Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with seven candidates for Minneapolis mayor. Only those who have filed with the Hennepin County Elections Department to form a campaign finance committee have been interviewed. The interviews will run in alphabetical order. At the bottom of this article, you can find a short list of high-profile supporters (where provided by the candidate).
Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels was 20 years old with $83 in his pocket when he arrived in New York City as an immigrant from Jamaica coming here to study industrial design.
That was 43 years ago. During the intervening years, he worked as an executive with a Fortune 500 toy company before starting his own business inventing and designing toys for major manufacturers. One wall of his City Hall office is decorated with toys he designed.
Samuels, 63, was elected to the City Council in February 2003 in a 3rd Ward special election. He now represents the 5th Ward.
In this series of edited interviews, mayoral candidates were asked to introduce themselves to voters and respond to some basic questions.
MinnPost: Why would you leave a safe City Council seat to seek the office of mayor?
Don Samuels: I think there are some things that are part of the city’s life that have become normal that can be significantly improved. I think I bring the skills, characteristics, and maybe even the character, to get them done.
That would be addressing some of the education issues that have dogged us for a long time. I have a lot of passion around that subject and a lot of will to change things.
MP: As mayor, what would you, could you, do to improve education?
DS: I would make it the primary conversation in the city. Tom Gillaspy, the former Minnesota state demographer, was like a prophet in the wilderness on this issue, saying that there was a train coming down the tracks and if we don’t face it, we’ll have a problem.
So, I’m willing to take that to where the rubber meets the road, to begin to talk to the parents of the city about how to create a successful student and to talk to the [school] district about the urgency of the situation and begin to talk really about using measurements and data as instruments for change and a signal of how bad things are.
MP: Exactly what did Gillaspy say?
DS: He talked about the changing demographics, which are already beginning to play out. Right now, 51 percent of Ramsey County children under the age of 5 are minority. In Minneapolis, 48 percent are the same demographic.
When you say you have an achievement gap between white kids and children of color, you are talking about a disaster. We’re going to move from a successful educational city — right now we’re 29th in graduations rates in the country — we’re going to keep slipping to an unsustainable number. And eventually we’re going to be looking for professionals from foreign countries, Third World countries, to come here and do our most high-quality work.
We have to begin to grow our own. I believe I have the courage to draw attention to what might be an unpleasant feature of our community because I believe we can fix it. I love to fix things.
If we focus on it, and we’re dedicated and honest, and we are focused on outcomes, we can change the trajectory of our education performance.
I live in the community that is most affected by this disparity or this failure. These are my very neighbors, the kids next door, so I’m very very familiar with the fact that parents need a lot of help. I think I needed a lot of help raising my kids. Some of that help came from generations past. Some came from folks around me. I’m going to lead that as mayor.
MP: What are people telling you they want done about disparities, and not just those in education?
DS: When you begin to address this kind of issue, you begin to address economic development, and economic development produces job opportunities and, of course, education comes into play. It’s all connected.
I want to address the employment gap and the disparities, and the income disparities by making sure all of these wonderful projects, as the economy is turning around and beginning to fly, that we look behind and hold the hands of our brothers and sisters who are lagging and make sure this tide lifts all boats.
It’s going to take a lot of dedication because we’ve had eras of the Minnesota Miracle. As a minority person, when I read about the Minnesota Miracle, I can’t help but think, “OK, what year was that and what were people in the minority communities doing? Was that a miracle for them?”
We have to begin to say there will be no miracle for us until there’s a miracle for all. We don’t interpret our well-being by how we’re doing on average or how we’re doing in total but how everyone is doing.
We’re going to focus on making sure there is inclusion in everything the city touches and that we inspire the rest of industry to do the same. Right now in Minneapolis, we have Ban the Box, an initiative I initiated with Council Member Cam Gordon — to ban the box that you check if you’re a felon. Until you [the employer] are ready to make that offer [to a job seeker] you don’t ask that question.
MP: Walk me through that. What is Ban the Box?
DS: There’s a little box, among the boxes you check when you apply for a city job. One of them says, “Have you ever been a felon or are you an ex-felon?” If you checked that, someone would look at it and you would immediately get put in the round file [wastebasket]. Why pick that person [the felon] rather than this one who has no record. So right off the front you were eliminated.
What we did was Ban the Box. We are not able to ask that question until we have selected a person for a job. And then we make them an offer and we ask the question. If they said yes, and we thought their skills are good enough, and they have a good explanation of what they’ve done with their lives since the incident, they could still be a job candidate.
But when we asked the question too soon, they never got a chance. So we banned that box and we then asked the state to Ban the Box and the state banned the box. We are now moving toward requiring all of our vendors to Ban the Box.
Of course, there are some jobs where you can ask at the beginning — for a cop, you can ask the question at the beginning. Or if you are a day care vendor, then you could ask about sex crimes. There are some jobs you just wouldn’t hire someone who had been involved in a crime.
The ban has been part of city code for a couple of years. That’s the kind of thing we can do. We can begin to look at our ordinances and continually sharpen the pencil to make sure there is maximum opportunity for participation and that we are holding ourselves accountable.
