Jason Chavez didn’t celebrate his re-election to the Minneapolis City Council’s Ward 9 seat in a buzzy restaurant or a rented-out ballroom. He didn’t even celebrate it on Election Night.
Instead, on Wednesday evening, Chavez reserved the party room of a condo building, where around 60 people munched on catered food. But the setting was the only thing about this gathering that was low-key. Chavez and his guests bubbled with enthusiasm.
“Last night, Minneapolis woke up. They said we deserve a government that’s going to take care of its people,” Chavez told the gathering of his friends, family and political allies – including his former aide, newly-elected Ward 12 council member Aurin Chowdhury, who got her own raucous round of applause.
Chavez is part of a left-wing coalition that secured a Minneapolis City Council majority in Tuesday’s municipal elections. Chowdhury and three other re-elected council members showed up to Chavez’s gathering to toast – mostly with sparkling water – the group’s success, many of them already brimming with ideas about how to leverage their newly-won majority.
But it remains an open question what type of policies they’ll be able to enact.
The coalition won seven of the Minneapolis City Council’s 13 seats. That majority – composed of candidates endorsed by or allied with a PAC that formed to oppose Mayor Jacob Frey – is big enough to pass legislation, but short of the nine votes needed to override a mayoral veto. On some hot topics, even those seven coalition members don’t always see eye to eye.
Many of the most outspoken members hope their bloc can serve as a check on the mayor’s agenda. As Ward 1 council member Elliott Payne put it, “This is going to be accountability season.”
But far from leading to gridlock, Chavez was also optimistic that this dynamic could force Frey and his critics to work more closely together – and perhaps even find common ground.
Frey said he’s open to a fresh start.
“Everybody should be taking the drawer of bad feelings that developed over the course of an election and throw the drawer in the trash can,” the mayor said in an interview.
MinnPost spoke with the mayor and several council members to get an early look at how the new majority could affect three specific issues – and one big one – at Minneapolis City Hall.
The council’s left is still upset over the way rent control critics killed a proposal last summer by moving ahead with a procedural vote despite the absence of three Muslim council members on a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha.
Rent control certainly will be back again next year. Re-elected council member Aisha Chughtai (Ward 10) has said she would revive the idea. So has Jamal Osman (Ward 6), who wasn’t endorsed by the majority coalition.
Tuesday’s result makes passing a rent control proposal through the council easier. However, the issue also vividly illustrates two challenges facing the seven-member majority to enact its most ambitious ideas.
First, there are the bloc’s own internal divisions. On rent control, Chughtai and Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) have said they support a policy that strictly caps annual rent increases at 3% – with no exceptions.
Payne also said this strict 3% cap should be a “starting point” for any rent control debate; that’s the policy that a majority of a city-appointed workgroup recommended. Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5) has expressed support for a “strong” policy that is “free from corporate loopholes.”
But one of the members of the new majority bloc, Chowdhury, has said she doesn’t support rent control without exceptions for newly-constructed buildings. Another member of the coalition, Katie Cashman (Ward 7), opposes a 3% cap.
Then, there’s the mayor. Frey threatened to veto the specific proposal that council members were considering last June, before the Eid vote and on Thursday, Frey indicated he remains broadly opposed to the concept of rent control moving forward.
“Economists ranging from the left to the right have pretty bluntly said, ‘It doesn’t work,’” Frey said.
So even if the seven members of the majority coalition, plus Osman, sort out their own differences, there’s a decent chance they’d need to find a ninth vote to override a mayoral veto if they hope to advance a rent control policy to the ballot (where voters would ultimately need to approve it).
Incumbent Council President Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) – who won with the endorsement of the PAC that supported Frey, not the majority coalition – was among the members who voted to continue debate on rent control last summer. However, Jenkins said she’d prefer a much looser policy that only prevents the most egregious rent hikes (perhaps 12% or more in a single year).
Still, Chughtai expressed confidence that the new majority can thread the needle.
“There’s more agreement on rent stabilization with a new majority than there is not. The majority of council members agree that we need a policy, agree that price gouging is bad, that anti-displacement is the goal, that people of color are more harmed by rent hikes than white people are,” Chughtai said. “That’s enough consensus to build a policy around.”
Payne also noted that rent stabilization is not a cure-all for the housing crisis.
“The data is clear. What it does – it doesn’t solve housing affordability, but it prevents displacement. That’s not where we stop in addressing our housing crisis,” said Payne.
