When Andrea Jenkins first won her seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2017, she became the first Black openly trans woman elected to public office in the U.S., earning her national recognition and acclaim. Her victory elated Minneapolis progressives — and offered concrete proof that the city shared their values.
Yet here I was, sitting across from Jenkins, about an hour into a wide-ranging interview, about to ask a question that might have sounded absurd six years ago: “Are you progressive enough for Ward 8?”
For all the elation on the left over her ascent to the City Council, in recent years, Jenkins has voted more often with her more-moderate colleagues. Meanwhile, most of Jenkins’ constituents were eager to vote for left-wing causes in 2021. As she seeks re-election again this November, she faces an electoral challenge from her left: political newcomer Soren Stevenson won the endorsements of both the Democratic Socialists of America and the Minneapolis DFL.
The “progressive enough” question may very well be the test that defines whether she can keep her seat.
Jenkins considered her answer. “I don’t know,” she replied. “Is Ward 8 post-racial?
“I am a Black, transgender woman,” Jenkins explained. “I see a lot of signs in my ward that say, Black Lives Matter, Love is Love, Everyone’s welcome — all of these things. And yet as a Black woman, my voice is criticized and/or minimized.”
Jenkins explained the thesis of her re-election campaign is that she has the practical experience to “get things done.” That experience is born of two decades of work at City Hall — and also advocating for her own well-being. In her early years in politics, Jenkins recalled, “I never considered myself even as an activist. I just thought of myself as trying to make life better for myself, right?” As a Black, trans woman, she figured anything that helped her would help others, too.
That’s where Jenkins said she’s earned her “progressive” credentials: by seeking compromise, and within that, adding up victories that materially improve the lives and livelihoods of marginalized groups.
“Am I progressive enough for Ward 8? I would argue yes, yes I am,” she said. “I sit on the board of the Human Rights Campaign [Foundation], one of the most progressive organizations in the world. I have 35 years of activism on issues that people weren’t even thinking about: transgender issues, combined with being Black. I was living an intersectional life before people had even heard of the term.”
Which is why Jenkins chafed at the “progressive enough” challenge. It wasn’t just because I, a white journalist, was asking a blunt question. She said there’s something “colorblind” about the question, and to the broader test she faces with Minneapolis voters. In Jenkins’ view, any assessment that finds her progressive credentials lacking ignores a track record of fighting for equity — and also erases her unique experience as an “intersectional” elected official.
“I want to get things done,” Jenkins said. “I’m not about sloganeering, about proving a political point, or living up to some ideological theory.”
‘Your identity alone isn’t going to fix things’
Jenkins has been involved in Ward 8 in an official capacity since 2001. She was doing staff work for previous Ward 8 City Council members at 38th & Chicago nearly two decades before the intersection became George Floyd Square — the site of a police murder and the epicenter of a national conversation about race.
The ward is a patchwork of contrasting neighborhoods straddling Interstate 35. Ward 8 is majority-white, but also contains historically-Black enclaves. The ward contains both renter-dominated neighborhoods (like Lyndale), and pockets where roughly 90% of residents own their homes (like Field).
Voters there have leaned in favor of left-wing causes. In 2021, a police overhaul initiative failed citywide, but passed in Ward 8. The ballot question strengthening the mayor’s authority passed citywide, but failed in Ward 8. And 61% of Ward 8 backed the successful rent control ballot measure, compared with 53% citywide.
Jenkins can argue she isn’t out-of-step with her ward on any of these issues; her critics would disagree. Regardless, Jenkins’ allies hope voters don’t reduce her record to a checklist.
“To come up one day and just say she’s not progressive enough, and then cite a vote here or there, just feels thin to me,” said former DFL state Sen. Jeff Hayden, a longtime friend. “It feels like it doesn’t have depth. It feels like that’s just trendy and not about the deeply rooted values that people have.”
But some Stevenson supporters say they’ve broken with Jenkins over her overall approach to the job — not just her record a few key issues — and in balking at the “progressive enough” question, Jenkins was attempting to deflect legitimate criticism of her voting record.
