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The first 100 days of Betsy Hodges: Lessons from the ‘honeymooners’

FDR and Ronald Reagan are both said to have made the most of their first 100 days in office. By comparison, how is Mayor Betsy Hodges doing?

Mayor Betsy Hodges: “What I have spent a lot of my first days doing is making sure I have a really strong foundation to do the work that needs doing over the next four years.”
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew how to take advantage of the “honeymoon” that voters give newly elected leaders. And he needed all the help he could get.

He became president on March 4, 1933, at a time when the banks had closed in all of the then-48 states, when 1 in every 4 Americans was without a job and the stock market had lost 85 percent of its value. FDR moved quickly. In the first 100 days of his first term he pushed 15 major bills through Congress as he presented a New Deal to a depression-weary nation.

“Everybody measures themselves compared to the first 100 days of what Roosevelt did,” said David Schultz, political science professor at Hamline University. “You have this window where you have your greatest amount of political capital, greatest amount of political support. People are hoping and expecting that you’re going to move your agenda. You’re given, I think, more slack. Usually, even your opponents are going to say, you won, you’re entitled to move your legislation.”

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is coming up on her own 100th day in office. During her “honeymoon,” she has faced some challenges, including the reconfirmation of Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel. And she has taken steps toward putting together a competent, qualified team.

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It’s less clear what is happening with her more sweeping vision to create One Minneapolis, a vision that voters clearly embraced. By Roosevelt’s standards, she would have jumped right on it. But we are yet to see what might be done to close the gaps in education, housing and employment that plague the city. 

Here are some reflections from Schultz, former electeds (about their own “honeymoons”), and the mayor herself as she approaches her 100th day in office.

Carefully chosen words

First to the matter of Velma Korbel.

“Ms. Korbel and I have not agreed on everything,” Hodges said as Korbel appeared before a City Council committee seeking to remain as civil rights director, a job that she had held for the past four years. Hodges had nominated her and was speaking on Korbel’s behalf.

It was one of those moments when one chooses one’s words with care.

“She has been an advocate for the work, even in the places where she and I have disagreed,” Hodges said of Korbel. “That kind of honesty, that kind of willingness to speak up on behalf of what she believes is true and what she believes is right leads to some of those tough choices and tough moments, but they also lead to the great results out of that department. I want that kind of tough leadership.”

Speaking in opposition to Korbel’s reconfirmation were former Civil Rights Department employees, who said Korbel had ordered them to violate city work rules; Sarah Maxwell, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who said Korbel had treated union members poorly, and several activists who had opposed Korbel’s changes to the police complaint review process.

Hodges was elected mayor with strong support from organized labor. Now she was endorsing someone opposed by one of the strongest unions at City Hall.

Making matters even more challenging, the committee chair was Council Member Blong Yang, a former Korbel staff member who said he was not at all surprised by the complaints he was hearing. When it was time for the committee to vote, only Yang said no.

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The Hodges agenda was moving, but it was headed toward another vote on Korbel, this time by the full City Council.

An ‘all-star team’

“What I have spent a lot of my first days doing is making sure I have a really strong foundation to do the work that needs doing over the next four years,” said Hodges in an interview. “I have been building up staff. I have a fantastic all-star team.”

Two of those stars worked for former Mayor R.T. Rybak: Chief of Staff John Stiles, who had been Rybak’s communications director, and Policy Director Peter Wagenius, who served in a similar role for Rybak.

Hodges also has added Kate Brickman as communications director, who had a similar job with the Service Employees International Union and worked with Hodges during the campaign.

And, to advance her Cradle to K initiative introduced during the campaign, she has hired Dianne Haulcy, who has worked in early childhood education. Hodges has said she also is interested in hiring an education policy advisor.

Even so, said Schultz, to get a running start, a cabinet should be well established by the time an official takes office.

“After you get elected, before taking office, you should lay the groundwork for your honeymoon,” said Schultz. “Perhaps the most successful presidency in the last 50 years was Ronald Reagan’s. He used that transition period, after the election and before taking office, to line up the appointees he wanted and decide what the agenda was going to be and when they were going to move on things.”

Because Reagan had planned what he wanted to do, and when he wanted to do it, he was able to “hit the ground running” on his first day in office, Schultz said.

“Somebody who never used the honeymoon period effectively was Barack Obama,” said Schultz. “He did move a few things in the first 100 days, such as his stimulus bill, but for the most part he really didn’t lay out his agenda as Reagan did, and therefore in many ways he squandered an enormously great opportunity.”

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An undeclared victory

When City Council members convened to consider the reappointment of Korbel, they also had before them an option to consult with the city coordinator about hiring an outside consultant to investigate complaints about working conditions in the Human Rights Department. The city coordinator is to report back to the Executive Council by July 1, 2014.

This sent a message: We have heard the complaints. We are taking them seriously.

It also made it easier for new council members to support the mayor’s choice of Korbel in what was perhaps their most difficult vote since taking office in January.

“Her record of getting incredible results from a department that has been underperforming, much to the consternation of the community, has been well documented,” Hodges told the council members as they prepared to vote.

“I can’t in good conscience vote yes,” said Council Member Jacob Frey. He was joined in opposition to Korbel by Yang and Andrew Johnson – all three vocal and new council members.

But that’s as far as it went. Korbel was approved. Hodges prevailed.

Out in the hall after the vote, reporters asked Hodges about the plan to examine working conditions in the Civil Rights Department.

