Incumbents vs. insurgents: a look at the seven races that could dramatically alter the Minneapolis City Council

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minneapolis City Council

Four years ago, the Minneapolis City Council elections produced generational change and a majority of first-term members. Might the 2017 election do the same?

In 2013, the election produced seven new council members:  Jacob Frey in Ward 3, Blong Yang in Ward 5, Abdi Warsame in Ward 6, Alondra Cano in Ward 9, Lisa Bender in Ward 10, Andrew Johnson in Ward 12 and Linea Palmisano in Ward 13.

This year, another group of challengers is taking on seven sitting council members, four of whom welcomed the last batch of insurgents in 2013. All of the challengers come from within the DFL, and most are running on positions that are to the left of the current members. 

The election of even a few would alter the political dynamics of a council, perhaps leading to a new council president and a change in key committee chairs.

While many of the challengers have the support of Our Revolution Twin Cities, the group that sprang out of the grass-roots success of the Bernie Sanders for President campaign, they were active well before the 2016 campaign on issues ranging from economic and racial equity to LGBT rights and bike infrastructure. Several say their campaigns represent a next step after the protests following the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and a successful push for a $15 minimum wage. 

The current council adopted a paid sick and safe leave ordinance; the state’s first local-only minimum wage; and the repeal of spitting and loitering ordinances disproportionately used to arrest black men. But there were times — especially on budget matters — when the council’s more-progressive wing lost to what might be described as council moderates. The challengers want to change those votes.

Here are the races where incumbent council members are most threatened. 

Ward 1

Jillia Pessenda split the vote with incumbent Kevin Reich at the DFL ward convention, so although she didn’t reach the 60 percent threshold for endorsement, neither did he — something he’d done in 2013 and 2009. (Also running is independent candidate John Hayden.) Reich, who chairs the council’s transportation and public works committee, is one of the candidates being helped by Minneapolis Works!, the independent committee set up by Minneapolis business interests. He is also being supported by SEIU Minnesota, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, Minneapolis Firefighters Local 82 and the Laborers Union. 

Pessenda has been endorsed by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Our Revolution, TakeAction Minnesota, the DFL Environmental Caucus and AFSCME Local 5.

The endorsements tend to reveal the divide within the Minneapolis DFL: The incumbents generally received the backing of public employees unions while the challengers were the choice of Our Revolution and TakeAction, an umbrella organization of progressive groups.

Hayden has been a leader of No Labels Minnesota, which promotes bipartisan solutions to issues.

Ward 4

If there is a single incumbent that personifies the current council, at least in the eyes of the new crop of challengers, it is Council President Barbara Johnson. First elected to council in 1997 and to council president in 2006, Johnson presides over council meetings and makes appointments to council committees and other bodies. To groups like Our Revolution, she is seen as being not progressive, or not progressive enough, and defeating her would assure that there is a new council president in 2018.

Johnson was denied the DFL endorsement, something she has received in the past, due to the campaigns of two DFL challengers. Phillipe Cunningham took a leave of absence from the staff of Mayor Betsy Hodges to run and is endorsed by Our Revolution, Stonewall DFL caucus, Sierra Club and the National Center for Transgender Equity.

Stephanie Gasca is the communications director for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) and was active in the campaigns to pass the paid leave and minimum wages ordinances. She was also a member of the city task force that drafted the paid leave ordinance. She has been endorsed by Our Revolution and TakeAction Minnesota.

Johnson, however, has lots of support from some well-known DFL constituency groups, including the Minnesota Nurses Association, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, AFSCME Council 5 and Women Winning. And she has been endorsed by both Gov. Mark Dayton and former Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Libertarian Dana Hansen is also on the ballot.

Ward 5

Blong Yang told MinnPost three years that he wasn’t shy about being the lone no vote on council issues. “I might not be the person who will go along to get along,” he said in 2014.

And if he wasn’t already a target of a challenge from the left, he became one when he was the sole vote against the city minimum wage, something he feared would hurt small businesses in his ward.

Yang, the council’s first Hmong-American and the chair of the public safety, civil rights and emergency management committee, has the support of organized labor, including the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, AFSCME Council 5 as well as the city laborers and firefighters unions.

The DFL-endorsed candidate in the race is Jeremiah Ellison, an artist and organizer who is another veteran of the protests the emerged in the wake of Clark’s death. He has also been endorsed by Neighborhoods Organizing for change and Our Revolution, the DFL Environmental Caucus, Minnesota Nurses and SEIU.