“What she’s saying effectively is that she doesn’t want you to disagree with her,” said Lena Gardner — who, like Jenkins, is Black. “Beyond not being fair, it’s just like… who does that? I think that’s an abuse of your identities as a marginalized person.”
“I think people gave her an exceedingly large amount of grace because she is a Black trans woman and because we deeply respect her work,” Gardner added, “and that is why nobody has challenged her up until this point.” (At least from her left. Jenkins easily bested a GOP-backed election opponent in 2021.)
Like Gardner, Jam Leomi said they respect Jenkins’ trailblazing role. Leomi even said Jenkins’ victory helped affirm their decision to move to Minneapolis in 2018. As a Black, non-binary person, Leomi saw it as a sign that “I’m going to feel seen here.”
Leomi said they don’t believe Jenkins is doing enough to use her position of authority to boost more ambitious causes. Leomi’s volunteering for Stevenson in part because they say they’ve found Jenkins to be a “business as usual politician.”
“You can’t just trust that your identity alone is going to fix things,” Leomi said, “because Black and especially trans people are not a monolith.”
Ideological tests aside, Jenkins feels like some of the criticism is a shot at the city itself, which is still straining to rebuild public trust and image in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting civil unrest.
“It’s easy to take a dump on Minneapolis right now,” Jenkins said. “Yeah, we are the center of the world. We have two consent decrees — it’s never happened anywhere in the country before. We have a very fucking racist police department. It’s true … But yeah, I care about these issues and we are doing the work and people are completely disregarding it.”
How Jenkins approaches governing
When Jenkins sat down to dinner last month, she’d already put in a long day. The morning of our interview, she attended a three-hour council meeting on what to do with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct that had burned down in 2020. The day before, Mayor Jacob Frey had floated a plan to house the precinct’s officers downtown; Frey had credited Jenkins with floating the idea.
“Change,” Jenkins said between sips of coffee, “is like a three-legged stool.” In the theory she outlined, three types of people are necessary: You need people in the streets “making noise” and raising awareness. You need people in place to help people meet their basic needs, “because people aren’t going to be activated if they’re hungry, if they don’t have a place to sleep, if they don’t have a good job.” Finally, she said, “you need people on the inside of the system … to take that information and try to make policies.”
Jenkins has played all three of those roles. A poet and advocate for transgender issues, she got her first inside look at policy-making when former City Council member Robert Lilligren hired her as an aide in 2001.
“I had a lot to learn about the process,” Jenkins recalled in an interview with LGBTQ+ magazine Them in June. “Being an advocate in these rooms is really important, but being an activist is less appreciated, let’s put it that way. And I went in as an activist, so I had to learn to be a little more nuanced, a little more strategic to make changes. I started to understand that politics is really about relationships. They don’t even need to be positive, but you need some kind of relationship to move things forward.” (Her campaign staff featured this quote on Jenkins’ website.)
Before her days in City Hall, Jenkins also worked as the second leg of her proverbial stool: as a vocational counselor, first at an organization called Turning Point, and then for Hennepin County — where she worked with Hayden.
“Andrea and I had a caseload of people who had nothing,” Hayden recalled, “who came to the county with their hat in their hand and lint in their pocket and needed us to help them with health care, child care money, the rent.”
Hayden suspects this experience shaped Jenkins’ view of governing: “She wants a big idea, but she also knows that she is also responsible for keeping people safe. You can’t put a roof over people’s heads with rhetoric. You can’t eat a slogan.”
“Often, there’s a lot of lip service paid to, ‘I’ll do this, I’ll do that,’ without an outcome,” agreed former Ward 8 City Council member Elizabeth Glidden, who hired Jenkins as a staffer when she took office in 2005. “She is trying to be very focused on what are the outcomes that she’s going to be able to stand behind — not just what she might say unless you know you can pull together the results.”
Playing all three of these roles, Jenkins said, gave her an appreciation of the importance of delivering measurable victories, especially for vulnerable constituents.
“Compromise — it’s weird, I feel it’s almost like I’m putting a swear word out there,” Jenkins said. “I feel reluctant to say it, and yet it’s the truth. That’s what politics is: the art of compromise … You have to find some common ground.”
