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How Javier Morillo, a former academic, became the most talked-about political operative in the Twin Cities

“There is no one in public life who wants to take him on,” says one longtime DFL insider of Morillo, a local union leader who describes himself as a thug in pastels.

Thanks to his skills as a storyteller, his social media savvy and his rare ability (in political circles, anyway) to actually be funny — Javier Morillo seldom finds himself in situations in which he doesn’t have the upper hand.
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak

Because St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater was designed to have perfect sightlines, none of its 1,058 seats is more than 87 feet from the proscenium, which makes standing in front of a capacity house there a singular experience: The lights are so close you can’t see past the lip of the stage, yet you can literally hear the audience breathing. You’re surrounded, but utterly alone.

One Saturday evening last summer, Javier Morillo-Alicea stood on one side of this metaphorical moat, telling a story about picking up a cowboy in Texas. On the other side, a crowd he couldn’t see was pitched forward in their seats, riveted.

Storytelling competitions like this one, a taping for the podcast The Moth, are the cabaret equivalent of a reality TV appearance. A mix of Walter Mittys and theatrical ringers turn up at a bar or a theater hoping the audience votes to advance them to a big stage like the The Moth’s national Sunday night broadcast on public radio.

Tonight, all of the stories are supposed to be on the theme “A Fish Out of Water,” which seems almost unfair. Morillo — who is something of a star in this world — grew up a working-class kid in Puerto Rico before going on to the Ivy League and eventually settling in Minnesota; he is about as far from his native waters as a fish can get. 

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Even so, detailing your attempts to seduce a ranch hand is not the type of tale one might typically share with 1,000 strangers, particularly not if you also happened to be one of the state’s most prominent political operatives.

But then, very little about Morillo is typical.

He is, after all, someone who gleefully describes himself as a “thug in pastels” — yet sits on the Democratic National Committee; a lapsed academic who has become a successful union leader; a non-Minnesotan who has been instrumental in electing many of the Twin Cities’ better known politicians; a self-styled outsider and reliable critic of DFL politicians whose partner is a member of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ inner circle.

It’s a rare combination — outsider cred and insider reach — that over the last several years has made Morillo one of the Twin Cities’ most effective and feared political players. It has certainly made him the most talked-about.

“He doesn’t belong to any particular world, and he doesn’t mind pissing people off,” says a longtime DFL insider and Morillo friend. “There is no one in public life who wants to take him on.”

‘I’m not going back to academia’

On Oct. 25, 2002, Morillo was teaching at Macalester College, trying not to think about the fact that after years of hard work, completing three-fifths of his doctorate on colonial cultures and piling up a mountain of student loans, teaching about oppressed people had become, well, oppressive. Legions would kill to take his place, yet Morillo could not stop thinking about current events.

“The country was heading to war with the wrong country and I spent all of my time watching CNN obsessively and not writing my dissertation,” Morillo recalls. “It just all seemed unbearable.”

Unhappy sitting on the sidelines that fall, Morillo and his partner, John Stiles, decided to hold a fundraiser for Sen. Paul Wellstone, whom — as a former academic who had been pulled between teaching and politics himself — Morillo idolized.

The night before the fundraiser, Stiles and Morillo were shopping for the event, sitting in the parking lot of the St. Paul Sears, when a friend called to tell them Wellstone’s plane had crashed. There were no survivors. Morillo’s first reaction was to tell the friend he was wrong. Then he turned on the radio to hear MPR’s Gary Eichten repeat the news.

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On election night 10 days later, Stiles — who “is like an election-night Rain Man,” Morillo likes to quip — kept tabs on the results, especially in the U.S. Senate race between Walter Mondale, who had stepped in for Wellstone after the senator had died, and Republican Norm Coleman. Even new to town, Stiles was able to look at the precincts where votes had been tallied, envision who lived there and how the numbers might change as others trickled in. 

“As the returns were coming in I saw John’s face,” says Morillo. “And he doesn’t have a poker face. I said, ‘You don’t think he’s going to win.’ ”

Morillo drove to Macalester to put a note on the door canceling the next day’s office hours.

