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The cajoler in chief

In her second state of the city speech, Betsy Hodges reveals the challenges — and the limits — of being mayor of Minneapolis. 

Mayor Betsy Hodges: “How much genius are we going to leave on the table?”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

There’s nothing like a state of the city speech to reveal the unusual role of the mayor under Minneapolis’ city charter.

For reasons historic and political, power is diffused in the city, creating a rarity — a  mayor who isn’t exactly weak but isn’t very strong either.

As a sort-of executive-in-chief with more control over some areas of government than others, Betsy Hodges has to share power with a strong city council and a city coordinator who answers to both. But she also is the convener-in-chief, holding the one political post in the city with both the title and the sway to bring people to the table.

On Thursday, as she reported on her first 15 months in office and laid out her goals for her second year, Betsy Hodges had to abide by that reality, calling out her ability to change policy via task forces, summits and work groups.

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Repeating the theme, “How much genius are we going to leave on the table?” (the answer is “none” by the way), Hodges placed many of her hopes in the hands of others.

On the environment, for example, Hodges announced, “that the process for creating the city’s zero waste plan is underway. Our goal is to come up with a plan that will help everyone who lives and works in Minneapolis recycle more and throw away less.” Last month, she and key city council members convened a policy work group to “kick off a year-long planning process” to move Minneapolis toward the zero waste goal.

A similar process was used in Hodges’ first state of the city speech, when she announced a plan to concentrate more services on kids in early childhood. “I’m proud to say that a year later, the Cradle-to-K cabinet is moving into implementation mode” with final recommendations ready next month. “The whole community will be invited to do whatever each of us can do to make a difference for your youngest kids.”

Another batch of proposals to help business wade through the city’s often complex permitting and regulation process was begun last year as a task force. The recommendations of Minneapolis Business Made Simple will mostly involve agencies the mayor doesn’t directly control. To get them to buy in, Hodges brought them and business leaders together last year to identify problems and craft solutions. But to get any ordinance changes passed, she now needs to work with council leaders.

Hodges used her Thursday speech at the American Swedish Institute to announce her Minneapolis Working Families Agenda: a set of policies to provide private-sector workers with fair scheduling, earned sick leave and protection from wage theft. But after describing the problems facing workers — especially those at the lower end of the wage scale, and especially those of color — Hodges did not offer any specifics as to what city ordinances would look like and how city enforcement would work. That will be done “in cooperation with council members, advocates and the business community.”

Even on a higher minimum wage, something she said supports, Hodges did not suggest an ordinance for a higher wage in Minneapolis, something other cities have done but that she opposes. Instead she said it should be done “ideally” at the national level or at the state or regional level. After the speech, Hodges spokeswoman Kate Brickman said the mayor is beginning to talk to regional leaders about a higher hourly wage that wouldn’t disadvantage one city.

Her changes in the police and fire departments are more concrete, as they involve areas of the city directly controlled by the mayor. There was certainly plenty about convening to hear complaints and concerns about police-resident relations — both before and after the death of an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, MO. But because the mayor has administrative control over the police department, the roll-out of body cameras was done quickly. It also shows how mayors can use their authority to present a city budget to the council as an instrument to change policy. Her budget called for body cameras and for filling out the police and fire ranks, something being done with an eye toward diversifying both departments.

But her second state of the city speech also showed how much of Hodges’ job comes down to being the cajoler in chief, using her office to draw attention to problems and suggest non-governmental solutions. The Minneapolis Climate Champs Challenge will involve the mayor suggesting a different step people can take each month to reduce climate change. “We are Climate Action Champs here in Minneapolis,” she said. “And this is a way for all of us to get on board.”

She also called on individuals to make a personal commitment to help kids succeed such as becoming a graduation coach for a city high school student. “Each one of us has a gift to offer the next generation, and today is a call to you to use your gift.”

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To help transgendered people feel a part of the city, Hodges suggested people “start with love and celebration,” followed by policies that support that work. And to white residents, Hodges urged them to change their mind-set about racial equity. “Too often when we talk about racial or economic justice, we white people do not see ourselves in the picture,” she said. “We feel like it’s all well and good for other people to do better, but not at our expense and it won’t benefit us.”

But eliminating inequity will benefit whites, she said. “We are in the picture, not just as beneficent dolers-out of opportunity and largesse, but as recipients of a better economy, a stronger community for our kids, and a more-tranquil conscience, which is agitated knowing that our current success has a giant asterisk next to it,” Hodges said.

One place where her talents at impacting behavior by individuals might be challenged, however, involves transportation. The region’s economic success, she said, is based in part on public investments, with transit and transportation at the heart of those investments.

“To build the transit system that we need, we need new revenue,” Hodges said. But that is in the hands of the state Legislature that is divided between DFLers who control the governor’s office and the Senate, and Republicans who control the House. Those Republicans are opposed to any transportation tax hikes, and have been closed to additional funding for transit in the Twin Cities.

She might have more success with the Minneapolis Council, which is made up of 12 fellow DFLers and one Green Party member. Like any good cajoler, Hodges spread the credit for past successes around, managing to get each council member into her speech by name when setting the stage for the changes needed over the next year.

The state of the city? Hodges avoided the familiar assessments of “strong” or “sound.” “The state of our city? We are one city. We are One Minneapolis. Let us resolve in 2015 every day to match our behavior with that truth.”