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Minneapolis Council President Lisa Bender on George Floyd, ‘defund the police,’ and her decision not to run for re-election

A Q&A with the Ward 10 council member.

Lisa Bender
Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council and representative of its 10th Ward, announced earlier this month that she will not run for re-election.

With the 2020 general election in the rearview mirror, voters in Minneapolis will move on to the highly anticipated 2021 city elections, when the entire 13-member council will be on the ballot. 

It will be the first election since the death of George Floyd, and the first since a majority of council members appeared at a rally in Powderhorn Park to declare their intention to end traditional policing in the city and create a new form of public safety — a move that sparked international headlines, sharp criticism and no small amount of confusion over exactly what they meant. 

One of the names that won’t be on the ballot, however, is that of Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council and representative of its 10th Ward, who announced earlier this month that she will not run for re-election. She made the announcement in an email to her ward constituents, which includes the neighborhoods of East Harriet, ECCO, Lowry Hill East, South Uptown and Whittier. 

Here, the Council President — she holds her position until the end of 2021 — reflects on her decision to leave, her efforts around housing, pay and public safety and the challenges of her role on the council. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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MinnPost: You said your decision came a while back. When did you first start thinking about leaving the council?

Lisa Bender: When I decided to run for a second term, I really thought about that decision and what I wanted to get done. Even at that time I thought this would likely be my last term. But of course, you know, that was four years ago now, so I wanted to keep an open mind. I have had a very busy 10 years. I had breast cancer while I was pregnant, I had two babies, I ran against an incumbent, and I ran for council president and I led a lot of policy changes. So, it’s been kind of constant running for 10 years. There’s not really more to it than that. 

MP: Was there a specific moment that sealed it?

LB: It’s hard to pinpoint one particular time. I turned 40 a couple years ago and went on this solo hike … I think, at that time, even, I was pretty clear that there was something after council. … My colleagues are doing great work. We’ve really shifted a lot of things within the city enterprise, the city departments to support a lot of the goals that I set out along with my constituents and supporters and organizations within the city to accomplish. 

MP: Were there other factors to your decision? You’ve mentioned to me previously that the position of council president receives a lot of negative feedback. How much was that a factor?

LB: It’s hard to say. I’ve become accustomed to the scrutiny that comes with leading change. And, so, in some ways, there is, you know, me as a person, in my life. And then there’s this other, council member-person. And they almost feel like two separate things. I know who I am. I know what drives my values and my choices. I know how much time I spend listening to my constituents and community. I really have, over time, really learned to stay focused on those things and not so much on the more personal types of attacks or that kind of thing. There’s always weird rumors about me. … I just don’t give it much thought. 

MP: Describe the negativity you receive. 

LB: During my time in office, I’ve frequently led or been involved with some of the more controversial policy changes at the city. I helped pass sick time and raise the minimum wage. I led the Minneapolis 2040 plan development and a lot of the zoning changes to support housing choices and housing affordability. I authored renter protection ordinances. And a lot of those policies were done in partnership with grassroots organizations really advocating for change that benefits working people, renters, that is really aimed at leveling the playing field in our city. 

The folks who benefit from the status quo often fight back against those kinds of changes. Whether it be business interests or landlords or folks who really benefit from the advantages of property ownership. I think most of the criticism has been during times when I’m leading change. I certainly take to heart questions and critiques from folks who don’t agree with me on policy. I have good relationships with people who I have a different perspective or I disagree. Of course my constituents don’t always agree. That’s part of my job, is to navigate disagreements and find spaces of common ground. 

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It seems to be the case that women leaders, leaders of color, or especially folks who are leading progressive change are under a lot of scrutiny. I feel like I just kinda became used to that being part of my life. I have really amazing support systems. Friends who check in on me. That’s how I’ve come to react to that part of my job. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been fully comfortable being a public person. How much do I share about my life and my kids and my interests and the things that I love, ya know? The things that make me a person. I think a lot of times, especially now. When I first took office, social media was really not as much a part of the way that people communicated. … I’m on the city council. I’m your neighbor. I’m the person you run into at the grocery store or at the park with our kids or walking the dog at the park. That’s how a lot of people have oriented to their council members in the past. But now, I think, with social media, there’s a lot of folks following us or weighing in who don’t know, with that personal connection. It changes how folks perceive their elected officials. 

MP: Was the job more difficult after the pandemic?

