Residents of North Minneapolis have long been promised many things by elected officials who, best of intentions or not, can’t or don’t deliver.
Several different sets of leaders of the city’s public schools have promised equity, which, at long last, seems to be a sincere conversation. Mayors have promised to address the supply of affordable housing, but progress is glacial.
Much-trumpeted mortgage foreclosure assistance has failed to bring relief, and until the state, embarrassed by newspaper headlines, turned most of the money over to the city, a fund that was supposed to help residents re-roof in the wake of May’s tornado was acquiring a decidedly Katrina-esque reputation.
Yet six months after Mark Dayton met with community leaders at the Twin Cities Economic Development Summit, a canvass of people who were present at the meeting suggests that even though circumstances remain largely unchanged, the governor has kept his political capital.
The reason: He was clear and deliberate in spelling out what changes he could order and where he’d be relegated to the role of cheerleader.
Regarding the former, he appointed specific staffers to keep tabs on his administration’s commitments. And those staffers answer the phone.
Regarding the latter, well, it’s been a long time since such a highly placed cheerleader has kept the community’s priorities on the front burner.
‘Pretty authentic in his approach‘
“The governor has been pretty authentic in his approach to this and has only pushed what he has the ability and the authority to get done,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, the former state representative from South Minneapolis who was recently elected to fill Linda Berglin’s seat.
“He has been more visible and more accessible,” Hayden continued. “He has more people of color around him and as his commissioners.”
Hayden may be a Dayton partisan, but other community leaders agree. “We’re in a tough spot right now, and the governor has shown leadership,” said Louis King, president and CEO of the job-training center Summit Academy.
“It’s difficult when you’ve got a revenue issue and you’ve got an impasse at the Capitol.”
King was among those in attendance at the March 30 meeting, which marked the first visit to the impoverished north side by a sitting governor since Rudy Perpich and the fulfillment of a campaign promise made to the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Baptist Church.
High unemployment rate
The common thread to the items on the agenda: Putting people to work. Nearly one-fourth of the area’s African-American residents are unemployed, a number Hayden cautions does not include “people who are just off the grid, not even looking for work.”
For two hours, community members aired their complaints. Ex-offenders need help re-entering the job market. State agencies should “unbundle” contracts — break them into smaller pieces — to make it easier for minority-owned startups to bid for the work.
There was talk of jobs training money and funds to support entrepreneurship, the best shot both for business creation in the area’s depressed neighborhoods and for those with troublesome records to secure good work, but no action.
MinnPost’s Doug Grow was in attendance. According to his report of the confab, attendees were deeply skeptical.
“Where,” asked one woman, “will all the politicians be tomorrow?”
Another woman asked, “Whose job is it to correct these problems? Who’s accountable?”
‘Analyzed to death‘
“We can’t afford another series of meetings,” said King. “We’ve been analyzed to death.”
The governor’s response was to appoint Micah Hines, then an assistant chief of staff, to ride herd on his cabinet members. And he committed to tendering a report within nine days that would spell out steps he could take to address their grievances. (Hines is now general counsel, but retained responsibility for ensuring state agency’s stay on board with the governor’s commitments.)
In the memo he delivered [PDF], Dayton pointed out that a number of key changes were not within his control. The biggest: He had asked the Legislature to approve a $1 billion bonding bill, which he estimated would create 28,000 jobs.
That, of course, did not happen, nor did lawmakers deliver on a couple of smaller initiatives that would have helped address the community’s complaints. But Dayton was able to preserve most of the budget of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which acts to combat discrimination.
As for the rest, there’s more good will than money flowing, but many commitments have been kept.
Review is in progress
The Department of Human Rights is engaged in a promised review of state agencies’ affirmative-action plans in an effort to identify those that are helpful. According to a department spokesman, results will be available before the next legislative session starts in January.
Dayton re-launched the Urban Initiative Board and appointed Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Mark Phillips to run it. The board oversees a $1.7 fund that makes loans to small businesses creating jobs in low-income areas of the Twin Cities.
DEED awarded $200,000 to the Northside Economic Opportunity Network to provide start-up assistance to neighborhood businesses and entrepreneurs.
The Department of Transportation, a major potential source of work for minority-owned business, is experimenting with “unbundling” contracts let for a project involving an interchange at Interstate 694, Snelling Avenue and US 10.
Additionally, $260,000 for the reinstatement of the DOT’s targeted business group program, discontinued in 2003, was included in the budget compromise approved by during July’s legislative session.
Seminar attracted more than 100
In August, the Department of Administration hosted a promised seminar on becoming a “targeted group” vendor and doing business with the state and other government entities. More than 100 people attended the event, which a spokesman said the department is considering conducting annually.
According to Hayden, Dayton’s proposed Vikings stadium legislation also includes “inclusionary language” on contracting. “The governor is standing up and saying we’ve got to change our culture around here,” he said.
He and King said they are anxious to see the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County follow suit and examine their own procurement rules to see where there’s room for improvement.
Compliance on the action items is nice, King added. But the open door and sense of accountability is better.
“These are people we can work with,” he said. “Now we have to find things to take to them and ask them for specifics.”
Access to the bully pulpit
Equally important, in King’s opinion, is taking advantage of the access the community has been given to the bully pulpit.
“Business has broken the social compact,” he added. “A majority of businesses are now saying they want to make a profit without providing jobs. I think that’s the real show in this country right now.
“We have to find the pressure points,” King continued. “There are people who are so dug in they’re not going to be swayed by a moral argument.”