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At first mayoral forum, candidates differentiate themselves on leadership style, if not substance

Video of Wednesday's mayoral forum, courtesy of the UpTake.

It was the final question of the evening, and the one the six candidates for mayor of Minneapolis seemed least prepared to answer at the first candidate get-together of the 2017 campaign, a forum at the Calvary Church sponsored by 10th Ward Council Member Lisa Bender.

Since Minneapolis uses a ranked-choice voting format for its city elections, the winner may well be determined by being the second or third choice of their rivals’ supporters. So how, asked forum moderator Tane Danger, would they make the case to be a voter’s No. 2?

It wasn't a comfortable spot for candidates used to bragging about themselves, but neither is it a trivial matter. In 2013, Mayor Betsy Hodges received 36.47 percent of first-choice votes, and she prevailed only after a lengthy RCV process put her over the top. 

Up first was Nekima Levy-Pounds: “I think of myself as a first-choice candidate, so I pass,” she said.

The rest of the field — Hodges, Jacob Frey, Tom Hoch, Raymond Dehn and Aswar Rahman — recited a reasonable facsimile of what they’d prepared for a closing statement before adding something at the end like this from Dehn: “Should I not be able to persuade you to make me your first-place vote, I would ask to be your second-place choice.”

Ranked choice advocates often say the best advice for candidates is to avoid angering the supporters of your main opponents. That's why they make the case that RCV limits the rancor and negative nature of many campaigns.

That may be the case, at least after the city DFL convention July 8. But there is no ranked choice voting at the convention. Candidates either win a super majority and the party's endorsement or they don’t. And if no one does, then maybe the RCV math could play a role in campaign strategy. Until then, however, the candidates are free to campaign without worrying too much about opponents’ feelings in trying to carve out their own chunk of potential DFL delegates.

Setting the stage

Hodges, as the incumbent, portrayed her first term as a fulfillment of promises made. “Four years ago, when I ran for mayor I ran on a platform of equity and growth and growth that is for everybody, and on running the city very well,” she said in her opening statement. “I have spent the last three, almost four years, making good on those promises.”

Hodges cited the streets and parks repair plan and what she terms “moving  the center of gravity on public safety to a partnership between law enforcement and the community.” She said she was “doing the hard work of transformational change.”

But each of the rivals — to varying degrees and at varying volumes — tried to nick away at those claims. And since all tend to agree on the details of DFL doctrine, the complaints are more how about Hodges has filled the job than about what she believes.

In his comments, Hoch returned to his kickoff theme: momentum, or what he sees as a lack of it in the city. “We are falling behind,” said Hoch, the former president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust said. “When I look around our country, when I look at how other cities are progressing, when I look at Boulder, when I look at Indianapolis, when I think of Austin, these are all cities where thinking big and acting big are making a big mark.”

Levy-Pounds, while prominent in civil rights and racial justice issues for a decade, came to citywide notice in the aftermath of the Jamar Clark shooting in November 2015. “I had a chance to walk hand-in-hand with the people of the city of Minneapolis who were sick and tired of the status quo, they were tired of business as usual, tired of hearing about racial disparities and all of the reports year after year with very little action,” she said.

Frey, a first-term city council member, characterized himself as someone who will be an active mayor — an allusion to his belief that Hodges hasn’t been one. He said he would end homelessness in five years, resolve a housing affordability crisis and make Minneapolis the greenest city in the country. “And here’s the big thing, right now more than ever we need a very visible and present mayor, someone who is willing to build a coalition on the council, work with the independent school and park boards and ultimately get results,” Frey said.

Dehn, a state representative from North Minneapolis since 2013, continued with that theme. “I think we’ve been running from crisis to crisis,” he said. “I think we can design our city to have a future that is long term. For many years we haven’t been thinking about what does this mean five years from now, what does this mean 10 years from now. In 2017 we have the opportunity to change city government.”

Even here, though, there was a politeness to the criticism. Even with Hodges sitting nearby, the fault-finding with her administration was more in the style of an open letter than direct confrontation.

Which is why the candidate with the least obvious path to victory could also end up being the most interesting figure in debates such as this one.

Aswar Rahman is a twenty-something filmmaker and actor with little political experience save a stint as an intern and assistant in former Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office. But his criticisms of Hodges are the most direct. And he takes positions that won’t be heard elsewhere among the candidates. He thinks property taxes are too high, that the police department is too small, and that the city shouldn’t craft a local-only minimum wage.

“The mayor of Minneapolis has two main responsibilities: the police and the budget,” Rahman said. “And those are exactly the two places where we have severely underperformed the last three years. Rybak had us on track and he left too soon in my opinion.”

The incumbent is the easiest target. But Hodges showed repeatedly that incumbency also has its privileges. All of the candidates opposed President Donald Trump. But only Hodges can speak of her work with other mayors to create a line of defense against threats to immigrants and refugees.