But critics say too many City Hall staff and officials are averse to upsetting the status quo — and Gardner has gravitated to Stevenson in part because she doesn’t see Jenkins as willing to challenge this aversion.
“I call it the ‘wall of no,’” said Gardner, who runs a faith-based racial justice organization outside of her volunteer work for Stevenson’s campaign. “This is what I’ve experienced time and time again with the city, is that they press you as a progressive person or organization for policy solutions. Then when you provide them, they tell you that it’s too complicated, it’s too hard and they can’t do it.
“And I don’t believe it,” Gardner continued, “because we have complicated solutions to a variety of problems that when they benefit the rich — and predominantly-though-not-exclusively white — elites of the city, they are never told ‘no.’”
Jenkins argues her approach to governance gets results. In the weeks after Floyd’s killing, Jenkins authored the City Council resolution declaring racism to be a public health emergency. In October 2020, she called for a truth and reconciliation process for Black and Indigenous Minneapolis residents. Jenkins pointed out the City Council has been exploring alternatives to sending police or firefighters to respond to mental health calls since 2018. (After our interview, the council voted to extend funding for the crisis response pilot for two more years.)
In our interview, Jenkins also said that the vast majority of the 24 demands released by activists at George Floyd Square in August 2020 — which spanned a variety of policing and community development issues — have been met. Those that haven’t are outside the city’s control, Jenkins said, such as a demand to repeal laws that prevent police from being sued over alleged misconduct.
The activists who drew up the demands, however, have pointed out that most of the demands are beyond the City Council’s purview, and they say that at least one of the 24 demands that is within the council’s authority — enacting the 2019 Liveability & Safety Platform in south Minneapolis — hasn’t been fulfilled.
To be clear, Jenkins says she wasn’t attempting to claim sole credit, or trying to declare the underlying issues resolved: “We always need more,” she said. “And yet, we are doing work.”
How Minneapolis’ rent control debate tested Jenkins’ approach
What clearly frustrates Jenkins are issues where — in her view — activists are feeding voters slogans they want to hear, without regard for the policy consequences.
Take, for example, the issue of rent control.
Stevenson favors enacting a “strong” rent control policy: “Rents keep going up,” he said in an interview in May. “Are we supposed to just continue to expand our [rental assistance programs] while landlords keep taking more and more without investing back into the buildings? … Rents are rising too fast, and the market is hurting us rather than helping us at this point.”
Jenkins’ views are more complicated. She believes the strict limits on annual rent increases — a centerpiece of the policy that activists want — would not help low-income families who already cannot afford their housing. If the policy spooked landlords, Jenkins also worries it could backfire, causing rents to rise faster than they would without rent control. She’d prefer the city beef up programs target financial help directly to the most cash-strapped tenants, pointing to the recently-expanded Stable Homes Stable Schools rental aid program.
But these, Jenkins explained, are just her personal views. “I still want to hear from the rest of the people. This is the crux of government … My philosophy of governing is I have to take into account all of these different factors. I have my personal opinions about rent control, but I also think that our constituency should have a role in that really big decision.”
So Jenkins has been generally open to the debate. Like most of Ward 8, Jenkins supported the ballot measure in 2021 that gave City Council the authority to enact rent control. After voters approved it, Jenkins authored the legislation to hand the issue off to a working group to study the details of a policy the city should enact.
“We brought together renters, developers, small landlords, large landlords,” Jenkins said, in hopes the disparate groups could sort out their differences and emerge with some sort of deal on rent control.
But that working group didn’t emerge with one compromise policy; instead, the group split. A slim majority of members endorsed a strict 3% cap on annual rent increases with few exceptions. A sizable minority backed a looser policy that allowed for bigger annual rent increases and more exceptions.
Jenkins said that rather than bridging the differences between activist slogans and a workable policy, the working group “didn’t get to the central question that was asked: please bring back a policy that incorporates all of the voices.”
One member of the working group pushed back on the idea that the group had failed to fulfill their mandate: “The whole process was about compromise,” said AsaleSol Young, head of Urban Homeworks, a small advocacy organization and affordable housing developer. Disagreements over the two competing policies were “contentious,” Young said, but the working group’s process still felt “incredibly democratic.”