After the school year ended, he told Stiles, “I’m not going back to academia.”

“I figured,” his partner replied. 

‘You don’t say no to Yale’

If you trace them back far enough, the starting point for most of Morillo’s stories is a decision made years before he was born by his parents, Francisco and Carmen Morillo, both of whom grew up very poor in the city of Caguas, some 20 miles outside San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Military service didn’t come with big paychecks, but it offered families like the one the Morillos hoped to start access to middle-class opportunities: good schools, decent housing, free health care. Francisco and Carmen wanted their kids to go to college.

Francisco enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to the 101st Airborne as a paratrooper. His third son, Javier, was born in the Panama Canal Zone days before Francisco started his second tour in Vietnam. When he shipped out, Carmen and the boys returned to Puerto Rico. 

The family was living in Texas, at Fort Hood, when Francisco got his third set of orders to deploy. The wives on the base were up in arms. Black and Latino men were being ordered on second and third tours in Vietnam while many white soldiers in the battalion hadn’t gone once. Nationally, the disparity was in the news, and when a hearing on the issue was held at Fort Hood, Francisco testified. His orders were withdrawn. But he also spent the rest of the war cleaning latrines in Texas. 

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Morillo’s mother endured her own injustices. After the family moved from Texas to a base in Puerto Rico, she became ill. The military doctors treating her made one mistake after another, prescribing medication that cost her eyesight and a kidney before they finally stumbled upon the right diagnosis: tuberculosis. For a long time, it wasn’t clear she would survive. “I have a deep sense of injustice about my mother,” says Morillo. “I didn’t realize until I was in high school how much my family had been planning for her death. But she was determined that her kids would not grow up without a mother.”

Things were harder between Morillo and his father. They didn’t understand each other — or have much in common. Francisco wanted his son to be a jock. Javier was bookish, an academic star who had his sights on Northwestern University and its highly regarded Medill School of Journalism.

In fact, he was prepared to tell a Yale recruiter who was scouting him — schools on U.S. military bases tend to be very good — all about his plan to attend Northwestern when his English teacher intervened. “You don’t say no to Yale,” the teacher told him.

Morillo didn’t imagine college would bring culture shock: “I mean, we watched ‘The Cosby Show.’ ” But Yale was, as he puts it, “a factory of elites.” The dorm room across the hall from his during freshman year was occupied by Don Pillsbury: “I was like, ‘Seriously? Like the Doughboy?’ ” But it was also a hub of radical intellectual stimulation. The first speaker he heard in New Haven was feminist writer and social activist bell hooks.

Still, his wealthy classmates and the alums he saw at Yale didn’t seem to notice the disconnect between the often left-leaning content of the coursework and the staggering privilege that paved their path there. For Morillo, that divide was crystalized most clearly in the summer after his sophomore year, when he stayed on campus over the summer and waited tables at the facility where Yale reunions were held.

“I was working at a dinner where the diners were sharing stories about how they dodged the draft,” he recalls. “I didn’t drop all of the wine bottles on purpose, but it did happen.”

‘I’m not an idiot’

It’s late on a Thursday night in December, and Morillo is telling another story, this time to a couple hundred strangers, about what it’s like to grow up gay in Puerto Rico with a mother who dominates in the art of not discussing anything uncomfortable.

The event is the live taping of a national podcast called “Risk,” held at Dudley Riggs’ Hennepin Avenue performance space.

“Mami and I were pioneers of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he begins, referring to his mother. “This thing Mami and I didn’t know how to talk about, we talked around it. Our way of talking about an issue was to talk about someone else.”

That someone was cousin Tony. When Morillo was a teenager and AIDS a raging epidemic, cousin Tony was diagnosed with the disease. Carmen Morillo conjured reasons — innocent ones — why he had gotten sick. But on one of her last visits, cousin Tony was insistent on Carmen knowing the truth: He got the disease from needles and sex.

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Carmen came home from that hospital trip and collapsed in Javier’s arms. “What I heard was the pain of Tony’s death was enormous, but knowing he was gay was unbearable,” Morillo says. “Over the years, it was through Tony that we talked about me.”