Raeisha Williams was the communications director of the Minneapolis NAACP during the organizing and protests following the death of Jamar Clark. Along with mayoral candidate and former NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds, Williams choose not to seek the DFL endorsement. She has been endorsed by Women Winning. 

Another DFL candidate, Cathy Spann, is also on the ballot. She is the executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council.

2013 seven new council members
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
In 2013, the election produced seven new council members, including Alondra Cano, Andrew Johnson, Linea Palmisano, Blong Yang, Jacob Frey and Lisa Bender. Not pictured: Abdi Warsame.

Ward 6

This is one of two races that don’t fit the pattern of the others, which has as much to do with Somali community politics as it does with ideology or generational differences. Incumbent Abdi Warsame is the first Somali-American to serve on the council and won the DFL endorsement. He is being challenged by his sometime rival and sometime ally Mohamud Noor, who boycotted the endorsement process.

Warsame supported state Rep. Phyllis Kahn when she was unsuccessfully challenged by Noor in 2014. But when Noor was a candidate in 2016 against Ilhan Omar, Warsame supported Noor. Now they are facing off against each other. 

While these dynamics are unique to the ward, Warsame and Noor have split the endorsements along the same lines as the other ward races. Warsame has the major unions, including public employees unions, while Noor is the choice of Our Revolution, TakeAction Minnesota as well as Out Front Action. 

Another candidate, Fadumo Yusuf, is a Republican-endorsed candidate.

Ward 7

Lisa Goodman has represented the ward since 1997 and recieved the DFL endorsement in 2009 and 2013, in fact every time she has run for the seat.  This election, however, Goodman was denied the party endorsement by fellow DFLer Janne Flisrand, who is running to Goodman’s left, saying the ward needs new leadership.

The distribution of interest group endorsements is a familiar one. Goodman, who chairs the council’s community development and regulatory services committee, has organized labor along with Women Winning. Flisrand has the progressive organizations including Our Revolution, OutFront Action, TakeAction Minnesota, Minnesota Young DFL and the DFL environmental caucus. 

Another candidate, Teqen Zea-Aida is a gallery owner and business person. Joe Kovacs is the endorsed Republican in Ward 7.

Ward 9

This is another contested council race that doesn’t fit the pattern of many of the others. Alondra Cano was elected in 2013 in a close race and is one of the council’s most progressive members. She won a tough fight for the city DFL endorsement, helped by the walkout of rival Mohamed Farah, the executive director of Ka Joog, which offers outreach and services to Somali-American youth and families.

Farah stayed in the race, however, as did the person who served the ward prior to Cano’s election, Gary Schiff. He gave up the seat for a run for mayor in 2013.

Cano has the bulk of the DFL endorsements — Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Our Revolution, SEIU, OutFront Action, TakeAction Minnesota, the Minnesota Nurses Association, Women Winning and the firefighters union.

Farah has the support of AFSCME Council 5, the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council and the city laborers union Local 363. Schiff won the support of Stonewall DFL caucus, UNITE HERE Local 15 and the Teamsters Joint Council 32.

Ronald W. Peterson is running as a Republican.

Ward 11

John Quincy, a two-term incumbent, is the DFL majority leader in council (which is nominally nonpartisan but has adopted a party system for organizational purposes) and the chair of the Ways and Means Committee. His two opponents — Erica Mauter and Jeremy Schroeder — say Quincy, like other incumbents, is not progressive enough on issues such as equity and housing. 

Quincy has the endorsements of most of the major unions: AFSCME Council 5, SEIU, their regional labor federation and the Minnesota Nurses, as well as the Stonewall DFL caucus.

Schroeder, the policy director for the Minnesota Housing Partnership and a former executive director of Common Cause, and Mauter, a trained engineer who now works as the executive director of the Twin Cities Women’s Choir, have shared or split-up the progressive endorsements. They are both endorsed by Our Revolution, both endorsed by the DFL Environmental caucus, both are endorsed by the Sierra Club. Mauter has the support of TakeAction Minnesota and OutFront Action and Women Winning. Schroeder has also been endorsed by the city’s firefighters union.

Correction: This story has been corrected to remove endorsements credited to Black Lives Matter. The official Minnepolis chapter has not endorsed any candidates.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 11/07/2017 - 08:14 am.

    Ward map please

    To me it helps to visualize where these wards are located. That also says a lot about each ward’s demographics and issues.

    Here’s the link to the Minneapolis city website with ward boundaries:

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/07/2017 - 11:04 am.


      Reading this with a map handy was really helpful. Minnpost – you guys should include ward maps in the future.

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