Chapter 4 The Betrayal of Mary Cameron by the DFL
Two contradictory elements are fused in Mary
Cameron's personality. She is both vulnerable and combative. The later quality
is a response to the former. I recall being browbeaten by a teacher friend at
East High School when I stopped in on an errand for my daughter. How could Mary
Cameron, this teacher wanted to know, be so mean to teachers? He was upset about
a strongly worded lecture Mary had delivered at a Board meeting which he
interpreted as being anti-teacher. She gave this lecture in reaction to accusing
comments made by citizens during an anti-Edison rant. Rather than take the abuse
calmly, Mary had reciprocated.
Growing up in Duluth was not easy for Mary or her brothers and sisters. At least one sister fell into drug addiction and a sordid life. In 1995, the year Mary and I first campaigned for the School Board, her troubled younger brother was arrested for murder. These are not the typical burdens one expects to find weighing on the shoulders of a school board candidate.
The arrest took place after Mary had filed for office. Had the arrest occurred earlier I doubt that Mary would have bothered to run. When I talked with Mary about her brother, with her campaign manager Sharon McMurrough, Mary was deeply conflicted. In her heart she knew she was hadn't committed any crime and resented the possibility that she might be associated with it. She clearly dreaded having to deal with it but was determined to continue with the campaign despite the threat that she would be linked to him during the campaign. I've always presumed that the News Tribune consciously decided not to point out the relationship.
This was my first intimation of Mary's vulnerability. Later I saw a poignant and haunting photograph of Mary that she had hung on her office wall. Taken by a Newspaper photographer on the day of Martin Luther King's assassination, it shows a young, beautiful and wounded Mary Cameron, her face betraying profound loss and uncertainty.
The tough life Mary endured growing up she made tougher by fighting back. She was in regular trouble with her peers and with school authorities. I have only the dimmest understanding how Mary avoided the pitfalls that waylaid her brother and sister but avoid them she did.
Mary has been a single mother since I first met her. She raised her three children with a ferocious devotion to keeping them on the straight and narrow. Her oldest son Kenya, who I've only met in passing, is a graduate from the seminary at Bethel Bible School in Minneapolis. Her middle son Chad is one of the brightest and most delightful young men I've ever met. Her daughter Tiffany, a senior at Central this year, is a lot like her Mother but has enjoyed a lot more security than her Mother knew. Tiff's vivacious personality is a lot like Mary's but she's also has her Mother's sassy streak.
Not surprisingly, Mary grew up devoted to the Democrat party's philosophy of giving people an even break. On the other hand, having made her own way in the world with pluck and determination, she raised her children with the no nonsense, high expectations that fit right in with the Republican party's tough love philosophy. When I met Mary in 1995 she was getting Democrat and Union support. It was quite an unwelcome surprise two years after her election, when Al Netland, the local president of the AFL-CIO, showed up and told her how disappointed everyone was with her. Obviously All didn't know Mary very well. If his intention was to win Mary back he blew it and drove a wedge between them.
In Mary's first two years on the Board she joined a unanimous School Board in voting to bring the Edison schools to Duluth. It cost her both Democrat and Union support. After Edison's arrival the public employee's unions made "contracting out" the primary campaign issue confusing it with the "living wage." Netland successfully elected four new anti-Edison board members. The spitefulness of the election was to follow them onto the Board. Since Mary's support of Edison was predicated on helping minority kids she resented this accusation and didn't mind letting people know how she felt.
Mary's experience in school, her children's experiences and those of many other minority members had led her to conclude that minority children needed a friendlier more demanding environment. Certainly the graduation rate for minority children in Duluth had been atrocious.
Sometime after that election Mary changed her mind about running for reelection. Prior to the 97 election she had vacillated about whether to run for reelection. When the old school board called a press conference to stand behind Supt. Myles after the teachers gave him a vote of no confidence, Mary used the occasion to announce she would not run for reelection. She changed her mind. Perhaps her natural combativeness asserted itself with Al Netland's pronouncements and the criticism leveled at her by teachers and anti-Edison letters-to-the-Editor. She resented it when she thought that the new members of the Board were questioning her values. Of course, that had been a two-way street, although it was usually George Balach and not Mary who questioned the new board members values. But since George was retiring, the ire of the new board members would be directed at Mary.
Shortly before the next election Mary let it be known that she was interested in applying for a Bush Scholarship which would take her out of town for a year. That pricked the interest of Eileen Zeitz who asked Mary when her studies would begin and where they would take her. Tim Grover and I took this interest to be the circling of vultures over a downed animal. Eileen was always quick to share critical information about the board majority with her supporters. Tim thought for sure that the scholarship would become an issue in the election. After the campaign was well under waya labor endorsed candidate, Gary Krause, stopped by the home of Mary's elderly parents and pumped them for information about Mary's scholarship. It sparked Mary's paranoia.
Mary's greatest shock came when the DFL endorsing convention turned its back on her and endorsed all of Al Netland's labor backed candidates. Eileen, Pati Rolf and Laura Condon all sat together during the convention, their influence undoubtedly helped to undermine Mary. Although their only overt action was to speak in behalf of the candidate who was challenging me in the 2nd District race it was clear where their sympathies lay.
Although no person should be able to count on party support just because of their race or ethnicity there is no denying the alliance between many African-Americans and the Democrat party. One has only to look to the overwhelming support which the black community has given Bill Clinton and Al Gore to confirm this. Mary's loyalty, however, was not reciprocated. Her crime? She chose to support something which might finally bring greater educational success to minority children against the wishes of the union. It interfered with the bargaining power of the public employee unions' .
The criticism leveled at Mary during the election was very narrow. Although Edison rang out in some letters-to-the-editor the chief complaint was that she would not be readily accessible to constituents while she was away studying in New York for the first year of her four year term. Eileen Zeitz Huddleson's former campaign manager, Mary Schroeder, wrote a damning letter to the editor criticizing Mary for her absence. The letter Ms. Schroeder penned had been prompted by a "candidate's forum" that was organized suspiciously without alerting Mary Cameron who was unaware of it. Her absence from the forum was the subject of the letter-to-the-editor. I'd read Ms. Schroeder's letters before criticizing the School Board and was impressed that this letter was so much more eloquent. I was gratified when Sharon McMurrough, Mary's campaign manger, took Ms. Schroeder to task for blowing the inaccessibility issue out of proportion.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. In short order I heard many people, even those who agreed with Mary politically, writing her political obituary. It took the sails out of Mary's campaign committee at the same time she had begun her fund raising. A fundraising letter went out just after the criticism began and raised almost nothing. I was appalled. Because Mary was already studying in Syracuse she was in no position to defend herself. Every campaign meeting she missed added fuel to the fire.
I wrote my own letter-to-the-editor criticizing the DFL for betraying Mary but the tide was clearly turning against her. It was clear that something had to be done to salvage her campaign.