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Left-wing coalition makes gains in Minneapolis City Council election

Andrea Jenkins won re-election over DSA-backed challenger in Ward 8 – but the coalition allied with Mayor Jacob Frey failed to score victories in other close races.

Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins speaking to supporters at her 2023 election night gathering.
Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins speaking to supporters at her 2023 election night gathering.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

This story was updated on Nov. 8 to provide final results of the Nov. 7 election.

A coalition of Minneapolis candidates fueled by left-wing energy and skepticism of the status quo at City Hall secured a majority on the City Council in Tuesday’s municipal elections, winning seven of 13 seats.

“I feel really hopeful for the future of Minneapolis. I feel electric. I think we did something really important tonight,” said Aurin Chowdhury, who bested Luther Ranheim and Nancy Ford for the open Ward 12 seat with the support of two key members of that left-wing coalition: the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, and an allied PAC that aimed to deny Frey more support on the council.

Political groups that support Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had hoped to add new allies to the ideologically-fragmented council, outraising their opponents by perhaps a 4-to-1 margin in hopes of swaying a few key toss-up races with final finance reports still to come.

There was at least this silver lining for this more-centrist faction: Andrea Jenkins, the incumbent council president, held off a fierce challenge from her left to win re-election. Despite losing the DFL endorsement to Soren Stevenson last spring, Jenkins rallied to hold her Ward 8 seat by just 38 votes in the ranked-choice election after second-choice preferences from two other candidates in the race were added to the totals.

“I am so grateful to the voters of Ward 8 for trusting me with another term on the Minneapolis City Council,” Jenkins said in a statement. “My team and I ran a campaign based on a deep and abiding love for this city, a campaign based on progress and experience and building bridges to keep this city moving forward. That is exactly what we will continue to do in the next term.

“I also want to congratulate my opponents on running a tough campaign,” Jenkins added. “I appreciate the ideas that have been shared throughout the course of the campaign and I hope we can work together to find common ground on the policies that we have agreement on.”

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Despite their financial mismatch, candidates aligned with the left-wing coalition more than held their own.

Minneapolis Ward 8 candidate Soren Stevenson hoisting a beer at his election night gathering at Los Andes Latin Bistro.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Minneapolis Ward 8 candidate Soren Stevenson hoisting a beer at his election night gathering at Los Andes Latin Bistro.
“No matter what happens, we have proved that in this city, it’s the people that make it happen,” Stevenson told supporters at his election night party. “No matter how much money they spend, we are still going to stand up and say we can have a kinder, safer city.”

In the Ward 7 race, Katie Cashman bested her closest challenger, Scott Graham, by a 177-vote margin, winning just under 51% of the vote.

“I am hopeful for all that the future holds in Minneapolis,” Cashman’s campaign said in a statement. “I really feel honored that I will have the opportunity to serve my community.”

Incidentally, this past Saturday, third place candidate Kenneth Foxworth issued a public statement accusing Graham of making “hurtful” remarks about his campaign – and while MinnPost hasn’t independently reported on whether the allegations are true, the kerfuffle may have impacted the outcome. The second-choice preferences of Foxworth’s supporters were decisive in the outcome.

RELATED: St. Paul voters appear to have sent 7 women to City Council in historic election highlighting rent control, sales tax

Most of Frey’s allies who are already on the council sailed to comfortable victories in their own races Tuesday. The mayor’s veto power is also still likely to carry weight: His closest ideological counterparts still control enough seats to likely deny the left-wing bloc a veto-proof majority of nine votes on a long list of issues.

“There’s left, and there’s further-left. That’s Minneapolis,” Frey told MinnPost in an interview well before final results were public. “I want to work with a group of pragmatic progressives that want to work together, that want to find areas of unity to move the city forward.”

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There may be differences between the ideological leanings of the groups backing these new council members, and the council members themselves.

For instance, Chowdhury supports passing a rent control policy – but doesn’t support a no-exceptions cap on annual rent increases that the DSA has championed. Cashman, too, has said she opposes a 3% cap on annual rent hikes, and favors remedies for struggling tenants other than rent control. She doesn’t support enacting a multi-million-dollar municipal sidewalk shoveling program, but does believe smaller-scale, “targeted” shoveling programs can make a difference. Cashman also favors starting small, telling MinnPost that any sidewalk shoveling program should not be created “to clear every sidewalk in the city.”

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In an interview, Chowdhury called for a consensus-building approach to governance at City Hall, saying she hoped to “to change our politics to one that is really about community building and coming together.”

State Rep. Aisha Gomez, left, hugging Minneapolis Ward 12 candidate Aurin Chowdhury at Chowdhury’s election night party.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes
State Rep. Aisha Gomez, left, hugging Minneapolis Ward 12 candidate Aurin Chowdhury at Chowdhury’s election night party.
“That looks like having the hard conversations on public safety, police accountability, housing … and taking time to understand that being pragmatic doesn’t mean saying no – it’s an eagerness to find common ground, and a solution,” Chowdhury said.

