An unsigned letter landed in the mailboxes of St. Anthony residents the week of Oct. 21, prompting visits to City Hall and sparking debates on social media. The letter purports to be from a group called Citizens Against Racism IN Government (CARING).
The Northeaster checked the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, but could not find the organization among its business filings.
In the letter, the writer asks, “Do you care about your City and its governance? Do you care about its reputation? Do you care about its treatment of people and business? Do you care about your infrastructure and school funding?” It goes on to blame city officials for “unprecedented and unspeakable acts of discrimination, deception, dishonesty, corruption” and makes other accusations. It urges voters to vote against Randy Stille and Hal Gray, as well as Jan Jenson, whose council seat is not up for election this year.
City Clerk Nicole Miller said “at least two” citizens showed up at City Hall Oct. 22 to complain about the letter. And there were phone calls. Mayor Jerry Faust said, “People were angry.”
Dr. Sirri Nomo, who recently organized an event for St. Anthony Villagers for Equity and Community (SAVEC), said, “When I received the letter, it immediately went in the trash. I thought, ‘Who is this crazy person and why does he or she have so much hate?’ We in SAVEC are trying to have a village where we can get along with each other. We don’t deal like that.”
Faust and all four members of the City Council received it at their home addresses, while other residents did not. Kate Martin, an active member of St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action (SAVCA), did not, but said a friend showed her a copy. She said she got the impression that “not many people got it.”
Nancy Robinett, who is running for mayor against Randy Stille, did receive the letter. She immediately took to her campaign’s Facebook page to denounce it.
“An anonymous piece of literature was mailed to St. Anthony residents today [Oct. 22] smearing those currently serving on the city council,” she wrote. “I do not support anyone anonymously vilifying candidates or elected officials. My goal during this campaign has always been to bring greater transparency and accountability to the mayoral office and our city council. This anonymous mailer does not further this goal, and I oppose these tactics.”
In response to a question asking if she opposed only the anonymity or the content of the letter, Robinett wrote, “the mailer as a whole conveys an ugly message. For example, we can all agree with the first sentence–we care about our city and its governance. But simply taken as a whole, the mailer conveys an ugly tone, and the anonymity is a core piece of that negativity.”
Bernard Walker, who’s running for a council seat, stated on his Facebook page, “Ostensibly the letter was paid for by Citizens Against Racism IN Government (aka CARING). I found nothing online matching this acronym so it seems this is a ruse. While the verdict is still out as to who wrote this letter, clearly the intent of the letter is to attack “Faust & Co.” and charge them with a list of vices and with bankrupting St. Anthony. As a candidate running for city council, I have made it clear that there is no place for this kind of trash-talking about elected officials. Civility should be the rule. I personally do not share this sinister view of Randy Stille, Hal Gray, and Jan Jenson. It comes across as strong, inappropriate hyperbole. From what I know of these men, they do not match the description of them in the letter.”
Hal Gray told the Northeaster he received several phone calls from people who were upset. “I don’t know who sent it; I can’t answer that question. I think someone is trying to bring in partisan politics, and there’s no place for that at the local level,” he said.
Randy Stille said he had turned to the internet to find information about CARING, but came up empty.
Northeaster reporter Carol Jensen took the letter she received to the U.S. Postal Service to try to track down the sender. Although the return address on the envelope – 2501 Lowry Avenue NE – is the address of the Urban Grove manufactured home park, the postmaster refused to give Jensen any further information, specifically, who paid for the postage. “The postal inspector said if there is no threat in the letter, they can’t do anything because this country has freedom of speech. He said take it up with our city officials,” she reported.
The Northeaster attempted to contact Brad Hoyt, CEO of Continental Property Group, which owns and operates Urban Grove under The Village, LLC. Chris Woodard, a spokesman from CPG’s public relations agency, Media Minefield, said in an email, “I reached out to Brad and he tells me Urban Grove has nothing to do with this letter.” When pressed for further information, he replied, “I can’t give you any additional insight.”
David Johnson, a volunteer for Walker’s campaign, did some sleuthing of his own. He Googled “C2M LLC” on the upper right-hand corner of the envelope and found Click2mail, a website associated with Entrepreneur magazine that allows an individual to print, mail and track postal mail via computer. According to the website, “Users transmit files to Click2Mail for overnight printing and mailing via USPS.” Users can also access large-scale marketing mailing lists.
Johnson then did some calculations. He filed a campaign violations complaint Oct. 28 with the State of Minnesota Office of Administrative hearings. He noted in the complaint that “a cost estimate for printing, postage, and handling from Click2Mail is $0.926 per piece at a quantity of 5,000 pieces …a conservative estimate for a city-wide mailing would be 3,000 pieces x $0.926 = $2,778.” By law, campaigns must report campaign spending over $750 to the state. CARING has not done so.
The complaint also alleges violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act. It cites the references to Stille and Gray and says, “The political content in the mail is directly and explicitly designed to injure candidates in the election with false information or with reckless disregard of whether the information is false in violation of MN Statute §211B.06.”
“I simply want to know who is responsible for the mailing,” said Johnson.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, called it an “unusual letter.” He commented, “Because it seeks to influence voting at an election, the letter is subject to the state’s laws governing election communications. Those laws require a disclaimer on all such materials, which at minimum must consist of a ‘Paid for by’ line, and an address for the person or entity responsible for disseminating it.
“In this case, there is a ‘Paid for by’ reference at the bottom of the letter. While there is no address in the body of the letter, there is a return address on the envelope. As a result, the letter would basically seem to comply with the law in that respect.”
Asked if such a letter could invalidate an election, Anfinson replied, “Rarely can an election be overturned on the basis of campaign literature, but if a convincing case could be made that the letter in question was materially false, and likely did have a significant impact on the election results, then it’s possible that the election could be challenged. That’s very hard to do.”
Robinett said her campaign has “felt the fallout” from the anonymous mailer. “We have had emails, phone calls. People are upset. They view it very negatively. They wonder if I had anything to do with it. This was a very straightforward campaign season. We fully support [Johnson’s] search for the anonymous sender.”
Stille said, “A lot of people have voted already. I think the people who were going to vote for me, would do so no matter what. It’s a shame. No matter who did this, it’s not right for this city.”
“We just want to have a free and fair election of the people who represent us,” said Johnson. “This really gets in the way.”
UPDATE: On Oct. 29, Johnson received a copy of a letter from Chief Administrative Law Judge Jenny Starr. It was addressed to Citizens Against Racism IN Government and advised that the matter had been assigned to Administrative Law Judge Barbara J. Case, who would review the complaint within three business days (Nov. 1). Case will make a preliminary determination on the complaint and decide whether the facts presented are enough to prove a violation of Minnesota statutes. If not, the matter will be dismissed. If the judge decides there is enough prima facie evidence, a hearing will be scheduled.