Betsy Hodges is a mayor under a fair amount of pressure.
From activists who don’t think her reforms of the police department are deep enough and fast enough. From merchants and restaurant owners who think her signature infrastructure project, Nicollet Mall, is taking too long. From conservatives who think she and her city are convenient symbols of liberalism run amok.
And even from a handful of fellow DFLers who are in the midst of campaigns to keep her from winning a second term in November.
Hodges wove a message to all those groups throughout her state of the city speech Tuesday at Masjid an-Nur, a mosque in North Minneapolis: She said she promised to transform the city into “One Minneapolis” when she was inaugurated three and a half years ago. But she didn’t say it would be easy.
It was clever construct: those who criticize her were cast as unwilling to do the hard work and take the time necessary to solve issues like racial inequity, environmental injustice and lousy police-community relations. “Compare it to a marathon,” Hodges said. “Every marathon starts with that first mile. But somewhere around mile 16 or 18 — trust me on this — your feet are killing you, you’re not sure you can breathe anymore, your mind is frazzled, your body wracked with pain, and all you want to do is stop.”
At that point, runners can make the choice to push through the pain or “catch a ride to the end and not get that medal around your neck.”
“It’s hard to make the choice to live through troughs of discomfort,” she said. “It’s hard to keep the finish line in focus and remember that transformation lies on the other side, and that the discomfort ends. But here’s the thing, I know we can do it because we’re already doing it.”
Based on the text of the speech, a text that Hodges mostly stuck to, she used the word “discomfort” 29 times, “uncomfortable” 8 times and “hard” 10 times. But she also said “change” 12 times, “transformation,” “transformative,” “transform” or “transforming” 30 times and spoke the phrase “One Minneapolis” 32 times.
“One Minneapolis is a city where we transform our systems, our structures, and our policies so that neither race, nor current income, nor zip code reliably predicts anything about life outcomes,” Hodges said. “They have no hold on how high we climb.
“One Minneapolis requires change, it requires connection to one another, and it requires a commitment to sitting through the discomfort of change to get to a stronger, better other side.”
Hodges singled out the work to reform the police department and policing as an issue area where she is determined to resist critics.
“Nowhere have we faced the headwinds of discomfort more than in the work we are doing to transform public safety, policing, and police-community relations — and nowhere are we sticking with the work more tenaciously through the discomfort, to the benefit of everyone,” Hodges said.
She used a similar phrasing to talk about forging agreements to make changes to how affordable housing is achieved; surviving the long planning and construction process for Nicollet Mall; and crafting a sick and safe time ordinance.
“Honoring those agreements when conflict, doubt, and discomfort arose was hard,” Hodges said. “But instead of giving up and letting discomfort win, we moved forward through it, through hitting the wall, with our eyes on the finish line, with an unwavering focus on getting where we had chosen to go.”
But it was clear that there is more than enough discomfort to go around, as Hodges also asserted that in her view there is both positive discomfort and negative discomfort. If it results from the process of change she said she is leading the city through, it’s ultimately productive. “We are not stronger despite the discomfort, we are stronger because of it,” she said.
If that discomfort is external, however, it should be resisted. And what might the source of that be? Hodges only spoke the name “Trump” five times, but the president and his policies were a frequent foil. “Since last November 8th, however, we have been living through what happens when discomfort wins out in America,” Hodges said. And later, “… his agendas of oppression, regression, and suppression have no place in Minneapolis, and we are standing firm in our resistance to it.
“In Minneapolis, we believe in connection, not alienation. We believe in compassion, not indifference. We believe in love, but we are not timid,” she said. “When Donald Trump comes after any part of our community, he’ll find 419,000 Minneapolitans and me standing squarely in his way. That’s the kind of wall I can support.”
Hodges ended her speech the way she starts each morning on Twitter, with a quote, this one from writer Cynthia Occelli. “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
Added Hodges: “Minneapolis, our shell is cracked. And from that will come the full flower of our potential, whatever we are destined to be.”
Hodges’ choice of a mosque to deliver her annual speech was symbolic. Masjid an-Nur has a predominantly African-American, not Somali-American, congregation. Hodges she said she wanted to speak there, “because our Muslim neighbors, right now, need to know that we as a city see them, and value them, and understand the light they bring to our community.”
Because it was a religious building, however, City Attorney Susan Segal advised that it couldn’t be the location for what has in the past been an official meeting of the city council. Seven of the 13 council members were in attendance, but it was not a council meeting and the delivery of an annual state of the city, mandated by the city charter, will officially be done on paper rather than in person.