The 5 most important local government stories of 2017 that you probably already forgot

In 2017, new mayors were elected in Minneapolis and St. Paul; five new members were elected to the Minneapolis City Council; St. Paul approved a plan for the Ford site; Minneapolis got a new Nicollet Mall; a new professional soccer team began play; and Southwest LRT faced new roadblocks (walls even).

Those were some of the big headlines when it came to local government in the Twin Cities this year. But even that list leaves out a lot of people, issues and ideas that had a big impact. So here are five other important stories that happened in local government and politics that you’ve probably already forgotten about. 

1. Jacob Frey ran for Congress
It was about the time when Jacob Frey and Mayor Betsy Hodges really started to dislike each other that there appeared a listing on a left-leaning job board looking to staff for something called “Draft Jacob Frey for Congress.” But Frey wasn’t running for Congress. He was running for mayor … against Hodges. So why was someone hiring staff for another race? Well, they weren’t. The fake job posting, it turned out, was created by people within Hodges’ campaign staff as a joke (or a dirty trick, depending on who was talking). According to Hodges’ then-campaign manager Jorge Contreras, it was an unnamed “intern” who did the deed and Hodges quickly went to Facebook to apologize.

But what was the point? Frey argued at the time that it was meant to play into the narrative by some of his opponents that he was overly ambitious and that, even if he became mayor, his eyes would soon be set on something else. We’ll see. In January, Frey will be sworn as Minneapolis’ next mayor. 

2. The DFL tried to endorse a mayoral candidate
Before they can start campaigning among the regular (and relatively numerous) voters of their respective cities, candidates for mayor of St. Paul and Minneapolis have to narrow their focus on the irregular (and relatively limited) delegates to DFL nominating conventions. So while tens of thousands of voters who would make the final decision in November, candidates had to spend the first four or five months of the year worrying about tens of 100s DFLers. Is this where we mention that the offices in both cities are technically nonpartisan?

In the end — after a process that involved precinct caucuses, ward conventions and a city DFL convention — no one collected the 60 percent vote needed. The four candidates in each city who were seeking the endorsement at least prevented their opponents from getting it. And while the party’s resources were available to all DFL-declared candidates in the election, insiders’ hopes of having an outsized influence on the next mayor in either or both cities were dashed, leaving voters to somehow fend for themselves. All which encouraged a movement, particularly among younger and newly engaged party members, to deemphasize caucuses as a means of expressing party support for candidates in favor of primaries.

3. CTIB killed CTIB
Was it CEE-Tib or Keh-Tib? No matter, since the obscure agency — which collected sales taxes in five metro counties to spend on mass transit projects like light rail and bus rapid transit — is no more.

CTIB stood for Counties Transit Improvement Board, and it was made up of elected commissioners from the five counties. It borrowed staff from the counties (mostly Hennepin) and it met monthly or so in front of an audience mostly consisting of city, county, Met Council and state staff members.

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin
Courtesy of Brian Schekleton
Commissioner Peter McLaughlin holding what is certain to be a collector’s item: a coffee mug from the now-defunct Counties Transit Improvement Board.

You can’t get much more mundane than that. All CTIB did in its nearly decade of life was collect and spend more than $1 billion to build and operate transit lines in all five counties and attract $1.5 billion in federal matching grants — money that went toward building Metro Transit’s Blue Line, Green Line, Red Line and Northstar Commuter Rail. It also paid for the planning of additional lines that could still be built over the next decade.

In keeping with the complexity of its creation and existence, the body spent much of the spring working on a convoluted plan to disappear. Dakota County had decided to pull out, and — due to a quirk of state law — the remaining four counties realized they could actually get more revenue acting alone. 

The increased revenue will allow Hennepin and Ramsey counties to replace disappearing state funds, and be the only source of non-federal money for future transit lines, such as Southwest LRT, the Bottineau extension of the Blue Line, and the Riverview Corridor streetcar. And in Washington County, the money is expected to be enough to build the Gold Line bus rapid transit line into St. Paul. 

4. Dai Thao got investigated
It is always a little dicey when current elected officials run for another office. While they are not permitted to get anything of value from people doing business with the government, it is legal (expected even) to get campaign contributions from those same people.