Regulations on Uber and Lyft
It’s possible that Frey and the council may be able to at least partially settle this issue before the new majority is seated.
In August, Frey vetoed an ordinance authored by Wonsley, Chavez and Osman that would have created new job protections for Uber and Lyft drivers amid threats from the rideshare companies to pull out of the city.
However, the mayor – and indeed most City Council members – voiced support for establishing a minimum wage for rideshare drivers. In announcing his veto, Frey said that Uber had committed to guarantee that drivers earn at least Minneapolis’ minimum wage of $15.19 per hour.
On Thursday, Frey told MinnPost he was willing to support an ordinance that would “more than double” the present rate of driver pay.
“Let’s do it. I’m ready. Put it on my desk,” said the mayor.
The authors of the original ordinance hoped they might advance the minimum wage increase by splitting it off from the other regulations they originally proposed – including, for example, giving deactivated drivers the right to argue for their reinstatement.
Would Frey be willing to revisit that broader package of regulations with a new council coming in? Too many details to sort through, too early to say, the mayor said.
Chavez is optimistic.
“I feel like it’s a better chance,” said Chavez.
Osman said he hoped a state task force, and ultimately the Minnesota Legislature, would be able to deliver a statewide package of rideshare regulations.
“The ideal thing I’d like to see is the state taking this issue and making sure it protects the rights of drivers (against) wage theft,” Osman said. “But if the state fails, of course that’s going to come back” to the council.
The city’s homelessness response
Members of the majority coalition on the City Council said they’d be pushing the mayor and city staff to provide a more “humane” response to encampments and to people living on the street.
Chavez raised the issue of storage.
Frey noted that the city, through a partnership with the non-profit Downtown Improvement District, offers to store personal belongings for unhoused people in parking ramps downtown. But Chavez said he’s heard too many horror stories of city crews throwing out personal belongings as they evict an encampment.
“We have the ability to enact a humane encampment response policy that centers housing provision, that centers dignity, that makes sure that people have basic storage and public health measures,” Chavez said.
Activists have said that some encampments are relying on inadequate, makeshift toilets – and complained that red tape and foot-dragging by city officials have prevented the installation of fresh water, bathroom and handwashing stations at encampments. Chughtai said she would push for the city to provide access to such hygiene facilities.
“We have both done that, and not done that, depending on the circumstances and the length of the encampment,” Frey said in an interview.
Payne said he favored a “medication-assisted therapy center,” the type of clinic that uses drugs like methadone to help treat opioid use disorders. Frey said the city’s already acting on this idea, noting the city’s transfer of land to the Red Lake Nation for use as a treatment center.
A check on executive power
Payne is overflowing with ideas. He’s ready to tackle new bike infrastructure. He’s ready for a “deeper” partnership with Metro Transit that expands a “micro” transit pilot. Really get Payne going, and he’ll expound on the brilliance of setting up a municipal bank.
But Payne isn’t getting too far ahead of himself.
“We are going to earn the right to do bold things in our city by doing the basics right,” he said. (“Quote that!” whooped Chughtai, as she listened nearby.)
What are the basics?
“Potholes, snow plowing, garbage pickup, housing inspections when a renter complains about a bad landlord,” Payne said.
All of those functions Payne listed are those of the city’s executive branch. In November 2021, voters approved a change to the City Charter giving the mayor clearer authority over the executive – and more clearly circumscribing the City Council’s role as the city’s legislative and budget-making body. The council and the mayor are still learning to navigate this redefined relationship.
“You’ve got past practice that has been baked into the mortar of City Hall for generations, and it’s not going to get un-baked in a year,” Frey said on election night. “It’s the most cliché thing to say, but you know, it’s build the plane while flying it.”
This election could be an important inflection point on that flight. Chavez argued that, so far, the council has not yet acted as a check on the mayor’s power.
“I’m calling it checks and balances at City Hall,” the Ward 9 council member said in his election night speech. “An oversight function that we finally get to use.”
Among the priorities Chavez noted in the aftermath of the election: fully funding a legislative department, which would give council members access to staff who could provide policy research and assessments independent of the executive branch.
Frey said he was ready to work in good faith with the new-look council.
“There’s a few things I would ask for: We tell truth. We say the same thing in public that we do behind closed doors,” he said. “And we should all have the courage to tell our own side what they don’t want to hear, at times … if they’re clearly wrong.”