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The battle for the soul of the Minneapolis Park Board

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Parks Board oversees a $110 million system, with commissioners responsible for 149 park properties, 102 miles of paths, 49 recreation centers, 22 lakes, 12 gardens and seven golf courses.

It’s hard to imagine Bernie Sanders playing disc golf or tossing a bocce ball or going for a swim in a Minneapolis park. Does the man even wear shorts? But no matter. Come Nov. 7, his influence on the park system is likely to be giant, thanks to a slate of DFL-endorsed candidates informed by his vision.

Now, no one would arrest you if you weren’t totally up to speed on the race for Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners. Park Board elections — for seats representing the city’s six park districts plus three at-large spots — are usually about as exciting as a Quickbooks webinar.

Not this time around. This time, there have been charges of racism, public shouting matches, a convention fistfight, two board resignations, endorsements, counter-endorsements and a scathing national magazine article.

Think House of Cards for tree-huggers.

With all nine seats on the board being contested, the stakes are high. But the truth is that the stakes are always high. The Park Board oversees a $110 million system, with commissioners responsible for 149 park properties, 102 miles of paths, 49 recreation centers, 22 lakes, 12 gardens and seven golf courses. And yes, the system is generally regarded as the best in the country, something Minneapolis residents are apt to remind you of about every 10 minutes.

Taking on the ‘disease of neoliberalism’

Things have been testy for a while. It was a year and a half ago when now mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds confronted the all-white parks board about equity issues and got into a shouting match with board president Liz Wielinski, who subsequently resigned the presidency (though she remained on the Parks Board). That was followed up by a lengthy article in Atlantic magazine titled “Racial Inequality in the Minneapolis Parks System.” Ouch. Then Donald Trump won, which raised everyone’s fever even higher.

That was when many young activists connected with Our Revolution, a local Bernie-inspired advocacy and endorsing group, thought the time was to go hard for systemic change — to put themselves up for election.

Devin Hogan
Devin Hogan

It didn’t take much to convince Devin Hogan to file. A 33-year-old small business consultant with a master’s degree in international development practice from the Humphrey School, Hogan is running for an at-large seat, and is fast-talking, hyper-smart and ambitious. And while it’s true that he sees a Park Board seat as a way of improving park administration, he also sees it as a way to end economic inequality and white supremacy.  

“We are afflicted with the disease of neoliberalism,” he says cheerfully over coffee in northeast Minneapolis. “The Park Board conflates a lot of things and calls them public-private partnerships. But often they’re not, they’re just commercial leases. I want to help bring a different vision to the Park Board about how we approach things like privatization, racial equality and climate change. The type of things Bernie talked about.”

Hogan was one of seven candidates supported by Our Revolution who won the DFL party endorsement in July over several incumbents, a move that seemed to stun many in the party.

Coalition shakes up the race

Tom Nordyke wasn’t among the confounded. Nordyke is no newcomer to Park Board politics, or the Park Board. He was a commissioner from 2006 through 2009, and he wasn’t planning to run this year when he attended the DFL convention as an observer.  

“I could have told you a week before the convention what was going to happen,” he said. “The candidates who worked with Our Revolution did a great job of organizing, starting with the caucuses. They mobilized their delegates and that’s how you do it. Good for them. It wasn’t a surprise to me.”

What was a surprise to him, and others, was that the candidates who emerged with DFL endorsements — including the eight Our Revolution candidates — were nearly all men. The only endorsed woman was incumbent Steffanie Musich in the fifth district, who wasn’t backed by Our Revolution.

After seeing the convention play out the way it did, which included a fistfight between supporters of two third district candidates, Nordyke decided to run himself for district 4. He thought he could bring a measure of calm leadership to a board that seems like it might need it.

Tom Nordyke
Tom Nordyke

And then, later in the summer, he went a step further: Nordyke agreed to join a coalition with six other non-endorsed candidates to enhance all of their chances of prevailing. Announced on Facebook in early September, the coalition includes Nordyke, current Parks Commissioner Meg Forney (who chose not to drop out of the race despite pledging to abide the DFL endorsement), Green Party candidate Billy Menz, Mike Tate (who also declined to drop out after pledging to abide by the endorsement), Abdi “Gurhan” Mohamed, Green Party candidate LaTrisha Vetaw, and incumbent Musich. The coalition has pledged to hold joint fund-raisers — they’ve already held one — and support each other in their own districts.