Still, Jenkins voted with a narrow majority of her colleagues to open debate on sending the strict 3% rent control policy to the November ballot. Everyone assumed that the council would have the chance to amend the proposal, and Jenkins said she’d be open to enacting a policy that would guard against “egregious” rent hikes — of perhaps 12% or more in a single year.
Then, a few weeks later, the rent control push met a sudden end. Because of a scheduling error, the City Council met on June 28 — the day the three Muslim members were absent from the council’s meeting as they observed the Eid al-Adha holiday. All three of the absent council members were rent control supporters. Supporters were powerless to stop the opponents, who voted 5-4 to effectively kill the proposal for the year.
Jenkins had voted for debate to continue. Nevertheless, some outraged rent control supporters blame Jenkins for the issue’s demise. The three Muslim council members issued a statement faulting “council leadership” for deciding against rescheduling the meeting. Jenkins disputed this: “There was never a request to move the meeting,” and that by the time Jenkins learned the date religious authorities had set for Eid — it can shift by a matter of days each year — it was too late.
Whether or not Jenkins deserves the blame, Young called the vote to smother the rent control debate “an obstruction of justice,” and said the entire episode — from the 2021 ballot measure all the way to the June 28 vote — has exposed the entire City Council’s inability to cut a deal.
“The voters asked the City Council to make a decision,” Young said. The council then outsourced the task to the working group, which met regularly for months. “We dug in … We did the best that we could do, given the training of this working group. We actually did our jobs as expected.”
“The City Council,” they added, “is not addressing its own, internal inability to compromise.”
‘A Black woman in charge of ending racism?’
It’s clear from our interview that Jenkins’ top concern is chipping away at the racist structures that have made the Twin Cities one of the most difficult regions in the U.S. for Black residents to live, with the metro’s Black-white homeownership and income gaps some of the widest in the U.S.
“We haven’t achieved racial equity. We’re not even close to it,” Jenkins said. “Minneapolis is super progressive, right? However, Black people here were worse off than any other Black people in the country.”
In her view, white people must take a lead role in repairing racism’s damage. At the debate over the Third Precinct the morning of our interview, Jenkins said she saw white protesters holding up signs calling for the resumption of the city’s truth and reconciliation work: “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Really?’ Because we want the truth and the reconciliation from you, the one holding the sign.”
Jenkins acknowledged she occupies a leadership position high up in a government that has deeply-rooted problems with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism — but she also resents criticism that seems to blame her for creating or sustaining these problem.
During the Ward 8 endorsement convention in May, Stevenson told attendees, “We do not have institutions that treat Black people, Brown people, Indigenous people with dignity and respect.”
In those remarks, Stevenson placed the onus on the City Council generally without naming Jenkins specifically. Regardless, Jenkins was irked. In her rebuttal, she told the convention: “Racism exists in every single institution … I am not sure how a white guy is going to solve that problem.”
During our interview in mid-July, Jenkins repeated a similar sentiment: “Soren, the last time I checked, you’re white. What, as a Black woman, I am in charge of ending racism? That’s your job.”
Leomi contended Stevenson’s line of critique was fair — and that Jenkins has a responsibility to “show her work.” After all, as an incumbent City Council president, Jenkins was in a position to affect change, Leomi said.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘My challenger isn’t thinking about race enough,’” Leomi said. “Show how you are including that in the current policies that you have.”
On the other hand, Hayden, the former state senator, said that his friend is onto something.
“Somehow, [Jenkins] has gotten tipped into being the person that’s made the problem,” he said, “and she clearly isn’t. Everything in her career shows that she’s been fighting against that process.”
I read Jenkins the response Stevenson gave to me after the virtual convention’s Zoom cameras had turned off: “Racism is a white problem,” he said. “It was created to benefit the white race. We need to have everyone in this fight working against racism. And if a white man can’t be a part of working against racism, then we’re really in a sad place.”
After I’d finished reading, Jenkins nodded. “That’s true,” she said, “but you can’t attack and denigrate a Black person in your quest to solve racism.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the length of time the rent control working group met.