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Who’s who in Minneapolis’ most politically diverse city council race

The race to replace Jacob Frey in Ward 3 features four candidates, including two DFLers, one Green Party candidate, and a member of the Socialist Alternative movement. 

DFLer Steve Fletcher, Green Samantha Pree-Stinson and Socialist Alternative Ginger Jentzen participated in a Ward 3 candidate forum.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It might cover more of the political spectrum than any other Minneapolis City Council contest.

The race to replace Jacob Frey on the Minneapolis City Council from Ward 3, an area that straddles the Mississippi River and includes much of downtown and some of the city’s fastest developing neighborhoods, features four active candidates representing views that range from a moderate, business-oriented DFLer (Tim Bildsoe) to a member of the Socialist Alternative movement (Ginger Jentzen). In between is a progressive DFL-endorsed candidate (Steve Fletcher) and a Green Party endorsed candidate (Samantha Pree-Stinson).

It also features one of the more interesting political dynamics. While Fletcher has a clear advantage in being the DFL-endorsed candidate in a DFL-dominated ward, it might be Jentzen who is driving the messaging of the race.

Jentzen, best known for managing the successful campaign for the Minneapolis $15 minimum wage ordinance, is focused on condemning what she sees the domination of city politics by corporations and developers. (Her campaign slogan:  “Not for sale.”) Jentzen said she will represent working people who are underrepresented by “a for-profit, developer-driven agenda in city hall,” and has advocated for rent control and new taxes on developers and corporate executives in order to build affordable housing.

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The “Not for sale” slogan, however, carries with it the insinuation that the other candidates are for sale, which has led the other candidates to respond. Fletcher — who’s been endorsed not just by the city DFL but by the Bernie Sanders inspired Our Revolution as well as Take Action MN and most of the city’s labor unions — has been forced to deny that he’s funded by business while also rejecting the premise of the allegation.

“I think it’s a little bit weird to single developers out as some particularly worrisome group of investors or some particularly corrupting force,” he said at a recent candidate forum. “For us, to build the housing we need to build, we need private developers doing what they do. It’s actually a service to our community. It’s actually very important.”

Fletcher said while he has met with developers to talk about housing, he said they haven’t contributed to his campaign, perhaps because he supports green space requirements and inclusionary zoning that would require affordable housing elements in any new market housing project.

Fletcher said he understands the politics of the message, though. “Ginger’s campaign only makes sense if they have a straw man,” he said in an interview. “Ginger has to convince voters they’re socialists, and I have to remind them that they’re DFLers.”

For all that though, in public forums it’s often Green Party candidate Samantha Pree-Stinson who takes on Jentzen most directly. Pree-Stinson has objected to Jentzen’s use of the “Not for sale” slogan because it carries allusions to the slave trade, she says.

Minneapolis Ward Three

“The race has been pretty civil pretty much the whole time until recently, when that messaging started coming out, and the whole ‘I’m not bought and I’m not sold’ and the real racial ties that phrase has,” Pree-Stinson said during an interview. “It’s not appropriate to say that, whether there’s a person of color running or not.”

Pree-Stinson has also pushed back against Jentzen’s call for rent control, saying it has not worked in the cities where it has been tried, and argues that the suggestion that she and Fletcher are taking “dark money” is untrue.

‘We don’t need to be worried about left and right’

Pree-Stinson is a 20-year resident of Minneapolis, a U.S. Army veteran (she served as a combat medic in Afghanistan) and the mother of three children in Minneapolis public schools, including a senior at Edison High School.

In January, she left her job at Medtronic, where she had been a compliance auditor and helped to recruit and retain women and people of color, to run for city council. But she says she had become disillusioned with the DFL, despite being the vice chair for the party in her state Senate district, because, “I didn’t feel they matched my values anymore.”

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“If we want to have a reflective democracy, then you have to have an equity metric that conducts outreach to attract and retain and develop candidates of color so they can run and win,” she said. “And that wasn’t something anyone was willing to work on.”

Pree-Stinson, who’s been endorsed by the Minneapolis Firefighters 82, said she was attracted to the Green Party because it’s four pillars — grassroots democracy, social justice and equal opportunity, ecological wisdom and nonviolence — match hers. That said, Pree-Stinson said party labels shouldn’t matter. “We don’t need to be worried about left and right politics in Minneapolis. That’s what got us here. That’s the problem.”

Pree-Stinson has said she would have delayed this year’s council vote on the minimum wage until after the election. The timing of that vote was central to the strategy by Jentzen and other backers of the measure: a way to pressure council members running for reelection — and mayor — to support the measure in the run-up to the DFL endorsement process. That strategy skewed how council members looked at the issue, Pree-Stinson said, and made them unable to look at how the increases might harm small businesses.

“These aren’t rich people,” she said of the small business people and restaurant owners. “The only thing they can do is raise their prices and that could mean their business could slow up.” Of low-income workers, she said she fears they may be the first people to suffer if the wage increases aren’t implemented right.

Pree-Stinson said she thinks one answer to the problem of low-wage jobs is to begin to build a Green economy and to make sure people receive the education and training they need to fill new economy jobs.

Part of a ‘new wave’ of DFL candidates

Fletcher, who graduated from St. Louis Park High School, started a video production company in the Warehouse District in the 1990s and later graduated from the University of Minnesota and got a masters degree in Urban Studies from New York University.