LB: Yes, absolutely. I think serving in public office has become more difficult since the election of Donald Trump, and that people’s tone and language really changed to be more aggressive, more focused on personal attacks. I think, during this time, it’s become more common to use social media to communicate about policy and government. Maybe it’s attributable to both. But I do think that having a president who uses name calling and uses social media to attack opponents and violates so many norms of that highest office. It really affected how people speak to their elected officials. The pandemic, it’s interesting, I’ve started talking about this with people I know who work with people. I have seen the pandemic really wear on people as a community the longer it goes on. I actually think that a lot of our neighbors are really not doing ok. … I’m not sure how much folks are even cognizant about how much the pandemic is really affecting community connections and people’s sense of being ok, of wellness. 

MP: Was the death of George Floyd another moment in which your job shifted again?

LB: I think George Floyd’s killing was so devastating to our community. I think the nature of the action and everything that happened. Of course, we have a lot of lawsuits related to police behavior, so, I have to be a bit careful about what I say. I just think the public perception of what happened led to a lot of outrage and anger and disgust, shame about how we could let this happen in our community. But I think people looked at what happened and thought “this shouldn’t be happening in Minneapolis, this isn’t our values, this isn’t what kind of community we are.”

I think the demand for change was stronger than I’ve ever seen. It remains to be seen if people will remember and stick with it over time. I have seen in the past a big outcry and then the demands kind of wane as people move on. Not everyone, of course. There are organizations still who have been pushing for change. There are the family members of loved ones who were killed by police. But I think there is a bit of a falloff at times with the greater public’s involvement with pushing for change. 

I do think this is different, the way that George Floyd’s death became such an international story. The fact that his family is very vocal in asking for change. He’s already inspired policy changes and budget shifts and reforms and different changes all across the country. So, I think, this is different. 

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MP: We don’t have to do a whole postmortem, but take me back to the days after Floyd’s death, and the time of your now infamous declaration at Powderhorn Park that you intend to dismantle MPD. What was going through your head when you made the announcement? 

LB: I was in the Boundary Waters with my two kids when George Floyd was killed. So in the days immediately after his death, I was not here. I was trying to get out of the wilderness with my 9-year-old paddling the front of a canoe in a windstorm. In the past, like after Jamar [Clark] was killed and the Fourth Precinct occupation was going on, I was out in the community talking with folks in the street. This time I wasn’t here those couple of days immediately after. So it was different for me to just not have that direct connection to folks out in the streets protesting. 

I got back and started talking with the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office and the mayor and my colleagues, and got everyone’s understanding of what had happened. The two organizations that hosted the event at Powderhorn Park, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, have been organizing around our budget for many years. I had relationships with those organizations and actually folks in those groups, even before those organizations existed, from other work around worker protections and the minimum wage. 

I’ve talked about that event a lot and that moment a lot. I’m not sure what more to say about it other than, for me, it is clear to me that our city needs to make dramatic change in how we are approaching public safety and in how we interact with our police department. 

As an elected official, I don’t like the words “defund the police.” It makes me really uncomfortable. It forces me to have a lot of really difficult conversations with my constituents. But I think that’s the point. I don’t think for the advocates who decided on the slogans. I don’t write the slogans for organizing movements. But as an elected official reacting to them, I can say that really calling into question the current system that they see, in one way or another, is really needed right now. 

I think for a lot of people, safety just equates with policing. We think about safety, we think about police. But there are so many other things that keep us safe, or not. Connections in the community, support for kids who are struggling, housing, mental health support, issues related to drug use. So many things have a connection to safety. I am hopeful that the conversation that we are having right now in Minneapolis will be centered in values that are largely shared in our community, and that we are on the path to building a much better system of safety than the one we’ve had. 

MP: Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, what did you like about your response plan to Floyd’s death? What would you do over again?

LB: I really take to heart the feedback we’re getting about communicating. I think we take these official council actions that are very technical. We’re passing a resolution or working to get a charter amendment on the ballot to amend our city’s charter. I know it’s not as accessible as it could be. Looking forward, we’re thinking about ways to have more public-facing communications when we take official council action. 

This is actually part of a bigger point. But I think the role of the city council member has changed a lot in the short time I’ve been in office. People’s expectations about what their city council member does, I think, are different. Our offices are really set up to serve our constituents — to answer the phone and answer questions about potholes and streetlights and licensing for a particular business — and not as much set up to move big policy change. I think people’s expectations now is that the city council is moving big policy change. 

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MP: What accomplishments or aspects of your work do you think most fondly of?

