni Hall of Fame, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 1996; Rosa Parks Award, American Association for Affirmative Action, 1997.
Member: National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (president, 1’981-83); Board of Directors, American Bar Association; National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors; U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Public Education; Harriet Tubman Shelter for Battered Women (co-founder); Minnesota Minority Education Program (co-founder), Success By Six (co-founder); Way To Grow; One-to-One mentorship program, Minneapolis Initiative Against Racism; Search Institute; Bush Foundation.
Addresses: Office of the Mayor, 350 South Fifth St., Rm. 331, Minneapolis, MN 55415-1393.
During her years as a council member, Belton married Steve Belton, a trial attorney and law firm partner. In addition to supporting now adult Kilayna, who lives in a residential facility during the week and at home on the weekends, the couple enjoys two sons, Jordan and Coleman. “I’ve always worked 60-hour-a-week jobs, so my husband is very supportive and cooperative,” Belton told Ebony. “We have managed to share our household responsibilities and obligations, thus minimizing our conflicts. We are challenged to make sure that our life is balanced.” Part of that balance is in taking quarterly vacations by themselves and in always having one parent available to the children. “We want our children to have the continuity of knowing that at least one parent is always home,” Steven Belton told Ebony.
Before entering the 1993 race for mayor of Minneapolis, Belton met with her longtime friend and potential rival, Kathy O’Brien, to discuss the possibilities of success of either of them running for mayor. The meeting resulted in O’Brien’s supporting and working actively for Belton’s candidacy. After the primaries, it was clear that Belton would run against John Derus. Both candidates were liberals in the tradition of former Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser, who was retiring after a 14 year tenure, so they had to define themselves on other issues. While Derus chose a law-and-order platform, calling for a beefed up police force to cut down on escalating crime, Belton voiced a broader message. She focussed on education, anti-crime measures, city growth, and city unity. Instead of heavily using polls, debates, and televised advertisements, as has become the norm in many campaigns, Belton used such grassroots strategies as phone banks, public appearances, and door-to-door campaigning. Belton was also aided by Don Fraser’s endorsement—and his voter-identification and fundraising lists.
On election day, Belton garnered 58 percent of the vote, in a city that is 78 percent white. A clear indication of the success of her grassroots efforts is that some 8,500 new voters registered at the polls, and most of them voted for her. In the words of the new mayor, as quoted in Ebony, ”We emphasized throughout the campaign that the citizens of Minneapolis were capable of setting aside the issues of race and gender and voting for the candidate that was best-suited to keep the city a viable community, and they did that.”
Belton’s management style is one of creating consensus, the same style that made her so effective on the City Council. Many of her colleagues and advisors are women, including City Council president Kathy O’Brien, with whom the mayor works closely. “Our model of leadership is that you gain power by sharing power,” O’Brien told Safran. “And you do that by talking to everyone who has a stake in the problem. You listen to what they have to say, and you include them in the solution,” she added.
Though women leaders maintain that they represent the entire community, they do tend to focus on previously neglected “women’s issues,” such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child care, health care, and child-support collection. Belton stresses crime prevention, such as gun control and school truancy prevention. Because she wants to hold the line on taxes, she is looking for partners in the county, state, and federal governments, and in the private sector as well. Also on her agenda are programs to better control noise at the airport and pollution of the city’s lakes. “I have spent over 21 years of my life working actively in the Minneapolis community on a number of issues that impact the quality of life,” Belton told Ebony. “My entire career—public, private and civic—reflect my commitment to serving the people.”
Ebony, February, 1994, pp. 92-96; July, 1996, pp. 115-19.
Good Housekeeping, November, 1994, pp. 98-100.
Jet, November 22, 1993, pp. 4-10; January 24,1994, pp. 22-24.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 3, 1993, p. 1103K5487.
Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1996, p. A5.
MPLS-St. Paul Magazine, September, 1991, p. 188; March, 1994, pp. 36-45.