For a while, the pair’s version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” worked, said Morillo. “But as the years went by, it stopped being OK.”

One day, Morillo decided that the distance had become too much. “Nos tenemos que quitarnos las mascaras,” he told her.

We have to take off our masks. 

Mami’s response: “I’m not an idiot.” 

Organizing around issues, not employers

After leaving Macalester, Morillo drew unemployment for a while and campaigned for Howard Dean. When the SEIU endorsed Dean, he was the campaign’s lone Minnesota staffer, and the union hired him to organize. He became president of the local, which represents 6,000 janitors, security guards and window washers, a few months later.

At the time, the union’s demographics were undergoing a seismic shift. Its aging white officers didn’t even share a language with the newest members, most of whom are from Latin America and Africa. Indeed, many of the members did not even realize they belonged to a union. 

The first thing Morillo did was to move the weekly meetings from 5:30 Monday evenings — the exact moment most janitors and security guards start their work week — to Saturday mornings. He also made sure the discussion took place in four languages.

Next he set about injecting a little joy into Local 26’s culture. Now there’s an art collective and a leadership school and movie screenings at the Warehouse District headquarters. When President Barack Obama gave a historic speech on immigration early in the winter, the union had a viewing party.

The past year has seen much to celebrate for Local 26. Wages are up for many members to $9 an hour and sometimes more. Many now have affordable health care and sick leave for the first time ever. And in an era when union rolls are declining nationwide, membership is up.

Yet what would seem to be the basic benefits of the collective bargaining process — better wages and benefits — is actually just a small slice of the picture these days. The things Morillo and the union’s other stewards and officers fight for would astonish most middle-class Americans. They recently won an agreement from one employer to provide paystubs, for example, so that workers could track whether they were paid for all of the hours they worked. That’s significant in an industry where wage theft — the withholding or manipulation of overtime or other pay — is common. 

Right now, the local is applying pressure to one employer, a Delta subcontractor, to give workers weekly schedules so they can arrange for child care and for the second and third jobs that are the reality for most minimum-wage workers. Currently, the company considers every worker “on call,” meaning they don’t know whether they have to work on a given day until the night before.

Such issues are just part of the reason that, early on in his tenure, Morillo came to a realization that many inside SEIU were also beginning to share: that organized labor was not changing as quickly as the nature of work — and that the organization was in danger of losing whatever relevance it still maintained. 

Corporate America was moving away from directly employing hourly-wage workers — the very folks who were most likely to join together to demand wages and benefits, which left the union negotiating with subcontractors, vendors whose aim was to be the low bidder. And because the easiest way to undercut the competition is to shortchange your work force, organizing the employees of a single subcontractor would never fundamentally change things.

This shift was occurring outside the view of the general public for a couple of reasons. First, the jobs in question are invisible to most people, performed behind the scenes or in the middle of the night. Those jobs have also increasingly gone to immigrants who lack documentation, people who can’t or won’t protest an employer’s abuse.

What Morillo realized was that in order to make meaningful changes, Local 26 needed to organize not in opposition to employers but around issues, ones that were easy to communicate, easy for the public to support, and would help both union and nonunion workers alike.

Case in point: Over the last decade, there have been five class-action suits involving claims of wage theft by Target contractors. In 2013, for example, Diversified Maintenance Systems, which cleaned some 600 Target stores around the country, paid $675,000 to settle a suit brought by Minnesota workers — none of whom were part of a union at the time — who said they were not paid for overtime.

At the same time it was helping to draw attention to the wage theft issue, SEIU Local 26 — through an initiative called Minnesotans for a Fair Economy  — pushed Target to keep commitments to create jobs made in exchange for subsidies from the city of Brooklyn Park, where the company was to build a corporate campus. Many of those commitments were not kept, in part because of outsourcing to India.

After pressure from the SEIU and its allies at the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (or Centers of Workers in Struggle, better known as CTUL) and several Twin Cities churches — pressure that included a silent march through the aisles of the company’s downtown store — Target issued a policy last June that demanded its contractors allow cleaners to organize, which gives the workers the leverage to both end the wage theft and preserve local jobs. 

