In the Minneapolis mayor’s race, candidates fall into two camps. They’re either Betsy Hodges — or they’re not.
The incumbent mayor is not only running in her own right, she’s foremost on the minds — and in the messaging — of her challengers. Such is the nature of re-election efforts.
So while Hodges acknowledges that the city continues to fall short when it comes to racial equity and police-community relations, she has also been making the case for why she deserves a second term, something she’s admitted doesn’t come naturally to her. “It’s funny when you think about it,” Hodges said all the way back at her mid-December campaign kickoff in a south Minneapolis gymnasium. “I have challenged us as a people to brag about our city, because even though we know it’s an amazing city, we don’t brag about ourselves, so no one knows how great we are. But then, you guessed it: as Minnesotan as I am and as, well, female as I am — and as much as I love bragging about Minneapolis — I have sometimes shied away from pointing out my own accomplishments.”
The campaign, she said, “gives me an excuse to tell people everything they got when they voted for me.”
She might as well, since her opponents have been happy to point out what they see as her shortcomings, many using some variation of the question Ronald Reagan (sorry DFLers) told voters to ask themselves in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Said Nekima Levy-Pounds when she became the first declared candidate to challenge Hodges: “It is time out for business as usual.”
“Our city is in the news for all the wrong reasons,” states a headline on one of Jacob Frey’s campaign mailings, a line he repeats at candidate forums.
Former Hennepin Theatre Trust president Tom Hoch criticism of a Hodges-run city is summed up with the single word that appeared on the latest of his many direct mail pieces: “Adrift.”
Even the soft-spoken Raymond Dehn centers his campaign on a message that Hodges doesn’t measure up. “We’re going to have a very frank conversation about whether we want the same people leading our city who jump from crisis to crisis, or if we want new leadership who get out in front of issues,” he said.
Other than Hodges herself, the biggest issues in the race are police-community relations, affordable housing, managing development, and whether to continue efforts to lift lower-income residents with ordinances such as paid sick leave and minimum wages — all of which have a racial equity element.
In all, there are 16 candidates running. Here are the five strongest contenders — and a look at where they stand on the issues.
Lives in: Lyndale
Experience: Mayor, City Council member
Endorsed by: Sierra Club North Star Chapter, Women Winning, SEIU, Clean Water Action, OutFront Action
As mayor, Hodges has been at the center of the day-to-day governing of the city and crises thrust upon it. And she has seen how quickly politics can change around an incumbent. In 2014, for example, a packed council chambers supported her attempts to fend off cuts to her proposed budget. A year later, many of the same residents were assailing her — not only for forcing the end of the occupation of the streets surrounding the Minneapolis Police Department’s fourth precinct, but for suggesting a budget amendment to repair and reinforce the building.
But more than anything, Hodges’ response to the shootings of Jamar Clark in November of 2015 and Justine Damond last July by Minneapolis police officers have defined her first term.
“We have had two awful, tragic officer-involved shootings, we have had organizing and demonstrations around creating more trust,” she said at a forum last week. “We’ve also had violent crime and how important that is for the neighborhoods. What I have been doing is changing the center of gravity away from just public safety as law enforcement toward law enforcement and community working together because that creates more safety and that creates more trust.”
Hodges often speaks about the reforms she and former Chief Janeé Harteau instituted, including the implementation of body-worn cameras, the diversification of the force and the initiation of new police training in implicit bias, procedural justice, and de-escalation. But she has acknowledged that the changes aren’t resonating with many residents.
Hodges seems to have hit a smoother path after forcing Harteau to resign and appointing the city’s first African-American police chief, Medaria Arradondo, in the wake of the Damond shooting. The broad support for “Rondo” in the black community — and by the other candidates — has tempered the conversation about policing.
Hodges often tells forum audiences that she has kept the pledges she made in 2013: to do the basics of government right; to promote growth in the population while maintaining livability and close gaps in outcomes between white people and people of color.
“If we don’t get that right, if we don’t make sure that people of color are completely part of building the city of the future, creating the jobs of the future, taking the jobs of the future, we do not have a future,” she said last week. “People told me that was a risky thing to run on. But the voters were ahead of the political pundits because people were thirsty for that conversation.”