In most cases, however, the candidates — save Rahman in some instances — mostly agree. They all think the city should use its financial resources to reopen Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street. They all support up-zoning single-family neighborhoods to provide more housing density, and perhaps more affordability, without confronting any specific proposals that might draw opposition from those single-family homeowners and residents. And they are all pro-bike, though Hoch said the city hasn’t done a good job reaching out to non-cycling residents to explain the investment in infrastructure while Dehn and Levy-Pounds said the bike and pedestrian improvements are not fairly distributed to include North Minneapolis.

Points of disagreement, sort of

There were some differences on two topics: housing affordability and how restaurant workers’ tips should be calculated in any Minneapolis-only minimum wage.

Rahman, for example, said building more and more housing only contributes to gentrification, and that the city could do much toward affordable rents by limiting hikes in property taxes. Dehn favored more density “in the right places.” When pressed by Danger, Dehn said those were places where density already exists and places that have not been housing locations already.

“We have some light industrial areas of our city that I think it’s time to get those polluters and those folks out of the city and we need to look for opportunities for added housing in those types of areas,” Dehn said.

Frey pointed to work he’s done on the council to put more money into the city’s affordable housing construction budget — money used to help private builders add units with rents considered affordable. He also returns to a campaign theme that he promised to add more density in his Ward 3 and more affordable units and projects. “I’ll tell you, people push back,” Frey said. “But when it gets tough, when it gets controversial, we say yes in our backyard.”

Hoch suggested tax incentives to help convince landlords to get some of their units affordable. And, with an eye toward Hodges, he said the solution to a lack of housing choice, the mayor needs to work with mayors in other cities to “make sure their cities take their fair share.”

Levy-Pounds said the city should do more to get abandoned housing back into circulation and to act faster to sell vacant city property. “The city needs to be much more aggressive in making sure they’re not hanging on to a large housing stock,” she said. “We could be creating programs to allow people the opportunity to own those homes.”

She too cited property taxes as a factor in rents and said a $15 minimum wage would help people pay the rent.

Again, Hodges got to describe what she has done rather than what she might do. Like Frey, she pointed to the investment in the housing fund. She also cited the city’s participation in a regional public-private cooperative to invest some public dollars to purchase and maintain what's called naturally occurring affordable housing.

On tips, there are only two positions that can reasonably be taken by any candidate hoping to win the DFL endorsement. They can come out against including a tip credit (extra points for calling it a tip penalty), as Hodges, Levy-Pounds and Dehn have all done. Or they can refuse to take a position, at least until the city’s listening session are completed. That’s the path taken by Frey and Hoch.

“I am not going to be answering to any sort of special interest regardless of who it is,” Frey said. “I answer to the people of Minneapolis. And when I made a promise that we were going to hear people out the entire way, I keep my promise.”

Police-community relations is perhaps the biggest motivation for Levy-Pounds to challenge Hodges, who activists have criticized for her role in breaking up the occupation of the Fourth Precinct, and for the decision not to discipline the officers involved in Clark’s death. 

But a question posed by a high school student at the forum went to a narrow aspect of police issues: about the usefulness of implicit bias training, one of the programs being conducted with current officers to get them to recognize their own biases and how to control for them. All the candidates favored such programs, along with training for crisis management training and procedural justice.

“There is no city in the country that is doing more to build that trust, but it takes time,” Hodges said.

In response, Levy-Pounds said this: “There has been a little bit of progress that has been made but definitely not enough. Jamar Clark should not have had to be killed — shot in the head at point-blank range — for our government leaders to wake up to the crisis that exists within the Minneapolis police department.”

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Comments (2)

Good report of this forum.

We benefit from hearing about candidates' positions, although I hope the rather useless question--about how would you ask people to rank you as Number Two--is not repeated. You try for top ranking and let the voters decide if you're there for number two spot; it's not a position one "tries for" although it may lead to nicer candidate talk.

I'm hoping there is not a lemming-like race to push for residential neighborhoods all being up-zoned for Lisa Bender's pet cause of density density density:

"They all support up-zoning single-family neighborhoods to provide more housing density, and perhaps more affordability, without confronting any specific proposals that might draw opposition from those single-family homeowners and residents."

That blanket agreement is almost as irrational as Frey's comment that in his ward "we always say yes" to developers wanting more density and housing subsidies.

It will be interesting to see if Ms. Levy-Pounds can get beyond her one issue, to appeal to the Minneapolitans who actually vote. And how much she learns about how Minneapolis functions.

ranked voting for endorsements

Am I the only one that sees that an endorsing convention is like RCV in that it’s a runoff to get to a super majority. But it’s usually round by round.

The party has a choice to use a ranked ballot rather than go round by round and that would save a lot of time at the convention (and perhaps draw more delegates in as a result). Candidates indeed do need to stay civil heading into the convention because they need the 2nd and 3rd choice votes from those who support the candidates who drop.

I say this as a non-party person but one who supports ranked choice voting and follows from afar the party endorsing process.