That was just the first ripple in a bigger wave of wins. It turns out that once Target has bought into something like responsible subcontracting, the company has a tendency to push its corporate brethren to do likewise. In November, the largest of Target’s maintenance subcontractors, which also cleans many Best Buy stores, agreed its cleaners could organize, too. 

‘He doesn’t sugarcoat things’

To newcomers, Minneapolis’ politics can seem like a closed society populated by unlikely bedfellows. Wealthy civic leaders and labor — largely white and hardly working class —jointly anoint a slate, which is then predictably endorsed by the Star Tribune. A few short years ago, such recommendations were often, and quite literally, torn from the editorial page and carried into the voting booth.

The rules for getting into the club are not terribly democratic. Historically you could not, for instance, ask for the DFL endorsement if you did not agree to abide by the party’s decision. And the party wasn’t likely to endorse anyone who appeared likely to rock the boat. Genuflecting at all the right political stations was often more important than electability.

Over the last two decades, however, Minneapolis has diversified much more quickly than its power structure. And because the newcomers haven’t been members of the club, they’ve have had a particularly hard time making inroads.

“The last eight years in Minneapolis politics, often what you’ve had is white labor groups supporting candidates whose message is, ‘I’ve spent all my life here,’” says David DeGrio, a veteran of numerous DFL campaigns who has worked both with and against Morillo. “How do you think a message like that resonates with immigrants and new American communities, with people who are new here or who like me are from other parts of the state? With women?” 

The dynamic also wasn’t lost on Morillo, whose main job is to serve the needs of mostly low-wage immigrants, and who has something of a congenital inability to do things as they’ve always been done. And so, over the last five years, the SEIU has begun doing something unusual in the world of local Democratic politics: making endorsements that are more in line with the interests of its members than the party’s wishes.

In practical terms, that independence has meant some stark departures from the protocols of the past. Traditionally, in election years when city offices are filled the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, whose affiliates include several SEIU locals, picks the slate of labor-vetted candidates who are then typically endorsed by the DFL. Everyone is expected to go along. In years when school board seats are filled, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers picks the slate. 

But in 2010, a year that saw the first of a series of racially charged school-board contests, the teachers union did not endorse the lone U.S.-born African-American in the race, Chanda Smith Baker, despite her high profile and deep roots in education, presumably because of her involvement with charter schools. The SEIU did.

Then, in 2012, the teachers union approached the SEIU with a deal: The teachers would endorse incumbent school board member Carla Bates, whom they did not like but who was going to win handily. In turn, the union would endorse a young attorney with no ties to education instead of Tracine Asberry, an African-American professor of education who had taught in Minneapolis Public Schools for years.

Offended, Bates announced she did not want the teacher union endorsement, and the SEIU endorsed both Bates and Asberry, whose agendas were focused on issues of equity in schools that were increasingly segregated into haves and have-nots. Both won.

For anybody else, this kind of coloring outside the lines would have spelled trouble within the very small universe of the DFL. But Morillo’s skills and political résumé have made him formidable. Given his union role in bringing corporate behemoths to heel, there’s no insisting he’s beholden to special interests. But it’s not just that. Thanks to his skills as a storyteller, his social media savvy and his rare ability (in political circles, anyway) to actually be funny — he seldom finds himself in situations in which he doesn’t have the upper hand.   

And unlike many a Minnesotan, Morillo doesn’t hesitate to say exactly how he feels — or to turn the same directness he uses to call out a bad employer on allies who he feels have gone astray.

One of 2014’s most brutal races was Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s white-knuckled fight to keep Mohamed Noor from wresting away the statehouse seat she has held since 1972. At a precinct caucus where the DFL endorsement would be decided, a fistfight broke out, and blow to the head sent a Noor supporter to the hospital with a concussion.

In the aftermath, Kahn poo-pooed the episode, saying she was the one who received the equivalent of a death threat. “I participated in the process when it was much more unfriendly to women than that,” Kahn said. “Once that has happened, what’s a punch?” 