As mayor, I’m going to be working with our Civil Rights Department and working with out Results Minneapolis system (an ongoing evaluation of city practices) to make sure that participation goals are examined every quarter and everybody is held accountable.
MP: Results Minneapolis now does yearly reports on each of the departments as they work toward their five-year goals. You would do the reports quarterly instead?
DS: We have things in place for equity, but we have been lax in seeing things through. If there are loopholes that are not right and that we have lived with for a long time, we need to fix them.
I want to be accountable to the community for eliminating gaps by examining our data and looking at our outcomes. Not our good intentions. Not what’s on the books. But are people working? What percentage of employees on the Vikings stadium, for instance, are minorities?
MP: That’s spelled out very precisely in the stadium legislation.
DS: Yes, it’s spelled out, but then again, the abolition of slavery was spelled out and then Texas carried it on for two more years.
MP: Let’s look at attracting new jobs and economic development. How would you be involved as mayor?
DS: If you have an educated workforce, the jobs come. Companies want to know there’s a workforce available for them. That’s one of the Minnesota Miracles — that we had the best-educated population and we had the highest corporate headquarters per capitia. Those two are very related.
When we have an educated workforce, we will get people to come here. And then we as a city have to do whatever we can to continue to make the development review process even easier.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years, but I’m still hearing a couple of complaints. When you have a large system and multiple projects, people begin to hide behind the crowd to get away with things.
So you end up adding legislation or adding code to make sure to catch the scofflaws and cheats. But you get to a point where things get to be too burdensome for the good people. We’ve backed away from that the last few years, but we need to sharpen our pencils.
MP: You chair the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee. What do we need to change to make the city safer?
DS: Public safety is an issue for some but not for others. I’m going to absolutely qualify for the best public safety mayor. I’ve chaired that committee since 2006, so it’s been seven years, and in that time, crime, until this year, has gone down in double digits every year.
I sit with the mayor and the police chief every two weeks and review the data and decide strategies for different crimes that are being committed in different areas.
And I live in the least safe neighborhood, so the mayor [would be] the canary for the first time. So you had better believe that public safety is going to be a priority for me. …
We have a tendency to see certain kinds of social disorder and ask theoretical questions and make, kind of, plans on how to mitigate it. I tend to say, “That is absolutely unacceptable.” I like to start with that phrase. That’s how I want to start every conversation about every crime scenario: “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
It is absolutely unacceptable that a senior citizen is running from her house to her garage.
It is absolutely unacceptable that a child is standing on the corner and being flashed in our community by a sexual predator because of the incredible saturation of sex offenders in one community.
It is absolutely unacceptable that a teenage boy is going to be so fearful that he is going to be jumped or attacked on that street that he feels he has to get a gun. Not when we have 850 men and women in blue with guns. It is absolutely unacceptable, and it has to stop.
I don’t say we will reduce crime. I say it has to stop. Then we move toward satisfying that commitment. I have a very different approach. I am totally intolerant of crime, and I think victimhood of crime is the first deterioration of freedom in a democracy, and we have come to accept it in a free country.
It’s not a free country if you are not free to walk the streets. It’s not a free country if you are not sleeping in peace at night. It’s not a free country if bullets are coming through your house. I am going to have a high level of expectation for our communities.
MP: You know Police Chief Janee Harteau and Fire Chief John Fruetel. They are not strangers to you. Do you keep them in their jobs?
DS: Yes. Absolutely. I love those two people. I think they are very highly qualified and they are the best in the city.
I was on the committee that decided on hiring and like to take some responsibility for their hiring.
MP: We’ve talked some about jobs and development. What would you do as mayor to make sure the area around the new football stadium is developed?
DS: The reason I voted for it was because it is an economic engine and because participation by all Minneapolitans can be part of it.
We’re going to make sure the stadium hires equitably and the concessions are all equitably allocated and the development around the stadium becomes a demonstration project for equitability in terms of housing and hiring and construction. That’s the first thing.
I would like to see it be a real diverse kind of use in terms of retail, office and residential so that it becomes a real economically sturdy development, so it is not subject to the whims of failure in one part of the market or the other but there is a real diversity there and there are eyes on the street after dark.
And there are retail opportunities for the people who live there and who visit the stadium. And there are offices there to attract people who are working five days a week.
MP: So more like the North Loop or more like downtown?
DS: More like downtown, or more like what we want downtown to be. What we want to have is the most residentially intensive city. We want people to be downtown all day, every day of the week, and so we are promoting downtown residency.
We can build it in here. We can make it appealing to a wide variety of people. We’re basically building a village here, just like we did in Heritage Park, which we did from scratch. We have seniors there, we have families there, we have renters there and we have homeowners there. One house we have is $650,000, and the apartments are, in many cases, Section Eight.
We can have all of that diversity of social and economic and use. It’s going to be different from the North Loop, which is struggling to add things. A park was just added a couple of years ago, after there were questions about where the kids could play.
We know what it takes to make a rich environment, and we can do it all in one fell swoop. So that children have places to go, so that there is day care, so that they have parks, so that they have restaurants for families, so that they have pools in places for our young people. It can be really well-designed, I think, and probably most of all be a place where people want to live.
