In previous election cycles in Minneapolis, mayoral candidates wanting to get an early start — the filing period doesn’t begin until July — would often announce their campaigns at the beginning of the year. By mid-March, there would normally be a healthy crop of candidates.
In 2013, after Mayor R.T. Rybak announced he would not seek another term, candidates such as Betsy Hodges, Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Gary Schiff and Don Samuels were all already in the race by March.
And in 2017, when Hodges, then the incumbent, ran for reelection, it was a similar story: By March, Nekima Levy Armstrong, then-state Rep. Raymond Dehn, Tom Hoch and Jacob Frey had all jumped into the race.
This year is different. By Valentine’s Day, only Frey and one other candidate had declared. By mid-March, that number had increased to five — Frey, activist Sheila Nezhad, Philip Sturm, Jerrell Perry and former state Rep. Kate Knuth — though only two of those candidates, Frey and Knuth, have experience in political office.
Why has a once sought-after gig become a job few people seem to want?
Let’s start with the obvious: There is famously little power associated with the job under Minneapolis’ system of governance — at a moment when the city is facing some of the more complex challenges in its history.
Amid a spike in crime and a pandemic that has killed hundreds of residents and devastated the city’s restaurant, retail and service industries, the city is under national and international scrutiny for the killing of George Floyd, the subsequent unrest from Floyd’s death — and the underlying factors that led to those events.
Or as Kenza Hadj-Moussa, director of public affairs and communications for the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, puts it: “We would not wish these crises on any mayor in the country.”
But the city’s troubles go beyond the last year, and speak to the challenges of the role — and to the patience among voters for those who hold it. Floyd was the third high-profile killing involving Minneapolis police officers in the last six years — Jamar Clark was killed in 2015, Justine Damond in 2017. Both of those cases happened under then-Mayor Hodges, who didn’t even make it to the final two candidates in the city’s 2017 ranked-choice voting election.
Frey has had his own challenges. The city has seen a spike in crime on Frey’s watch, including a 21 percent jump in violent crime in 2020 compared to previous years. And he has faced criticism for his response to Floyd’s killing, both by those who thought he was slow to respond — especially for his decision ordering police to abandon the Third Precinct before it was burned down — and by those who don’t think he’s been aggressive enough on reforming the Minneapolis Police Department. One of the most memorable moments of his tenure came when, after telling a group of protesters outside his home that he did not support the abolition of the police department, he was shouted down.
All of which might usually mean trouble for an incumbent, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz. “Under normal circumstances, he oughta be toast at this point.”
Instead, Frey started the year with $230,000 in campaign funds facing a field that, until early March, included a single challenger with a website.
Now, the year is beginning to look more like 2009, when then-mayor R.T. Rybak was running for a third term and many prospective candidates chose against mounting a challenge, said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, an advocacy group for ranked-choice voting. “There hasn’t been that flurry of candidates,” she said.
The uncrowded field has even been a surprise to the candidates. Nezhad, who works with Reclaim the Block and was the lead organizer behind “The People’s Budget,” which called for $53 million in cuts to MPD, thought more people would be in the race at this point, even if she understands why many might be reluctant to jump in.
“I think what it is is the arc of justice and the collective weight of history is upon us right now in Minneapolis,” she said. “It’s a big moment, to me. I think that people have been cautious about running because there is so much on the line right now.”
Knuth, who has cited the paucity of candidates as one of the reasons she got in the race, says she also understands why other candidates aren’t eager to run.
Even without the added challenge of running amid a pandemic, the prospect of putting yourself out there at a time when the city is dealing with so much collective grief and trauma — from the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd — is enough to make anyone hesitate from leaping into the race, she said.
“These are not small things,” said Knuth. “It’s not just putting your name on a ballot. I mean, you could do that. I’m coming into this race with a seriousness of purpose about the moment and about what we actually need to do.”
“It’s not surprising things are feeling the way they are. It’d be easy to step away. But I think of myself, and I want to be the kind of person who steps forward with a sense of responsibility.”