Similarly, Jeremiah Ellison won re-election to his seat representing Ward 5, the most racially diverse district of Minneapolis’ council seats – despite ideological leanings that, by Ellison’s own admission, skew to the left of the average resident in his ward. He credited his victory to outreach in the ward, and his voters’ willingness to reward him for sticking to his convictions.

“I think that that’s really important for Northsiders … It can be a pretty conservative base on the Northside. People know that I’m left leaning. People know that I’m a leftist. But they see that I’m also very collaborative, they see that I’m a good listener and I think they respect it.”

Ward 5 City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison shown during his 2023 election night gathering.
MinnPost photo by Ava Kian
Ward 5 City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison shown during his 2023 election night gathering.
“It’s a testament to Northsiders,” Ellison said, “whether they agree with you or not, they want to know that you’re firm in your beliefs.”

In another close race – where neither the left-wing PAC or the Frey-allied PAC endorsed a candidate – incumbent Jamal Osman won re-election in the four-way Ward 6 race with 48% of total votes. Kayseh Magan came the closest to unseating Osman, with 35% of the votes after second-choice votes from third-place finisher Tiger Worku were added to his total.

But in most of Tuesday’s races, incumbents easily prevailed in the low-turnout contests (around one-third of registered Minneapolis voters cast ballots Monday.

Elliott Payne (Ward 1), Michael Rainville (Ward 3), LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4), Jason Chavez (Ward 9), Aisha Chughtai (Ward 10), Emily Koski (Ward 11) and Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) all secured new two-year terms.

Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) also won easily with no opponent challenging her on the ballot. However, one write-in candidate – likely Michael Baskins, who mounted a last-minute challenge to the outspoken Wonsley – did garner roughly 33% of the vote.

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A race everyone was watching

The race in Ward 8 – a collection of south Minneapolis neighborhoods straddling I-35 that includes parts of George Floyd Square – encapsulated many of the dynamics of the citywide election.

When Jenkins first won the seat in 2017, she became the first Black, trans woman elected to public office anywhere in the U.S. – and her victory helped reinforce Minneapolis’ vision of itself as a progressive place.

RELATED: St. Paul voters pass sales tax hike

Jenkins was also a consummate insider, having worked since 2001 as an aide to two predecessors on the council. Jenkins pointed to these years toiling in the background at City Hall as proof of her ability to get things done.

“I admire that kind of leadership: not a person who licks her finger, puts her hand in the air, trying to figure out where the wind blows – but really, how do you find responsible public policy, responsible strategies that actually get the job done?” said Sharon Sayles Belton, a former Minneapolis mayor and Ward 8 council member, at Jenkins’ election night party. “That’s why I support Andrea and that’s why I’ve supported her over the years.”

“I fear that if we get into a situation where a group of people who’ve been endorsed by the DSA want to impede progress because it’s not progressive enough we’re not going to be able to achieve the things that the city needs to be able to continue moving forward,” said Leah Buck, who volunteered for Jenkins’ campaign. (Buck previously mounted a campaign for U.S. House in northeastern Minnesota’s 8th District.)

But Jenkins’ critics came to see her as among the City Council incumbents too unwilling to challenge Frey, or the orthodoxies of the city bureaucracy.

Her top challenger, Stevenson, who was blinded in one eye during a 2020 protest against Minneapolis Police, counted Jenkins among the many elected officials who’d done too little to rein in police officer misconduct or push for culture change within the department. His surrogates also contended she had fallen out of step with her ward on issues ranging from rent control, which Jenkins generally supports, though with far more reservations than Stevenson, to the city’s homelessness response.

“In the last two years, we have seen the level of cruelty just increase,” said Aisha Chughtai, the Ward 10 City Council incumbent, who volunteered to assist Stevenson’s campaign. “The audacity with which that cruelty is carried out has increased, too – as more and more encampments have been swept, as more and more fencing goes up all over the south side.”

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Stevenson decided to run during an intense period after his injury, during which he grappled with “what it means to be a white man shot in the struggle for Black liberation.” Without placing specific blame on Jenkins, Stevenson has also spoken out about the persistence of systemic racism at City Hall. Jenkins objects to this critique and argued there was an element of colorblindness to Stevenson’s challenge to her progressive credentials.

“I am not supporting a candidate who is continuously running around and says ‘I want to end racism’ against the Black, transgender candidate,” said Latonya Reeves, an activist in Minneapolis DFL politics who volunteered for Jenkins (and is also Black). “It’s disingenuous. (Stevenson) wants to get the Black vote – the minority vote – in a way that’s a slap in the face to the issues we have in this community.”

The campaign’s biggest fundraisers? Mayor Frey’s allies

While Frey’s name was not on the ballot Tuesday, his allies and antagonists spent hundreds of thousands on the race, hoping to either strengthen or weaken the mayor’s hand on the City Council.

