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Election seems to signal the ascension of a new Minneapolis DFL

“The traditional election of machine politics is not as effective as it used to be,” said Abou Amara, policy director for Don Samuels’ campaign. “It’s more coalition politics.”

Betsy Hodges speaking to supporters during an election viewing party at 612 Brew on Wednesday.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

For a man who would be mayor of Minneapolis, Mark Andrew did everything right. He raised a fearsome war chest, courted the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and made the rounds of the DFL establishment calling in markers and collecting endorsements.

He did everything right, a number of local political operatives and analysts have said in the wake of Tuesday’s election, for someone running in the 1990s.

Assuming that the commanding lead Betsy Hodges appeared to have Wednesday night is only bolstered by the reallocation of votes cast for Don Samuels, Cam Winton and other candidates, the election will signal the ascension of a new Minneapolis DFL. One in which power is wielded by coalitions of city residents who haven’t traditionally been thought of as likely voters.

The shift, organizers inside and outside the campaigns said, was equal parts demographic change in the makeup of the electorate and a refusal to follow an outdated political playbook.

‘Relational’ campaign strategies echo 2012

Particularly in the cases of Samuels and Hodges, groups of immigrants, youth, people of color and economically disadvantaged city residents used “relational” campaign strategies like those used to defeat last year’s proposed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and restricting voting.

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“This is a 21st century electorate,” said Abou Amara, policy director for Samuels’ campaign. “Demographics are destiny and people of color are now roughly 40 percent of the city’s electorate; 15 percent were not born in the United States. 

“I definitely think there was movement,” he added. “Traditional institutions and traditional perspectives on how politics got done were put to the side.”

“The traditional election of machine politics is not as effective as it used to be,” he said. “It’s more coalition politics. How we talk to voters is fundamentally different. Now we talk more about issues and policy.”

The re-allocation of second- and third-choice votes in the city’s second experience with ranked choice voting were still being counted at press time, but it seemed likely that the incoming City Council will for the first time seat members who are Somali-American, Hmong and Mexican-American.

Building coalitions around equity issues

Although the number of East Africans in Minneapolis has risen quickly in recent years, it’s not so much the presence of immigrants and people of color in the city that has changed as the communities’ determination to build coalitions around equity issues, several analysts agreed.

“Demographics have been changing for a long time,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, which campaigned for Hodges. “What’s different is immigrants and people of color are organizing and becoming a force in the city.”

Add to that the mounting concern among white Minneapolitans about disparities, he said. “The A-No. 1 issue in this race for minorities and white people were the gaps between them,” said McGrath. “White people care now, and that’s really important.”

Erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner agreed that the change in the electorate has been in the works for years. Outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak’s popularity likely discouraged challengers and masked issues in the last two elections, he said.

“There definitely is a demographic and political shift happening in Minneapolis,” Horner said. “But I don’t think it’s something that burst onto the scene in 2013. It’s coming to the forefront this year because of the number of open seats.”

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And because of years of slow work creating alternative institutions. Historically it’s been all but impossible for local candidates to make it through endorsing conventions without support from mainline labor unions. Their leadership is largely white.

SEIU’s role in delivering campaigners, voters

In recent years the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is credited with helping to deliver foot soldiers and votes for a number of candidates, including Hodges, who wouldn’t otherwise make it through the endorsing process.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that the demographics of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation reflect the demographics of the city,” said Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU’s Local 26, which is made up of janitors, security officers and window cleaners.

“We approach the organizing process as one of social justice,” said Morillo-Alicea. “That was reflected in yesterday’s results.”

News media and other mainstream institutions failed to pick up on the size of Hodges’ lead because they were looking at the wrong things, Morillo-Alicea said. Such as Mark Andrew’s commanding fundraising lead and old-guard DFL endorsements.

“The Hodges campaign spent not a dime on TV,” he said, pouring its energy into a multilingual field operation.

The power of face-to-face campaigning

Hodges supporter Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, concurred. “The lesson out of this campaign and out of 2012’s campaigns, particularly around the marriage amendment and Voter ID amendment, is that the election is going to go to the candidate who actually talks to people face to face,” he said.

The late Paul Wellstone was the master of the “relational” campaign, Dibble added: “Everyone thought he was one of them.”

It would be interesting, he added, to know whether people who campaigned for and voted for incoming City Council members Jacob Frey and Lisa Bender, both young, energetic urbanites, “feel like they joined the DFL.”

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Erica Mauter is a graduate student in St. Catherine University’s organizational leadership program and a member of the board of Project 515, one of the groups that founded Minnesotans United. She campaigned both against the marriage amendment and for Hodges using the same strategy.

“The interesting thing about elections, particularly when they are competitive, is you always have new people engaged in the process,” she said. “If you engage more and more people, you’re going to have different outcomes.”

‘The Somali vote in the sixth is notable’

Turnout was still highest in a handful of wards on the southern edge of the city, noted Andrew Aoki, a professor of political science at Augsburg College who is an expert in immigrant, racial and ethnic politics. But Andrew did not do as well as expected there; his strongest support was in the core of the city.

“The Somali vote in the sixth is notable,” Aoki said. “With the compactness of that ward it will make it easy to build a stronghold there.”

Where there isn’t lot of money, “you have to substitute organizing,” Aoki explained. “Given the density [of Ward 6] you can turn out shoe leather much more effectively than other parts of the city.”

And the Somali community has a remarkable ability to mobilize.

“This is a people that has long been interested in politics,” he said. “And there’s a critical mass of younger people willing to do the legwork.”

Slower to make itself felt but looming as a political powerhouse is the Latino vote, Aoki added.

“There is a critical mass of people that can determine elections in Minneapolis,” said Amara. “Put together, they can counter Southwest.”