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Presumptive mayoral winner Betsy Hodges offers resolute style, progressive values

A self-described DFL progressive, the eight-year City Council member does her homework and doesn’t quit a fight just because things aren’t going her way.

Betsy Hodges addresses supporters during a Halloween rally at 612 Brew.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Betsy Hodges — the presumptive new mayor of Minneapolis — knows her way around City Hall, city finances and city controversies.

A self-described DFL progressive, the eight-year City Council member does her homework and doesn’t quit a fight just because things aren’t going her way.

Those are all skills she’ll need in dealing with Minneapolis debates over everything from a highly contentious light-rail route to development plans for the area around the new Vikings stadium, a project she opposed while on the council.

Hodges also opposes co-location of freight trains and light rail in the narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles known as the Kenilworth Corridor. Asked during the campaign if the choice came down to accepting co-location or losing the Southwest suburban/city light-rail line, Hodges said she would vote for no light rail. That project currently is on hold to allow additional study of train and tunnel options more acceptable both to city residents and St. Louis Park officials.

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One of the most important duties of the mayor is to propose the city budget, a process she knows well as chair of the City Council’s Ways and Means/Budget Committee, which signs off on the spending and tax proposals.

Working with new council

But the new City Council is going to look a lot different from the one Hodges has served on the last four years. The next 13-member council will have at least four new members and possibly as many as seven when ranked-choice votes are counted in three undecided races. With so many new members, she could find herself working with a new council president.

Getting to know the new members will be vital to her success in a system where a mayor’s suggestions can easily be ignored by the city’s governing board.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has enjoyed a good working relationship with the current council, but former Mayor Don Fraser had some rough times trying to work with a less cooperative council.

Working with the new council could be easier for Hodges than for some past new mayors. Minneapolis appears to be rebounding from the recession, and the stadium and surrounding Downtown East development promise to create jobs.

Those two factors could have a major impact on her ability to make progress on one of her campaign focuses — closing the gaps between the wealthy and those who struggle in education, housing and employment.

Hodges, 44, is polite but firm. In 2012, for example, when it was revealed that Minneapolis firefighters use more sick pay on weekends and in summer than the rest of the year, she kept her cool in questioning retiring Fire Chief Alex Jackson. “Sick leave is allowed, but the question is: ‘Is it advisable?” said Hodges at a moment when some might have lost their temper.

She chooses her words carefully, sometimes as if reading from a memorized script, and she can stay focused “on message” so intently that occasionally a question from the crowd or a fellow council member may seem to be ignored.

Money-saving pension changes

During her council tenure, she worked successfully for a state takeover of inactive and expensive Minneapolis public-employee pension funds. Hodges also played a major role in some council members’ push to explore the possibility of the city establishing its own municipal electric service.

When questioned about her advocacy for a city-owned electric utility, she frequently and carefully answered that she was only raising the question about studying such a possibility, not advocating a decision to move forward.

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During council discussions, members Cam Gordon and Gary Schiff frequently side with her. Schiff, himself an early mayoral candidate until dropping out and not running for re-election, endorsed her candidacy and was active in her campaign. Gordon, a member of the Green Party, seems to be a soul member on many issues.

Two weeks before the election, the three held a City Hall news conference to announce that they had found $25,000 in leftover 2013 funds that they wanted to use for a pilot project testing whether police officers should wear small video cameras to record their interactions with the public.

What the three failed to do, however, was bring along anyone from the Minneapolis Police Department, Civil Rights Department or the mayor’s office — which gave the news conference more the look of a campaign event than a public policy statement. The event went ahead without Council Member Don Samuels, also a mayoral candidate and chair of the Public Safety Committee, where the initial decisions about such purchases would be made.

The event backfired in front of television cameras that had pretty much ignored the mayor’s race prior to that event. It also brought a strong statement from the Police Department that Chief Janee Harteau was still studying the camera issue and not ready to rush a decision.

Hodges said later that she and Samuels met with the police chief after the news conference and that the three agreed to move forward on the camera project.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, for whom Hodges once worked, also endorsed her in the race for mayor. Dorfman is the main advocate on the Hennepin County Board for the troubled Southwest Light Rail Line, which might be the first major issue Hodges faces in her new job.