Morillo was incensed, and went on Facebook to call out Kahn — and the rest of the party. “A full day has gone by since a DFL elected official minimized violence against a woman with ‘what’s a punch?’ and this is not scandalous?” he posted. “Would we ever stand idly by if a Republican were to say something like that? No, we would be calling on that person to apologize or resign.”

“Javier’s way of expressing himself is direct, truthful and fierce,” says Dan McGrath of the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota. “I speak as someone who has been yelled at by Javier innumerable times. There are times when my phone rang and I thought, Oh shit, this is going to be terrible.” 

But it’s rarely personal and it’s never the end of the relationship — in Morillo’s view, anyway. “What happens next is you probably laugh about it, you agree to disagree and maybe he wins you over,” adds McGrath. “He’s funny and he’s also smarter than most people. Javier is a relational being. He has intense feelings and close relationships.

“He doesn’t play a lot of games and he doesn’t sugar coat things. … There are a lot of people in Minnesota political circles who wish they could be as honest.” 

‘We put a lot of muscle behind her’

Because he moved to the Twin Cities during R.T. Rybak’s three terms, Morillo was a veteran of local politics long before he participated in a mayoral contest where the DFL machine was in full swing. Rybak, of course, initially won office despite the party’s wishes — and then proved too popular to oppose.

As a result, during the 2013 race to replace Rybak, Morillo was floored when DFL frontrunner Mark Andrew told the audience at a candidate forum that it was, essentially, his turn. “It used to be that you won elections in Minneapolis by getting rich people and labor together,” says Morillo. “That’s what Mark Andrew did.”

“The experience was surreal from beginning to end,” says Morillo. “I hadn’t seen it. It had the feeling of a restoration, like, ‘Okay, [Rybak] was a fluke.’” 

Morillo and his fellow SEIU officers didn’t really care whose turn it was. They cared what their members needed from city government. And what they wanted was a lot more focus on the massive economic disparities between white and non-white residents of Minneapolis, a theme that one candidate in particular had made the center of her campaign — Betsy Hodges.

In the end, the SEIU was the only union to endorse Hodges, though several of the union’s allies came along, including Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, ISAIAH and the Centro de Trabajadores. “People treated us like we were nuts for supporting her,” says Morillo. 

Many political observers didn’t consider it particularly advantageous for Hodges, either. Despite its size, the union didn’t have deep pockets, and many of its members couldn’t even vote. How was this coalition going to deliver an election?

Yet that’s exactly what they did, largely with the same strategy that made Local 26 so successful in its campaigns against employers. By galvanizing small pockets of support not around a person — but around a bigger issue — it could achieve a victory few would have thought possible.

“We put a lot of muscle behind her and a lot of political expertise,” says Morillo. “It helped to cement Betsy’s message that we are becoming a city of haves and have-nots.” 

Thank you to politicians like Betsy Hodges

After Hodges’ election, one of her first decisions was to appoint Rybak’s former communications czar — and Morillo’s partner — John Stiles, as her chief of staff. The move brought up an interesting question: If Morillo’s reputation rested on his willingness to speak truth to power, what would happen when power is sitting across from him at the dinner table? 

Glimmers of that tension have begun to appear. In November, a majority on Minneapolis’ new City Council opposed a proposal in Hodges’ first budget to raise taxes 2.4 percent to fund, among other things, a study of racial equity in city policies and services. In the end, a majority of council members voted for a 2.2 percent hike, saving the average household about $3 a year.

The vote might have been greeted by a shrug for everyone but the most observant of city hall observers, at least before Morillo took to Twitter with the hashtag #lattelevy to point out that the city was sidestepping one of the mayor’s priorities — for the price of a cup of coffee. Though Morillo’s side lost the battle, the resulting social media groundswell turned into the most packed council meeting in recent memory.

Then, in February, Hodges announced she would not support raising the minimum wage in Minneapolis to $15 an hour, a move the SEIU and allies have campaigned for in other cities around the country. Her reasoning: The increase needed to happen on a regional, state or national level or Minneapolis would risk the loss of jobs.