This was her opportunity to thank the City Council, to praise the courage of the four new members who voted for Korbel, to again praise Korbel and to declare victory. Instead, she said that, because it was a personnel matter involving city employees, she felt uncomfortable talking about it without the city attorney being present.

It was a squandered opportunity.

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For Hofstede, no time to think

“The press was always asking, What are you going to do? and Who are you going to appoint?” recalls former Mayor Al Hofstede who served two terms in the 1970s.

At that time there were probably half a dozen reporters at City Hall on a daily basis. More if you counted those covering crime and the Police Department. And even more if you counted those who were covering the courts. That is not the case with today’s depleted press corps.

Minneapolis was a troubled city when Hofstede took office. The ’60s race riots had divided the city, people were leaving for the suburbs as quickly as they could pack a moving van, houses in what had been good neighborhoods were vacant and boarded up, and businesses were moving away from the downtown core.

“The issues demanded that you couldn’t walk away and think about it too long,” said Hofstede, who often had reporters camped out in his reception room or lingering in the hall outside of his office. He had to think on his feet. “These were critical issues.”

“It was a time of crisis,” said Hofstede who wasted no time in establishing himself in a leadership position and was a regular visitor to the City Council office complex on the third floor. “You had the crisis that needed to be resolved, but you also had a short period of time to do it because you had a two-year term. That forced you to make a decision. You couldn’t just sit there.

“A two-year term means that when you took office you didn’t have much time to make a change and show people what you believed in and what you could get done,” said Hofstede. “After you served one year you were already campaigning” for the next term.

“I loved it. I worked hard at it,” said Hofstede. “But part of the problem is that, when you have all of these issues, you make friends and you make enemies because you have to make decisions – and that’s not easy.”

In 1982 the term of office for both the mayor and City Council was extended from two years to four.

“With four years, the pressure isn’t on you as fast,” said Hofstede. “In a two-year term you’re always running, you’re always thinking about the next election. That’s a complication.”

For Carlson, no honeymoon

There was no honeymoon for former Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, who arrived at the Capitol as the ultimate outsider.

“We went right from the marriage ceremony to divorce court,” he said of his first few months in office.

His own political party had rejected him and both the House and Senate were DFL-dominated.

“I remember people would say ‘Governor’ and I would look around for Perpich,” said Carlson, who got no help from his predecessor. “Perpich refused to talk to me.”

Minnesota was $2.3 billion in debt, and Carlson said his first mistake was to take ownership of the problem.

“I didn’t create the mess,” said Carlson, who discovered that “when you take ownership of a problem you [let] all of the people who created the problem off the hook. Then they start to define you.”

Looking back, Carlson said that what he should have done was call a special session of the Legislature and make DFLers part of the solution.

“It was a very unfriendly environment,” said Carlson. To make matters worse most of his cabinet appointees came from the private sector and were not comfortable operating under the scrutiny of the news media. Those folks didn’t stick around for long and were replaced with people who were more at ease in the limelight.

“Probably the biggest mistake new people make is not knowing the power you have,” said Carlson, who learned the hard way after spending “six months being a nice guy and getting the daylights kicked out of me.”

“Nobody is fully prepared to be president or governor,” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself. I learned I was not as sure-footed as I thought I was.”

The ultimate insider

If Carlson was the ultimate outsider, Hodges is the ultimate insider. She served 8 years on the City Council, just down the hall from the mayor’s office, and begins her new job with a City Council made up of 12 fellow DFLers and one Green Party member.

She has plenty of time to move her agenda before the next election in 2017. No need to rush.

“I want to make sure we, and I, have the time we need to do it right,” said Hodges. “In a year, people won’t care if it took 90 days or 110 days to put together a plan for X, Y, or Z. But they will care if it’s the wrong plan, and they will care if they feel they don’t have a stake in it.”

“It’s all new relationships for all of us,” said Hodges who spent two days with council members and department heads in strategic planning sessions “getting a measure of the top issues” and getting to know each other.

She has met with President Obama. She has been in a room with the Dalai Lama. She has talked to reporters in the cold light of dawn after a fire killed five children. None of this has anything to do with why she ran for mayor.

“I didn’t really think about some of the high-profile opportunities,” said Hodges. “When I was applying for the job, it was because of this vision and this set of priorities, and it was about the community and one Minneapolis.

“I don’t see it as a challenge,” she said. “I see it as a huge opportunity and that’s why I ran for mayor: the opportunity to really put forward and help move the dial on an agenda I spent the last year crafting and talking about and building support for around the city.”

Big-ticket items ahead

The next big item on the city schedule will be the State of the City Address, usually in April, during which the mayor typically outlines goals for the coming year.

Voters know what Hodges’ goals are – they elected her. They know she will be talking about eliminating gaps in education, housing and employment. But, in her first three months in office, they haven’t heard very loudly or clearly how she might move forward with her agenda.

“Hodges is not keeping up a profile you would expect from somebody trying to build support for her initiatives,” said Schultz. “She may not feel she has to move quite quickly because her time frames and horizons are longer and she’s developing a strategy that is less of a mayor and more of a council member, trying to figure out how to work with council members instead of how to lead council members.

“At a time when she has all these [City Council] rookies in office she’s in a position where she could mold them in ways to move on her agenda,” said Schultz, “but she doesn’t seem to be using this opportunity to do that.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity Hodges will have comes later this year in August, when she presents the 2015 budget, which she sees as “the biggest piece of policy the whole city does all year long.”