Residents of Brooklyn Park, the fourth-largest city in the Twin Cities metro area, are a month away from electing the first Black mayor in the city’s history — regardless of who wins the Nov. 8 election.
After serving for just one year, current Brooklyn Park Mayor Lisa Jacobson is stepping down after her term ends later this year. Jacobson won the special election for the seat last August after former mayor Jeff Lunde resigned to become a Hennepin County Commissioner.
Vying to replace Jacobson are Wynfred Russell, a current Brooklyn Park Council member, and Hollies Winston, a business owner and former city budget commissioner. Both list addressing crime as a top priority, but their proposed approaches provide a stark contrast for voters to choose between.
Wynfred Russell was born and raised in Liberia, moving to the U.S. to escape violence during the civil war. He’s lived in Brooklyn Park for 20 years, serving on several commissions before eventually being elected to the City Council in 2018 – the first Black person to hold a seat in the city’s history.
Nearly 60% of Brooklyn Park’s residents are people of color, and a quarter of all residents are foreign-born, according to Minnesota Compass. Russell, noticing disparities between African immigrants and the rest of the community, founded African Career, Education and Resources, a community organization aimed at closing gaps in economic equity.
Russell taught and did research related to public health at the University of Minnesota, including two years with the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) headed by Michael Osterholm.
He returned to his native Liberia years later as the leader of an 18-person team sent to help respond to the Ebola virus outbreak. Shortly after, he was sent to Nigeria for a couple years to help contain a polio outbreak before coming back to the U.S.
Russell said his public health background has informed his time on the council, the policies he has crafted and issues he has advocated for. That has included increasing bike lanes and improving trails to promote physical activity, as well as addressing social determinants of health like housing and economic stability.
Hollies Winston got his political science degree from Northwestern University and started his own business as a personal trainer before going back to school and getting a Master of Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. From there he worked for several Fortune 500 companies, while volunteering for different political and community organizations.
Winston started a youth mentorship program, and later, a company called Guaranteed America that advocates on the behalf of small business owners. The company helps oversee an $18 million fund that helps fund small businesses owned by women, veterans, and people of color.
In describing his family history, Winston said his grandparents escaped racial violence in the Jim Crow South and moved to Chicago, where his parents were afforded opportunities to go to good schools, go to college and have successful careers. He said he looked around Brooklyn Park and didn’t see those same opportunities for his kids, prompting him to run for office to change that.
“Knowing that I’m the recipient of people having these opportunities and taking advantage of them, I feel that these next generations should have the same opportunities and Brooklyn Park just isn’t offering those opportunities,” he said.
Same problem, different approaches
Brooklyn Park has not reported a major increase in crime in recent years, according to city data published on its crime dashboard. However, crime has emerged as a major election topic with both candidates describing it as one of the biggest issues facing the city right now, echoing concerns of residents and officials in cities all over the metro area.
Russell said part of the solution is complete support and adequate resources for crime prevention efforts for the city’s police department, which just appointed its new police chief in August in Mark Bruley, an officer with the department since 1995.
“Brooklyn Park Police is not Minneapolis Police, it is not Brooklyn Center Police,” he said. “We have a fine police department that is well-run, that is well-resourced, and we just need to give them support for them to be able to do the work that they do to prevent crime that is coming to Brooklyn Park.”
Another component of supporting law enforcement, he said, is looking at how offenders are prosecuted: In order to prevent people who commit crimes from being released with a “slap on the wrist,” only to come out and commit more crimes, prosecution strategy needs to be reformed, he said.
While both candidates agree that the city’s youth need more programming, Russell’s opponent Winston said he can advocate for how he thinks offenders should be prosecuted but as mayor that’s beyond his purview. The mayor’s focus should instead be on the relationship between residents and police officers as the solution to crime prevention.
He said he helped set up a program at one of the largest housing complexes in the city that advocates on behalf of residents. Police come by once a week to have events with the youth that live there and build a rapport with the residents there.
As mayor, Russell said he would provide more funding for models like that, so residents can be comfortable going to police with crime trends that they’ve noticed that the officers can then act on.
“It’s not as easy as just setting up youth programming,” he said. “But you have to have trusted leaders in the community that children and their families trust to help connect them to those various youth resources.”
Winston said he thinks the city being able to elect a Black mayor shows him that democracy is working in Brooklyn Park. A city with a big portion of residents that are of African descent can elect a mayor that looks like them but to win, the candidate has to represent the interests of all of the city’s residents.
“It means that the community is able to rally around someone they believe should be mayor, and that person happens to just represent a large part of the community by ethnicity, but their values represent most of the city,” he said. “I think that would be the historic nature of it.”
Russell, who was the first Black person elected to the City Council, said he recognizes the significance of potentially becoming the city’s first Black mayor. But he stressed that this barrier shouldn’t be broken just for the sake of breaking the barrier.
“What is critically important is for us to not just see it as some sort of novelty,” he said. “It’s not about just electing a Black person but electing a Black person who has the experience to do the work.”