Hodges move was criticized by many. By contrast, Morillo was uncharacteristically restrained. While he expressed “disappointment” on social media, he was far from her loudest critic. And though some of Local 26’s organizing partners stepped in, they did so without Morillo’s laser-like effectiveness.

“We’re at a crisis level of economic inequality,” Anthony Newby, head of Local 26’s frequent partner, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), told the Star Tribune. “Either we choose to do both — attract businesses and growth to the city and prioritize the lives of working poor people — or not. And that’s a very clear political choice. I think it’s a mistake to prioritize one or the other. We have to do both at this moment.”

Morillo’s response also contrasted markedly with what had happened in Seattle, where the SEIU threatened to end-run elected officials by putting the question on the ballot for city residents to decide. The threat — which was attached to the deadline created by a municipal election — was credited with pushing the city’s political and business leaders to forge a compromise.

Hodges did not reverse herself in response to the critics. Instead, she used her state of the city address to call on state leaders to raise the wage and for city officials to institute a series of protections for low-wage workers that jibed neatly with much that Local 26 has fought for: An end to wage theft, access to sick leave and fair scheduling for hourly wage workers.

Morillo responded in kind: “Thank you, community, for pushing our elected officials to always do better and put wind in their sails when they do,” he posted to Facebook. “And thank you to politicians like Betsy Hodges who listen, act, and who challenge us right back.”

‘We represented janitors’ kids’

As returns began to roll in on election night last fall, Morillo stood alongside school board candidate Iris Altamirano, an SEIU organizer who started the campaign as an unknown. The daughter of a high-school janitor, Altamirano worked her way from a childhood working in the agricultural fields in Texas to a degree from Cornell.

In the August primary, Altamirano had finished third in a seven-way race to fill two at-large board seats. The top four vote getters moved on to the general election, and the teachers union was pulling out all the stops to defeat one of her opponents, former City Council member Don Samuels. The other candidate who had out-polled Altamirano in the primary, incumbent school board member Rebecca Gagnon, did not want to be painted as the union candidate, and had specifically not asked for endorsement from labor.

So, for the first time in recent memory, labor did not endorse in the race. Instead, most Twin Cities unions instructed their members to follow the endorsements of the Minneapolis DFL, which endorsed Gagnon and Altamirano.

For Altamirano that support, however, was measured, to put it mildly. In order to win, she needed to attract supporters away from both Gagnon and Samuels. But party leaders threatened to withdraw their support if Altamirano appeared at any events where Samuels was present.

In a different year, Altamirano’s “third way” message — there’s room in the city’s school system for both collective bargaining and equity for black and brown kids — might have been enough to put her over the top. But many voters were confused and disgusted by the race, and not without reason.  At the 11th hour, a river of cash flooded into the race, including a six-figure contribution from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a major education reform proponent. Some of the money was spent to promote Altamirano — without her blessing. But when she held a press conference to ask for an end to the negative outside campaigning, just two reporters showed up. 

In truth, spending by the old-line unions — including the national teachers union — likely matched or exceeded the “outside” spending. But the damage was done; one effect of the “reform” money was to cement Gagnon’s position as a small-money underdog.

On election night, Stiles, Morillo and Altamirano watched the precincts roll in at Local 26’s Warehouse District headquarters. When the end came, showing Altamirano had fallen short by a little more than 4,000 votes, the candidate was slightly more composed than Morillo.

“We did drive a good conversation,” Altamirano told the supporters who encircled her. “I was hoping we could say we changed the game, but the game was rigged. The images we were seeing were dollar signs. But we represented janitors’ kids.”

Long after Altamirano finished thanking the campaigners, it was Morillo who looked defeated: flushed and breathing hard, his eyes red and brimming.

As dispirited as Morillo was by the results, there was another way of telling the story of the race. Altimirano was an outsider who came within two percentage points of winning a seat against two candidates with far more name recognition: one who was an incumbent and another who had spent the last decade has a high-profile member of the Minneapolis City Council.

In the months since, doubtless Morillo has turned that story around, reframing it and shaping it into one that is likely to make the political establishment very, very nervous.