All of Mpls – a center-left political action committee that supports Frey – likely raised close to $1 million to support candidates who’ve been more open to working with the mayor. The PAC had reeled in $709,000 as of Oct. 23, the last day before the election that political groups must report their complete financial position.

After that deadline, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce chipped in another $150,000 to support All of Mpls, adding to late contributions from, among others, the Pohlad family, which owns the Minnesota Twins ($40,000 total), the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents residential landlords ($30,000) and the Washington, D.C.-based LGBTQ Victory Fund ($10,000).

The fundraising haul paid for ad campaigns, text messages and voter outreach to bolster three candidates in particular:

  • Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8): $99,294 in independent expenditure support
  • Luther Ranheim (Ward 12): $99,294 in independent expenditure support
  • Scott Graham (Ward 7): $98,218 in independent expenditure support

All of Mpls also endorsed Michael Rainville (Ward 3), LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4), Emily Koski (Ward 11), Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) and, much later in the race, Ward 10 candidate Bruce Dachis. (After the fundraising deadline, screenshots of text messages apparently sponsored by All of Mpls started bouncing around social media.

All of Mpls’ organizers believed these eight candidates would help Frey “hold the line on public safety, affordable housing, and more against the DSA” – a reference to the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

For supporters, the distinction between All of Mpls’ endorsed candidates and their rivals further to the left was as much about differences in policymaking style as about the substance of any ideological disagreements between them.

Take Jenkins: This year, the Ward 8 incumbent voted to continue debate on a rent control ordinance and to enact job protections for rideshare drivers – two stances on high-profile issues that Frey opposed. But Jenkins has also attempted to portray herself as a dealmaker with the pragmatic experience necessary to enact policy and forge compromise – and her best-funded Ward 8 opponent, Soren Stevenson, as a “sloganeer” more interested in “proving a political point” than enacting policy.

“I don’t see the socialists as wanting to govern,” said Jeff Schneider, a retired City Hall staffer and volunteer for Jenkins’ campaign.

A self-described “old lefty,” he said he’s sympathetic to many of the DSA’s policy positions – particularly around economic inequality. However, Schneider added, “what I have no patience for … is people who just want to throw flames and make statements.”

Also big spenders? Frey’s critics – but they raised less

Minneapolis for the Many – a PAC allied with the DSA, but backed by a much broader coalition of Frey’s critics – couldn’t match their rivals’ pace of fundraising. Minneapolis for the Many reported $203,000 in contributions as of Oct. 23.

Critics objected to Minneapolis for the Many’s reliance on funds based outside Minnesota.

Minneapolis for the Many’s largest single contributor was Movement Voter PAC Minnesota, which is officially registered to Massachusetts and bundles contributions from around the nation to support causes and candidates on the left in local or state-level races. (A representative for the PAC said hundreds of its donors are from Minneapolis.)

In addition, Minneapolis for the Many also received money from Faith in Minnesota, the political arm of interfaith organizing powerhouse ISAIAH. Faith in Minnesota gave the PAC $30,000 – including a $10,000 contribution on Sept. 26, just days after a Faith in Minnesota received $25,000 from D.C-based advocacy group.

However, Minneapolis for the Many’s allies retorted with criticism of All of Mpls for accepting large sums from wealthy suburbanites – and organizers said their opponents’ large fundraising haul fortified their view that, as one fundraising email put it, “Frey and his allies have continually cozied up to the wealthy few, whether it be developers or lobbyists.”

Trying to act as a counterweight to All of Mpls’ financial advantage, Minneapolis for the Many spent thousands on behalf of their slate of candidates:

  • Aurin Chowdhury (Ward 12): $16,575 in independent expenditures
  • Katie Cashman (Ward 7): $16,168 in independent expenditures
  • Soren Stevenson (Ward 8): $15,032 in independent expenditures
  • Aisha Chughtai (Ward 10): $4,215 in independent expenditures
  • Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5): $4,118 in independent expenditures

Minneapolis for the Many also reported spending $3,000 on negative ads about Jenkins in the Ward 8 race. The MinnPost-Minneapolis Voices campaign ad tracker shows the group also sent a mailer attacking Ranheim in Ward 12, though this expenditure likely took place after the deadline for the Oct. 23 spending report.

Independent expenditures such as these cannot be legally coordinated with any candidate campaigns. Still, the contrasts drawn in these ads reflect critics’ broader views about Frey and his allies on the City Council: that they’re too reticent to challenge a status quo at City Hall that has led to police misconduct and heavy-handed responses to homeless encampments.

“Those are issues that are squarely in the hands of the [city’s] executive branch – and we basically have a council right now, that is not a check on that power,” said state Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Minneapolis), who represents parts of Ward 8 in the Minnesota Legislature.

“We know that our community wants a check on that power,” said Gomez, speaking to fellow volunteers for Stevenson’s campaign as they prepared to head out to knock on doors on Saturday. “That’s overwhelmingly what I’m hearing.”

In Ward 8, many Stevenson supporters see Jenkins as one of those Frey allies.

MinnPost reporter Ava Kian contributed to this story.