Lives in: Jordan
Experience: State representative, architect
Endorsed by: Our Revolution, Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Young DFL
It is common for political candidates to frame their candidacies around a personal narrative. But Dehn’s political origin story is more compelling than most. As a teenager and young adult, Dehn was addicted to alcohol and drugs and was incarcerated for a burglary.
He credits an opportunity to get into rehab as a turning point for him. Clean and sober for 40 years, he applied for — and received — a full pardon in 1982. After an unsuccessful run for state Senate, he was elected to the state House in 2012 from a district that includes North Minneapolis, Near North, the North Loop and parts of downtown.
Dehn said he recognized that the breaks he got weren’t available to everyone; that because he was white he got second chances that people of color with similar crimes didn’t get then — and don’t get now. “I had an opportunity to turn my life around,” Dehn said at a forum last week. “When I moved back to the Northside in 2000, it became real clear to me that where I had opportunities, other individuals had obstacles.”
He says his campaign is centered on talking about and taking steps to resolve the city’s racial disparities in economic outcomes, health and education. “It’s something that we need to stop talking about and we need to start doing something about it,” he said.
Dehn is the choice of Our Revolution, the organization the evolved out of the Bernie Sanders campaign. That backing helped him come closer than other DFLers to winning the party’s endorsement (in the end, nobody got the 60 percent of delegates required to get its official backing). His positions on issues, especially policing and housing, are slightly to the left of the other candidates; he is the only candidate who has refused to rule out attempting to pass rent control in the city. And his call for disarming the police — only sometimes, he clarified, and in certain situations — drew criticism from both moderates and conservatives.
At forums, Dehn is often outside of the fray. While he makes references to shortcomings in the city, he doesn’t aim them at Hodges directly, and he is rarely the target of the other candidates.
Lives in: Nicollet Island-East Bank
Experience: City council member, attorney
Endorsed by: AFSCME Council 5, Teamsters Joint Council 32, Stonewall DFL Caucus, Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council
When it’s his time to speak at forums and debates, Frey prefers to stand, a way perhaps to better connect with voters or to both display and corral his high energy. A college and professional distance runner, Frey chose to relocate to Minneapolis after graduating from law school. One of his first public actions was organizing the Big Gay Race to benefit an organization opposing the amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.
He challenged incumbent Council Member Diane Hofstede in 2013 and became one of seven new members elected that year, representing a generational change on the council. Frey has said housing was the reason he studied law and the reason he got into politics, and has called for taking a percentage of the property tax growth and setting it aside for affordable housing projects. He also has been a supporter of building affordable housing citywide.
Frey falls into the pro-density camp on the council, noting that more than half of the new units in the city have been or are being built in his Ward 3, which covers parts of both downtown and northeast Minneapolis. He has been a supporter of downtown projects such as Nicollet Mall and the Commons. He portrays himself as an active council member, taking on issues surrounding development and diving into details of ordinances, contrasting that with what he considers Hodges’ unwillingness to do the same.
“People say it’s a weak mayor system,” Frey said. “I’ll tell you what: It’s a weak mayor system; it’s a weak council system; it’s a weak city coordinator system. It’s got an independent park board and school board. The only way you get anything done in our city is by building coalitions … and having a visible and aggressive leader to get the job done.”
Frey is also in the middle of a frequent debate topic at forums: the raising of a citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour. He was among the first on the council to call for a local minimum wage, but said there weren’t the votes when Hodges initially said she opposed the city acting alone.
When Hodges reversed her position a year ago, she also came out against a tip credit, a much-debated aspect of the law. Frey flirted with supporting a tip credit, but ultimately opposed it after it became a DFL litmus test. He did craft a longer phase-in for smaller, non-franchise businesses to help them absorb the wage increases.
Lives in: Hawthorne
Experience: president of the Minneapolis NAACP; University of St. Thomas law school professor
Endorsed by: state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray; City Council Member Cam Gordon; outgoing City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden.
Levy-Pounds revealed her assessment of her campaign last week when she prefaced a tweet featuring a quote from Gandhi with “Politics in Minneapolis”: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Levy-Pounds was a law professor and the president of the Minneapolis NAACP when a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark in November 2015. She soon became one of the leaders of the protests, calling for independent investigations of the death and for reforms of the Minneapolis Police Department.
