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Minneapolis Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges’ challenge: Balancing big ideas and ‘the basics’

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Minneapolis Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges: “My goal is that we will become a beacon for the rest of the country.’’

It will be years before anyone knows just what sort of a mayor Betsy Hodges will be for Minneapolis.

Her era — short or long — likely will be determined by events that no one can predict. Extreme weather, even greater problems between the community and police, the national economy, a bridge falling down, statewide legislative elections are the sorts of things that can turn a mayor’s priorities upside down.

Given her two terms on the City Council, she will move into the mayor’s office on Jan. 2 with a better understanding than many of her predecessors.  For starters, she knows that most will judge her on whether she can hold the line on property taxes and get the streets plowed in winter, rather than on any of her big ideas.

“The basic services are always Job No. 1,” she said.

During the campaign, it was said that “if you like R.T. Rybak, you’ll like Betsy Hodges.”

In fact, the two not only like each other but have many similarities.

Both tear up at the mention of Paul Wellstone.

Both are into physical fitness. (When she was 20, Hodges was a smoker who drank and saw her weight balloon into the 200-pound neighborhood. She decided that her life was not headed where she wanted, quit smoking and drinking and started working out. She now has run a couple of marathons. She runs, almost daily, lifts weights a couple of times a week and also is into yoga.)

Both Hodges and Rybak seem to be comfortable in a crowd. Rybak loved showing up at  coffee shops around the city. Hodges will start her term with a 10-day “tour of the city.’’

Neither has felt the old DFL obligation to always make nice with unions. (Hodges had the support of just one union, the Service Employee International Union during the campaign.)

One big difference

But for all the similarities, there’s also one big difference. Hodges will move into office with some bigger ideas than Rybak had, especially in his first couple of terms.

Rybak loved the city, loved selling the city and he did have the discipline to work with Hodges to solve some of the difficult fiscal problems the city faced. Together, for example, Hodges and Rybak carried out pension reforms that are saving Minneapolis taxpayers millions.

However, Hodges comes into office with a more critical view of her city than Rybak had, especially regarding the economic and educational disparity between the races.

Last week, she and 14 other relatively new mayors from around the country met with President Obama in Washington. Each of the mayors was given the chance to talk about their respective city for a couple of minutes.

Although she was “wowed” by suddenly finding herself in a conference room with the president and Vice President Joe Biden, she decided to lay the big disparity issue on the line.  She told the gathering that disparities in Minneapolis are greater than in most places in the country, but she finished on a note of determination.

“My goal,’’ she said, “is that we will become a beacon for the rest of the country.’’

That’s a huge undertaking for a 44-year-old rookie mayor who will be working with a city council made up of seven rookies.

Disparities issue

Not even state government, with DFL control of the Legislature and liberal Gov. Mark Dayton, has dealt much with the fundamental disparity issues that are especially obvious in the metro area.

But Hodges, who throughout the campaign, billed herself as “the most progressive’’ candidate in the 35-person field, won’t be taking this deeply rooted problem on alone. There’s more diversity than ever on the City Council following the November elections. Blong Yang will be the first Hmong member of the council; Alondra Cano, the first Hispanic member; and Abdi Warsame, the first Somali.

Hodges also is married to a pretty good adviser regarding this subject. Her husband of three years, Gary Cunningham, is an African-American who is chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. In that position, he’s been taking on issues of poverty in an eight-state area.

Cunningham is well versed in local racial and economic issues. He’s on the board of directors of the Association of Black Foundation Executives and the board of Twin Cities Habitat of Humanity. He’s also on an advisory board of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Oh yes, he’s also on the board of the Met Council.

When she married Cunningham, Hodges became a stepmother and a grandma.

But it should also be noted that Hodges was a classic Minnesota progressive before she met Cunningham.  She graduated from Bryn Mawr College (1991) and the University of Wisconsin (master’s in sociology in 1998). She went to work on the staff of Progressive Minnesota and then became a staff member for Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman.

Along the way she worked on campaigns for Wellstone and was inspired by Mary McEvoy, the educator and Wellstone campaign worker, who was among those killed in the 2002 plane crash. It was that plane crash, she said, that pushed her to begin thinking about running for political office, a jump she made in 2005 when she won a seat on the City Council.

“We [other progressives] had always counted on them [Wellstone and McEvoy] to do the heavy lifting,” she said.

Deep political roots

In fact, her political roots go even deeper than Wellstone and the University of Wisconsin. Those roots go all the way down to Arkansas.

Her uncle, Kaneaster Hodges Jr., a Democrat, was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1977 to fill out the remaining term after the death of Sen. John McClellan. He served in the Senate until 1979. (Arkansas law prohibited an appointed senator to run for re-election.)

Hodges’ father, Morrison Hodges, had moved from Arkansas to become the head of cardiology at the Hennepin County Medical Center. He was an active Republican who ultimately converted to the DFL.

That conversion began with a meeting with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was traveling in Minnesota to campaign for Wendy Anderson for the Senate. (In 2010, the Star Tribune’s Lori Sturdevant wrote a wonderful story about the Kennedy trip.)

The short form of that story goes like this: Morrison Hodges was to meet up with Kennedy in Hibbing, then fly with Kennedy to Arkansas where Kennedy was going to do some campaigning on behalf of Democrats.

The campaign swing through the Iron Range didn’t go so well. Rangers were furious with federal restrictions being placed on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and showed their contempt for the feds by pelting the car carrying Kennedy, Anderson and Gov. Rudy Perpich with eggs. 

Kennedy took flight for Arkansas a bit earlier than planned, with Hodges’ father on board. He was intrigued by Kennedy’s push to make medical care available for all, ultimately switching parties on that issue.

But go back to that big issue. How does a rookie mayor take on the deeply embedded problem of racial disparity?

One of the first things she will do as mayor, Hodges said, is appoint a “cradle-to-kindergarten cabinet.” This group of people who deal with children and family issues will be charged with coming up with ideas for helping the youngest children in the poorest circumstances have access to medical and nutritional care.

“Physical development fosters learning,’’ Hodges said. The mayor-elect envisions Minneapolis creating “a pre-pre-school” program that would allow all children to enter the school system with good health and healthy esteem.

This is just step one, Hodges believes, on a long road to equalizing opportunity for all in Minneapolis.

It’s also big, serious stuff.

Wonder Woman fan

Which isn’t to say that Hodges is always serious. For example, she has a fondness for all things Wonder Woman. Her collection of various Wonder Woman dolls will move from her City Council office down the hall to the big office of the mayor.

And, for reasons she can’t totally explain, after her November victory, she felt a strong need to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

She accomplished that mission, and while she was at the White House last week, she quietly slid over to a huge portrait of Lincoln and recited the Address from memory.

Did others in the gathering find that a little strange?

“I don’t think anyone noticed,’’ she said.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/18/2013 - 02:48 pm.

    School desparities

    Minneapolis certainly has educational and economic disparity problems but it certainly is not as bad as many of the larger urban centers in the US. It is pure politics for a mayor who has no direct impact on the educational system to talk about improving it. A previous mayor of Washington, DC took over the school system and it led to his defeat in the next election. Schools are a political hot button that Minneapolis has been struggling with for decades.

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 12/19/2013 - 08:50 am.

    Skeptical

    I wrote to the Hodges campaign after the election-I voted for Samuels-and asked her not to forget about the north side of the city, and our needs here. I got an invitation to come party on new years eve in response. Not really encouraging.

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