LB: Up until now, I think that the Minneapolis 2040 plan is the thing that will make the biggest, most lasting impact on the city. It really set us on a course to look at infrastructure and housing policy from a citywide leds, and will make it harder to make the kind of project-by-project decisions that tend to really benefit the status quo. 

So, if future council members want to require more affordability, they can change the inclusionary zoning policy that we’ve passed to require more units or lower rent. If folks want to focus on green building standards, there’s a tool to do that through our policy. But I think we took some complex, at the time controversial issues around housing and infrastructure, and we used our values as a city to inform citywide policy that will allow for more housing types, that will create affordable housing in all of our city’s neighborhoods, and, over time, will make our city a lot more resilient to economic shifts like the one were seeing right now. 

MP: The council has a reputation for being divisive. …What do you make of how the council’s perceived? Is it a contentious place to work?

LB: During my first term in office, there was a split that tended to fall along the same lines with different teams of council members. It started out 7-6, then slowly, I was in the minority, which got smaller and smaller as we went along. Not on every vote. But there did tend to be different voting blocs. 

When I was talking with folks about council structure and asking for their support to be council president, one of my motivations for seeking that role was that I did not want to work in that kind of environment. I think open debate is really important. I know that in Minneapolis we have an enormous amount of overlap and shared values. I know that I want to be in a work environment where you can disagree at a city council meeting on Friday about something and then come back to work on Monday and work with a colleague on something else. 

Actually, it was former Council President Barb Johnson who really instilled that in me. She talked about the fact you don’t know who you are going to disagree with next time. There’s no last vote. I took that to heart. But I also took to heart the desire to have a kind of leadership that was really collaborative and really supportive. That’s what people asked for from me when I asked for their support for council president. 

So, this term, I have put a lot of energy into keeping the peace, keeping relationships, not just between myself and my colleagues, but also really fostering collaboration and communication among all of my colleagues. It’s harder now that we’re not in the office. It used to be a lot more informal, bumping into each other in the hallway or stopping by each other’s offices. We need to be a lot more intentional about keeping that atmosphere. But it is a lot of work. It’s not something that necessarily happens naturally. It’s something that takes work. 

MP: What is your legislative plan for your remaining time on the council?

LB: By the end of this year, we should wrap up the built form overlay, which is the zoning implementation, for the Minneapolis 2040 plan. There will be more specific ordinances to implement the plan over many years. But that one is a big piece of translating housing and land use policy.

We are also, soon, next week, seeing the transportation action plan, which is the culmination of many years of work on transportation policy. It’s a really forward-looking plan that centers race equity and climate change in our transportation system. We also focus on transit access and improving transit, and encouraging walking and biking. The plan has aggressive mode shift goals to support people choosing to walk, bicycle and take transit, in order to meet our greenhouse gas emissions goals. 

Things have been a bit delayed because of everything, the pandemic mostly. But I am also working on a rent increase cap. A policy like one in Oregon and California that would limit the amount of rent that landlords can increase each year. We have a study underway that Council Member Jerimiah Ellison and I helped get funding for in last year’s budget looking at rental housing that has paid off its debt. The next step would be to write a rule that says you can’t raise rent more than x percent each year in older housing, what’s likely naturally occurring affordable housing in the city. 

I feel like this is a really important part of our overall housing package that is missing still. We’ve made it easier to build housing, we’ve required affordable housing. We’ve allowed small multi-family triplexes everywhere in the city. We’ve focused bigger apartment buildings along transit corridors. We’ve reformed parking. We’ve passed renter protection policies. And [a rent increase cap] really is, I think, a missing piece of that overall package. 

And then, of course, public safety will be the big issue that we are all working on. I’ve shifted a lot of my time to focus on transforming public safety, and on police oversight and accountability. These aren’t issues I’ve worked on a lot in most of my time in office. They weren’t priorities that I heard about when I was running either time in Ward 10. But now they are. 

MP: Do you plan on running for office again? Is there an itch to sit in the mayor’s chair?

LB: People keep asking me that all the time about mayor. I think just because it seems more interesting, right? I don’t have any current plans to run for office. I’m not sure what I’ll do after. People started talking to me about some really cool and interesting ideas. I’m actually really excited to see what comes next. I know a lot about how power systems work now, so I can put that to good use in all kinds of ways. … I don’t know exactly what form my next step will take. But I know I’m someone who will always be working in the community and working to organize people and organize for change.