While in New York, Fletcher joined a strike of graduate assistants, an experience that gave him his first taste of organizing. Now living in Downtown East, he was the founding executive director of Neighbors Organizing for Change and later ran the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020. Earlier this year, he won a close race for the Ward 3 DFL endorsement over Cordelia Pierson. That endorsement not only gives the winner the party’s imprimatur; it also means access to the list of DFL voters and activists, which can be used for fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Fletcher said he identifies himself as part of a “new wave” of DFL candidates. “If you look at the new people who have been endorsed by the DFL this year you can see a real response to a rising call for urgency around some of the core values that we haven’t always delivered on.” He said that if he is elected, he will focus on what he calls “unfinished work.”

“We have built a lot of housing,” he said. “We haven’t built the transportation that’s going to help us keep up with that new density. We have invited a lot of people into downtown, but we have really failed to apply an equity lens in a lot of ways that retains the economic and racial diversity of the city.”

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The Socialist Alternative alternative

Jentzen attended high school in Duluth and gravitated to the Twin Cities after graduating from Colorado College, just as the Great Recession was beginning. While working in a group home for the developmentally disabled, Jentzen started going to the Legislature to advocate for better funding. She said she became disillusioned with traditional party politics when it was difficult to win support for the funding despite the Legislature being controlled by DFLers.

“That was part of what got me more interested in independent politics and organizing with working people to fundamentally change our position in society,” she said.

She began working on the $15 minimum wage at a time when backers were told it was probably illegal and definitely a political long-shot. She notes that rent control suffers from the same two liabilities — but could also pass.

Jentzen has patterned her campaign after that of Kshama Sawant, who ran for and won a council seat in Seattle as a Socialist Alternative candidate, the first socialist council member in the city since 1916. Sawant has attended fundraising events for Jentzen, while the Socialist Alternative affiliation has created a national fundraising base for the candidate, with three-quarters of her $60,000 raised from out of state donors (as of the last disclosure report on Aug. 1). A bartender in Brooklyn, NY has even named a drink after Jentzen: vodka and ginger beer.

Like Fletcher, Jentzen has the endorsement of Our Revolution Twin Cities, but also of the Minnesota Nurses Association and the state Communications Workers of America.

Jentzen sees her campaign as part of a national movement and wants to show that Sawant’s win in Seattle wasn’t a fluke. Her campaign has drawn the attention of local business interests, who have used her and her positions to raise money to counter what it terms as a leftward tilt of the council.

“If you thought it was impossible for a committed Socialist to run on a platform of Rent Control and establishing a municipal income tax to pay for social engineering … Meet: Ginger Jentzen,” wrote developer and former City Council Member Steve Minn in a fundraising email for Minneapolis Works, a political committee registered in June to “serve as a vehicle for the city's business community to come together to have a meaningful impact on the 2017 election,” according to an invitation sent to donors. 

Candidate pothole

Tim Bildsoe

Ironically, the candidate who is actually accepting support from developers and downtown, who might be the perfect foil for Jentzen, is barely ever mentioned by her. Perhaps because he hasn’t been a frequent attendee of campaign forums in the ward or perhaps because Fletcher is considered the more viable candidate. But more than anyone it’s Tim Bildsoe who is benefiting from direct mail sponsored by Minneapolis Works.

Bildsoe is the president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association and works for a unit of Wells Fargo that was recently sold. He also is one of two civilian members of the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which recently was criticised for how it responds to cops convicted of domestic violence crimes.

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Bildsoe said he moved to the city two and a half years ago from Plymouth, where he served four terms on the city council. Bildsoe had just decided to get into the race prior to the city DFL convention and did not seek the Ward 3 endorsement, something he acknowledges he wouldn’t have received anyway.

In his role with the neighborhood association, Bildsoe said he asked when roads in the North Loop were set for repairs. When he found out they weren’t on the city schedule, he helped to change that: One street has already been rebuilt and others are now set to be repaired over the next several years.

That episode, he said, illustrates his campaign message — getting the city to focus on safety, supporting small businesses, ensuring pedestrian and bicycle safety and delivering basic services. One of his campaign mailers prominently displays a water-filled pothole. “That’s what local government is all about, solving people’s problems,” he said. “It’s a customer service job.”

Bildsoe says he frequently hears questions about parking and public safety, though voters will also wonder why the meters in front of their houses are enforced so late or why there isn’t a crosswalk at their intersection.

Bildsoe said he wants to look for a way to have police officers live in the neighborhoods they patrol. “I don’t know how you understand what goes on in the neighborhood unless you live in the community.”

And he said the recent audit of body camera use showed a management issue, that supervisors need to make sure officers are following the camera use rules.

Bildsoe hadn’t raised much money prior to the August 1 report (just $3,500) including $600 from Minn and $250 from the Minneapolis Downtown Council PAC. He said his fundraising has gone well since then and will make a full report at the next deadline, Oct. 31.

He is one of the candidates being helped by another new committee, Friends of the Warehouse District, which includes people who were active in the failed effort to include a tip credit in the city minimum wage ordinance. He said he would have supported a tip credit and didn’t favor Minneapolis acting alone on a $15 minimum wage, preferring a region-wide approach.

“Minneapolis doesn’t play well with its suburbs,” Bildsoe said. “I’d start reaching out to other cities.”