That was the stage for an odd saga that began with a meeting between St. Paul Council Member Dai Thao and a lobbyist and her clients. The subject was a pending ban on restaurant carry-out containers that aren’t compostable. The lobbyist’s clients make some of the material that was at-risk of being banned.

The meeting was set up through Thao’s campaign manager’s Facebook messenger account, not his council office. And the lobbyist, Sarah Clarke, explained that it could be an issue in the mayor’s race, and that she would also be talking to the other leading candidates in St. Paul, including Pat Harris and Melvin Carter.  

At the end of the meeting, Thao made a pitch for “resources” for his campaign. His campaign aide, Angela Marlow, then followed up with another donation request that included a line that would later cause a lot of eyebrow-raising. Thao, she wrote, was willing to “rethink this issue.” That led to news media reports portraying the emails as a solicitation for a contribution in exchange for a vote on the council.

In the end, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Scott County attorney decided the facts hadn’t met the test of bribery and chose not to charge Thao.

But the BCA report gave a glimpse into the unvarnished underside of Twin Cities politics. Marlow  — who Thao fired from her unpaid job when news of the mini-scandal broke — said Thao suspected dirty tricks in the incident.

In her interview with the BCA, Marlow said that, “Dai firmly believes that Sarah Clarke set me up as a new, naive campaign manager so that Melvin Carter has this story to tell when Dai begins to win, which is sort of what happened …”

Later, Marlow explained the complicated politics involved, at least as Thao saw it, to the BCA agents: “We’ve now connected the dots that Jacob Frey has endorsed Melvin Carter, who is Dai’s biggest opponent, right. … The black man against the Hmong guy … and then we have the white banker … So everybody believes, right, these two are canceling each other’s votes out and … Pat Harris is over here is the white guy that maybe he’ll win the actual election.”

Clarke, Frey and Carter strenuously denied any collusion. And there is nothing in the BCA report that gets anywhere close to connecting those dots. In fact, Clarke told the BCA that she hadn’t wanted to tell the news media about the story, but was betrayed by someone she told in confidence. But it does show how intertwined the politics of the two races became. Marlow, in the email to Clarke about rethinking the issue, also wrote: “We are happy to support Jacob in his mayor run as well.”

Frey won without a Thao endorsement. And Carter won easily and by such a large margin that even if Thao was damaged by the investigation, it might not have mattered.

And though Marlow did what Thao asked her in the aftermath of the meeting with Clarke, he later decided to publicly blame her “inexperience” for the entire episode, she said, in the hopes that it would fade away. It didn’t. And then it did.

5. The rise of the minimum-wage issue
When the Minneapolis minimum wage was finally approved last summer, it seemed inevitable, with the near-unanimous vote by the city council anticlimactic. After all, the details of the plan had been endorsed by a majority of council members months before.

All of which made it easy to forget that when the protests and demonstrations about a city-only minimum wage began nearly three years before, it was the longest of long-shot issues.

So what happened? Credit goes to activists who were encouraged by the success of the issue elsewhere and given financial help from national labor organizations. They wouldn’t take any excuses for non-action from DFL politicians, especially any that claimed the city’s economy would suffer if it acted on its own while bordering cities did not.

Still, it took a signature-gathering campaign to change the dynamics in city hall. While that attempt — to amend the city charter to create a local minimum wage — was ruled illegal by the state supreme court, the elected officials could read the polls — and feel the pressure. They found ways to change their positions, especially in an election year when the city’s DFL endorsing conventions were approaching.

That didn’t mean there was a lack of process Economic studies commissioned. Listening sessions were held throughout the city. Ordinances were drafted and finally presented. A six-hour public hearing was conducted. But any push to amend what activists had originally wanted — especially on the issue of letting tips be counted as part of a worker’s hourly wage for the purposes of the law — were brushed aside.

Earlier this month, the first court test of the law was won by the city. And though the wage will be implemented over several years, the first raises come Jan. 1.

Now the issue moves to St. Paul, where the new mayor and a majority of the council have expressed support. 

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