MP: What do you think attracts development? What do you do to attract development?
DS: First of all, I think the design of the stadium and the public spaces that are connected to the stadium belong to the community and can become gathering spaces. The kind of stores that we hope to get will be places the community will use.
If you build something like that, people will say we have an asset, a green space, the kids can play here, we can go here and stroll. And when there is no game, it’s almost like it was not built for a game. It’s like it was built for the community. That’s the kind of development we want.
MP: Nicollet Mall is in need of repair, some say in need of re-design. Some want streetcars on the Mall. What do you want?
DS: I’m the No. 1 proponent for streetcars. I’ve been to Portland and saw them there. They are kind of small and friendly and they have this sense of dependability. They’re always driving down the same track.
They’re also like trains. You lay down a track. It’s a commitment. It’s a ribbon of commitment to transit that developers can depend on and build around.
Bus routes change but streetcar routes and light rail don’t change. So developers can come in and invest right here because the streetcars are going to be here for the foreseeable future.
Corridors like Central, or a corridor like West Broadway or Washington, where we are trying to encourage development and dense housing, that’s all going to be enhanced when people see they have a dependable mode of transportation.
MP: What about the Southwest Light Rail Line? The city is opposed to a plan that would put both freight trains and light rail along the strip of land separating Lake of the Isles from Cedar Lake. But St. Louis Park doesn’t want the freight lines re-located to their community? Where are you in this?
DS: I think we have enough experts and we have enough conversations going on to work this thing out. I’m part of the work group. We’re working it out. I have absolute confidence that we’ll get it done.
But I don’t think it’s useful for me to talk about where it should go and should do what. This is such a citizen engagement process. We have representatives of all communities onboard so we’re going to work it out.
MP: The last two city budgets have not produced the large property tax increases that have occurred in the past. Where are you on the issue of property taxes?
DS: Property taxes are not going to go up anymore for a while. It’s almost predictable. Whoever becomes the next mayor is going to be a hero in that regard no matter who they are.
The economy is turning around and the state has gotten much friendlier regarding Local Government Aid. Whoever becomes mayor is going to get credit for that.
It’s going to be the economy and changes at the state level that are going to make a difference. We’re going to have a recess from the property tax situation.
MP: City workers have not had much in the way of raises in the past few years. Where do we need to spend money in the next four years?
DS: I think we need to develop our transit corridors and spend money there. Money spent there is really well spent.
MP: You are on the committee to oversee the renovation of Target Center. We haven’t seen much progress there. What is going on?
DS: It takes time. We’re looking at what other cities have done. This is not the kind of project you give to an architect and spend a few months and they come up with a solution.
We have a limited amount of money and there are so may ways that money could be spent, creating more storage space, creating a friendlier street presence or creating a performance-friendly seating arrangement or more suites.
There’s a limited amount of money so we’re going to have to dissect the options and come up with the best solutions, and that’s before the architect gets the project.
We have to talk about philosophically what we’re trying to do. I think we’re making progress and people are going to see that in a short time.
MP: Is there something I haven’t asked you about that you want to talk about?
DS: I like to fix things. I’m a designer. It’s in my blood to come up with an idea that works, and if it doesn’t work, you lose your job. That’s how I lived for 30 years.
I have it in my system. I can’t shake it. When I see things that are not working and left to continue, I get very anxious about it. Why isn’t this fixed?
I was raised that way professionally. I have a deep commitment to walk boldly into any dysfunctional part of the city, things that are chronic or longstanding problems, walk into them and say, “This is my challenge. We will fix this.”
I will be very outcome-oriented. For most of the time I was in business, I was running a department and I had to prove my worth. For the other half of my career, I was in business for myself and I didn’t eat unless I produced.
So I have a deep intolerance for a lack of productivity and outcomes, because it’s inextricably connected, in my mind, to food on the table and getting paid.
I don’t think I deserve to be paid as mayor, or deserve the position of mayor, unless I’m actually transforming parts of the city that need changing and improving. That is my commitment. That is what drives me.
That’s why I moved into the most challenged neighborhood in the city. Because I felt that’s what needed to be changed.
So, when I look at something like the failure rate for children, the gaps, somebody else might look at that and say, “Let’s cut this down by 5 percent next year.”
I look at that and say, ‘This isn’t acceptable, and we have to fix it as soon as it’s humanly possible, starting now.” That’s the energy I bring.
This is an increasingly diverse city and we know that diversity does not necessarily mean equality or equity. As an immigrant, an African-American who was born poor and who lives in the most challenged part of the city, I am committed that we will have one city, that we will begin to speak the language of unity and look for the common good.
And to pay attention to the least, so we can all share the prosperity of the city together. That’s why my theme is one city, our city. That’s my commitment.
Samuels’ high-profile supporters
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan chairs his campaign. He explains why he doesn’t have a formal list:
“This is a funny race because people are divided between friends. So people are counting on deep friendships to put them over the top. At this point, being out of the box for a month, most of the people I talk to are waiting. I’m talking to a lot of people. It’s a little early to answer that [supporters] question.”