She said that it was after the city dismantled the encampment that had sprung up around MPD’s Fourth Precinct in the wake of the shooting that she decided to run for mayor. She announced her candidacy in front of the precinct house on the anniversary of the shooting.
“If we agree to roll up our sleeves, if we agree to live out our faith, if we agree to speak truth to power and stand on the front lines and challenge those who are in the seat of power who are complacent, then we can shift the paradigm,” she said at the time.
Policing continues to be a prominent issue in the campaign, and Levy-Pounds has pressed her opponents on the issue. “We allowed the Minneapolis Police Department to get out of control,” she said at a forum last week. “We have elected officials who are running to be the next mayor or to get reelected. But the reality is that on their watch, MPD was abusing people.”
She said she and others have been raising concerns for years, but that it took the death of Clark to get politicians to pay attention — and that it took the death of Damond to get many in wealthier areas of the city to respond.
Levy-Pounds was also an early supporter of the minimum wage ordinance and worked with some of her law students to push for repeal of low-level city crimes — spitting, lurking and loitering — that disproportionately targeted young black men. “Part of my concern had to do with the stress and the pressure and the frustration I felt was building in the African-American community surrounding police harassment,” Levy-Pounds said.
While still identifying with the DFL, Levy-Pounds did not take part in the convention or the endorsing process.
Lives in: Lowry Hill
Experience: President Hennepin Theater Trust, assistant director Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, attorney, teacher
Hoch is the closest thing in the race to a business candidate, mostly because of his role with the Minneapolis Downtown Council (he served as the organization’s chairman in 2016 and it gave him its “Father of Waters” award this year) and the Downtown Improvement District. But Hoch has spent most of his professional life working in government and for nonprofits.
A former school teacher who went back to school to get a law degree, Hoch briefly practiced law before going to work for the City of Minneapolis community development agency and then for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. In 2001, he helped form and became chief executive officer of the Hennepin Theater Trust, which worked to save and then operate three historic theaters.
“I’m not a politician, but I guess I’ve become one because I’m running for mayor,” Hoch told a recent forum sponsored by downtown interest groups. He said that he is focusing his campaign on the future vitality of the city, safe neighborhoods and increasing the availability of affordable housing.
During his kickoff, Hoch said, “Minneapolis has lost its momentum; city projects have stalled, leadership is lacking, serious crime — robbery, rape, murder, violent assault — is escalating and property taxes keep increasing.”
Hoch has also made an issue of the remodeling of Nicollet Mall, something he was directly involved with as chair of the downtown council, so much so that Hodges has often repeated that the $50 million project — paid with state and city money as well as special assessments of downtown property owners — is on time and on budget.
“It’s not the project and the notion that we’re trying to improve our city that I’m talking about,” Hoch said in an interview. “It’s the fact that the city has done a terrible job of communicating to the broader public exactly what is going on there. And putting up a sign that says it will be substantially complete by some date in the future is not enough.”
Hoch was fourth in the DFL endorsement process behind Dehn, Frey and Hodges. Since then, however, he has become something of a target for DFL activists. Campaign contributions he made to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and the House Republican Caucus campaign committee were attacked last week by a group of DFL legislators led by Rep. Ilhan Omar. Hoch has not engaged, however, and continues to wage a campaign with frequent direct mailings and even TV ads.
Of the other 11 candidates, two have notably been able to break into some of the campaign forums. Aswar Rahman is a 23-year-old filmmaker who attended Minneapolis public schools after immigrating from Bangladesh. He has often brought views to the conversation not covered by others, including a fear that the minimum wage would harm minority-owned businesses and that increases in property taxes has contributed to making housing unaffordable.
“Forums like this just wear you down,” Rahman said at a recent downtown business forum, “because you hear the exact rhetoric…the exact same window-dressing solutions to real problems. The neighborhoods I grew up in are less safe now than they ever were. The neighborhoods I grew up in are less affordable and getting less and less affordable. And it has everything to do with how our mayor’s office is operating.”
Al Flowers is an activist from Southeast Minneapolis who has made gun violence and the lack of economic opportunity among people of color his primary issues. “The biggest issue in this city is about people dying,” Flowers said at a forum on business and the economy where he was the sole candidate to say he wasn’t seeking business support. “Business is being taken care of by city hall and the city council,” he said. “I’m going after the people who are stressed and undergoing equity concerns.”