For Vetaw, an at-large candidate and youth worker from north Minneapolis, the lack of diversity represented by the DFL-endorsed candidates made her decision to join the coalition an easy one. “It just seemed like there was the strong potential for the board to be dominated by white men,” she says from a coffee shop in Longfellow. “It just didn’t look like the Minneapolis I see when I go to the grocery store. I just really like the mix of candidates we have in our coalition. We have a great diversity based on age, gender, race, sexuality. It’s exciting to imagine a board with that type of make-up.”

The coalition has certainly shaken up the race. There is a concern on the side of the Our Revolution candidates that coalition candidates have resources they don’t have, such as campaign funds and volunteers, and connections to the citizen activist group Save Our Minneapolis Parks, which counts more than a few wealthy residents of Kenwood and Linden Hills among its members.

Coalition candidates
Courtesy of LaTrisha Vetaw
Coalition candidates from left to right: Mike Tate, Steffanie Musich, Billy Menz, LaTrisha Vetaw, Abdi “Gurhan” Mohamed, and Commissioner Meg Forney.

It’s certainly something that has caught the attention of DFL/Our Revolution candidate Chris Meyer, who is running in district one. “I got 75 percent of the vote at the convention and was feeling pretty comfortable, but money can swing races like this,” Meyer says in an interview in Dinkytown. “If suddenly my opponent gets a cash infusion from a joint fundraiser, that could be a problem. Money and lawn signs cost a lot.”

How it shakes out in the next three weeks could tell us a lot about Democratic politics over the next three years, locally and nationally, as the promise of a big agenda squares off against assurances of steady, incremental change.

What’s been established already is that this race is different than any Park Board campaign that’s come before. Hogan has noticed in his own efforts. “It used to be that the way you could win a race was by out-loving the parks more than the other person,” he said. “But that’s not enough now. These days you have to provide a vision for how to improve parks and make them more equitable for everyone. It’s not enough just to love the parks. We all love them. That’s not really a platform for growth.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 10/10/2017 - 11:27 am.

    Unfortunately, there’s next to nothing substantive to distinguish the Our Revolution candidates from the Coalition candidates in this article. We learn only that the first group likes Bernie (don’t really know what that means for parks) and is all white men while latter group includes women and people of color.

    None of that helps me decide who to vote for.

    • Submitted by Tony Kelly on 10/10/2017 - 03:23 pm.

      I’d think of it this way…

      … the Our Revolution slate is looking to change the way the board does business, which may be for better or worse. The “Save Our Parks” slate is pretty clearly sponsored by the old guard.

      The old guard came to the DFL convention with perhaps a tad too much smugness – and lost. Now they’re scrambling, but they have a ton of money, and don’t seem to mind undermining the DFL the year before a gubernatorial election whose outcome could have the same effect on state politics as Trump has had in D.C.

    • Submitted by B. Dalager on 10/11/2017 - 02:50 am.

      It’s not even accurate

      There are people of color and non-binary candidates outside of this coalition as well.

    • Submitted by Josh Dibley on 10/11/2017 - 09:43 pm.

      Essentially, the DFL candidates were chosen at the convention because delegates thought they would do the best job at addressing the issues in the Atlantic article.

      The three citywide DFL candidates are Londel French (African American educator), Russ Henry (White organic landscaper), and Devin Hogan (White Queer Transgender person). The article only mentions the Our Revolution endorsement, but all three are also endorsed by Take Action MN, Minnesota Young DFL, State Reps Ilhan Omar and Karen Clark, City Councilor Andrew Johnson, and School Board members Ira Jourdain and Kerry Jo Felder.

      All of the DFL endorsed candidates won on the first ballot. Our Revolution isn’t a conspiracy, these are just the best candidates. Of course they got endorsed.

  2. Submitted by Jon Austin on 10/10/2017 - 11:37 am.

    Hooray for literally grassroots democracy

    I’m 100% fine with a shake-the-trees election at the Parks Board. Just reading this article, it’s clear there’s a wide range of political perspectives, goals, styles and ideas for what the organization can do better and differently. Let a thousand flowers bloom as they said long ago and far away.

    The challenge of the times we live in IMHO is not that we fail to put up qualified candidates but that our electorate is 1) too often disengaged 2) often unable to discern the credible from the charlatans 3) unable to figure out which candidates align with their interests. That’s a bigger and more serious problem than whether the Parks Board is progressive enough.

