Jeremiah Ellison’s strategy for holding onto his Minneapolis City Council seat in next week’s election hinges on boosting voter turnout in his ward.
That is not a straightforward task. Ellison represents Ward 5, whose turnout rates have ranked at or near the bottom of Minneapolis’ last four city elections. Ellison blames that trend on “historic disinvestment and disengagement” in the most racially diverse ward in the city.
Ellison does have help. Last weekend, four of his City Council colleagues — who together usually form the council’s left-wing voting bloc — gathered to canvass North Side neighborhoods on Ellison’s behalf. Even Ward 8 candidate Soren Stevenson, locked in his own tight race against more-moderate incumbent Andrea Jenkins, showed up to knock on a list of doors for the Ward 5 incumbent.
“We know what our opponents’ ceiling is,” Ellison told the group before they left on their routes. “But because so much of our strategy has always been about turning out folks that don’t often get engaged, that means we don’t necessarily know what our floor is. We’ve always turned out people who have been ignored.”
Many political operatives take it as a given that voter participation on Nov. 7 isn’t likely to match 2021’s turnout. With a mayoral election and several controversial ballot questions sparking citywide debate, 54% of registered voters turned out — the highest figure in a Minneapolis municipal election since 1979.
But only 33.8% of Ward 5 voters cast ballots in 2021.
With this in mind, Ellison and his best-funded challenger, Victor Martinez, both said maximizing turnout among their supporters will be crucial in the Ward 5 race. (A third candidate, Phillip “OMac” Peterson, is also on the ballot.)
In a statement, Martinez said his campaign has been “doorknocking vigorously for the last six months.”
“For the next week,” Martinez wrote, “we will continue to listen to the voices of our community, share our vision for Ward 5, and get people out to vote to ensure that our ward elects a leader who will fight to make our ward a better place to live each and every day.”
A clash of ideologies
Stevenson, plus three of the four incumbents who knocked on doors for Ellison last Saturday — Jason Chavez (Ward 9), Aisha Chughtai (Ward 10) and Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) — were all endorsed by the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America.
Martinez’s statement took aim at this gathering of Ellison’s “DSA friends on the City Council and other DSA aligned candidates from around the city.”
“North Minneapolis has already denied the extreme views of DSA-endorsed, and DSA-aligned policies more than once, and will continue to do so,” wrote Martinez.
If elected, Martinez would arguably become the City Council’s most conservative member. He’s voiced opposition to abortion rights, as Sahan Journal previously reported. In his responses to MinnPost’s candidate questionnaire, Martinez said he opposes “more defunding” of traditional police or proposals to end homeless encampment clearings or create a municipal sidewalk-plowing program.
Meanwhile, Ellison himself notes his personal views skew further left than those of many residents of Ward 5, which has historically elected much more centrist (or arguably even conservative) representatives to the City Council. He favors limiting encampment sweeps, new spending on alternatives to traditional police and new rights and protections for renters.
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“The ward has historically been pretty center, center-right in its politics,” Ellison said. “So when you're somebody who's anticipating a low voter turnout, you might calculate that that's bad for me, right? Because my politics maybe don't match the legacy of the ward.”
“But that's why we build relationships,” Ellison added, saying many supporters might disagree with him about hot-button issues — like his support for a rent control policy — but vote for him because he showed up to their door.
“They'll vote for me because they had a conversation with me,” Ellison said. “They'll vote for me because they understand what my track record is about. They’ll vote for me because I feel accessible. That's true for me — and that's true for my opponents as well. It’s a turnout race.”
Ideological clashes like the one in Ward 5 are playing out in several corners of Minneapolis. Candidates and political interest groups have spent hundreds of thousands on ads and voter outreach — all in hopes of altering the balance of power on the City Council.
That spending formed a backdrop for the weekend’s doorknocking. The left-leaning, DSA-allied PAC Minneapolis for the Many has backed Ellison.
Meanwhile, a group called Minneapolis Forward has entered the fray in Ward 5 in support of Martinez. The group is an offshoot of a PAC called Safer Hennepin, which supported the unsuccessful candidacy of Martha Holton Dimick in last year’s county attorney race. Now, the committee has launched an ad campaign supporting Martinez and attacking Ellison’s track record. (It’s also backing Ward 10 challenger Bruce Dachis and Ward 12 candidates Nancy Ford and Luther Ranheim.)
“Yard signs do not vote,” as the old political truism goes. Still, if the yard signs are to be believed, Martinez could make this race close: Martinez signs are all over Ward 5 — though along Penn Avenue, his name on some of the bright orange placards had been X-ed out by black spraypaint.
Ellison said a lot of the perception that the race was close was indeed “tied up in the signs,” but “I don’t think it’s untrue.”
“One of the things I think a lot about for Minneapolis politics is the difference between people and money,” said Elliott Payne, the Ward 1 incumbent council member, who also showed up to doorknock for Ellison last weekend. “There's a lot of money in this town. And the way to counteract those interests is to show up with people force.”
If turnout is low, who benefits?
If turnout in the council election is lower, research is mixed about whether this is better for Minneapolis’ more-centrist or more-leftist candidates.
In a 2019 research review, George Washington University political scientist Christopher Warshaw wrote “some evidence” shows that local elections “tend to underrepresent the poor and racial minorities” — which would suggest a low-turnout election would favor more conservative interests.
That said, other studies show that “low-turnout elections empower interest groups and other high demanders, such as public employee unions” — which would suggest a low-turnout election would favor candidates aligned with the more-liberal labor interests and other activist groups.
In Ward 5, Ellison argued that previous council members “identified that their chances of winning bank on low turnout.”
When two-term Ward 5 council member Don Samuels won re-election in 2009, turnout in the ward was 17%. Ellison’s immediate predecessor, Blong Yang, won the seat in 2013 when Ward 5’s turnout rate was 23%. When Ellison defeated Yang in 2017, turnout hit 27%.
On the other hand, when Ward 5 turnout climbed even higher in 2021 — to nearly 34% — Ellison nearly lost reelection. He hung on by just 93 votes.
Driving turnout in the race is part of why Chavez, Chughtai, Payne, Stevenson and Wonsley all showed up on Saturday.
“There's a bit of camaraderie,” Ellison said, “and there's an understanding … that council is the only thing on the ballot this year. There’s nothing else driving people out. People are helping each other out.”