  3. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/10/2017 - 12:04 pm.

    What about….qualifications?

    What qualifies you to be on the park board besides your ideology? Are there any management skills or experiences, knowledge of urban planning, environmental science, etc….?

    Can we identify between all these candidates who have relevant expertise to bring to this large organization, with a large budget and responsibilities, from people whose only qualification appears to be activism?

  4. Submitted by John Ferman on 10/10/2017 - 12:41 pm.

    At Large Seats

    I got the absentee ballot and discovered that one is actually able to vote for 1 At Large seat. If your first choice meets a threshold you second choice is not counted. If your first choice fails, your second choice is counted and if #2 reaches a threshold your third choice is not counted. If your #2 fails, your #3 is counted. Bottom line is you just get to vote for one At Large seat.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 10/11/2017 - 11:34 am.

      If this is really a significant problem (it isn’t really, statistically speaking, especially considering the benefits), there are only two things to do: file a lawsuit or a charter amendment change to another voting method for multi-seat offices (I’d like to see score voting tried).

  5. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 10/10/2017 - 03:03 pm.

    Battle for the Soul of the Park Board

    I was a delegate at the convention and it’s very interesting that some of these people did not even come to the convention to get endorsement. Some of them wanted the endorsement and when they did not get it then they went against their word of honoring the endorsement. We should not be fooled by the outside of a person. It is the inner person and what they have done which should matter. I know women who are patriarchal and minorities who are conservative. The current park board has not had the courage to ban pesticides and as a chemically sensitive person I know too personally that these pesticides keep those with allergies, asthma and environmental sensitivity, like myself, out of the parks. Russ Henry is an organic landscaper and has the expertise to get rid of them. I like the Our Revolution candidates because I know they will be progressive and will actually get rid of them. Can’t say the same about the incumbents. I like them because they went through 2 endorsement processes. That means people have looked at their overall record. I also have problems with people who go back on their word. Not a good thing. All those people could have gone to Our Revolution to get endorsements and could have decided to run and get endorsements. Some did and some did not. Just because you are a woman or a minority or an incumbent does not mean I would vote for you. You got to prove to me you are best on the issues I care about. I look at people’s records and also their overall progressiveness, too.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/07/2017 - 08:56 am.

      Banning pesticides

      I’m all for the restricted us of these nasty chemicals, but the current park board, IIRC, is already working to phase them out of the highest traffic areas of the parks…I may be incorrect.

      However, an outright ban on some of these things could have huge consequences for our parks. Glyphosate is the best control we have at the moment for buckthorn. What about mosquito control?

      Russ Henry does not have a plan of action…he just wants to ban thing. That’s not a reasonable position.

  6. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 10/10/2017 - 04:02 pm.

    It would have a lot for Our Revolution’s credibility about diversity is they had had the smarts to put up for DFL endorsement candidates that were not all men. Duh. All theory, no practice.

    The rhetoric from Our Revolution is pretty nasty, as well. That doesn’t speak well for how Park Board meetings and operations would go if Our Revolutioh types get elected.

    I like the looks of the cialition candidates, and hope now to give them some money!

    Can MinnPost do an article that more clearly puts candidates issues in the forefront? It’s grand to know that there’s a to-the-death battle going on, but we need more information about what all the candidates think.

  7. Submitted by William Anderson on 10/10/2017 - 04:17 pm.

    It is a significant lapse that Our Revolution is endorsing a white male dominated slate. Awareness of the need for diversity in public office is a fundamental progressive premise, and for good reason. There is a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk, and that should hold also for Our Revolution.

  8. Submitted by Anita Newhouse on 10/19/2017 - 11:56 am.


    What about diversity of thought, that Devan Hogan spoke about? That is one place the citizens of Minneapolis really lose the “I’m all for diversity” argument. The three “Our Rev” (as the article defined them) candidates all bring a new and needed platform to this park board. When people vote negatively out of fear, well we’ve all seen how that ends. That brought us Trump! Do your duty as a citizen and educate your self about the candidates. The three DFL endorsed candidates propose removing the barrier of pesticides from our parks, establishing a solid resource for youth and young adults through wages and training and diversifying the park board workforce and revisioning our parks not just as a system of green spaces, but a system of community resources that is readily equipped to support all communities across Minneapolis. None of those things are, nor should be “scary”. Minneapolis-get over your aversion to change! Growth demands we implement new ideas and that is nothing to fear.

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