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The wrath of Kahn? Why Minneapolis City Council members will have to run for two-year terms in 2021

The so-called Kahn Rule, named after former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, requires Minneapolis to hold elections soon after the census-driven redistricting of City Council wards, and it changes a fundamental feature of city politics: that all city offices are on the ballot at the same time.

MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
The provision requires Minneapolis to hold elections soon after census-driven redistricting of council wards.
When the law passed a decade ago, its implications were so far off in the future that it was barely noticed. 

But now the effects of the so-called Kahn Rule are just two years away — and the 13 incumbent members of the Minneapolis City Council are facing a 2021 election in which they will be forced to run for two-year terms instead of four. 

And without further changes to state law, council elections would then be decoupled from mayor elections, even after the council returns to four-year terms.

The provision, named for former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, requires Minneapolis to hold elections soon after census-driven redistricting of council wards. Kahn pushed for the change in response to the 2000 census and 2001 redistricting, which resulted in Minneapolis council members serving three years in wards that had changed — sometimes considerably — since they had last won their seats. That left some voters in the new wards waiting until 2005 to elect a council member who represented them.

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“Redistricting, particularly when there’s been a lot of movement and change in districts, means you have to have a new election to elect new people,” Kahn said last week. “The changes in population should be honored.”

So in 2010, Kahn introduced House File 653, which stated that when such a scenario happened again, “in a city of the first class where council members are elected by ward to serve for four years to terms that are not staggered,” an election must be held in years ending in “2” or “3,” even if that isn’t the regular schedule of elections. The Senate vote was 62-0 in favor, the House 117-16, with most of the no votes coming from Republicans.

Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
While the provision was aimed at addressing elections in Minneapolis, the language appears to also apply to St. Paul, though the city wouldn’t be affected by the law until after the 2030 census.

The new law wasn’t triggered after the 2010 census, since Minneapolis was already set to hold elections in 2013. But the provision will kick in following the 2020 census. In 2021, Minneapolis will elect council members from it current wards — but only for two-year terms. Then, in 2023, another election would be held for four-year terms representing the city’s new wards. That will be followed by another election for the same term length in 2027.

The system is not dissimilar to the one in place for the election of Minnesota state senators. In 2020, members of the Legislature’s upper chamber will be running for two-year terms. Then, in 2022 — after the state has been redistricted to accommodate changes in population — elections in the new districts will be for four-year terms. State House members run every two years anyway so their schedule isn’t disrupted by redistricting.

“The Legislature does it right,” Kahn said.

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But the current scenario would change a fundamental feature of Minneapolis city politics: that all city offices are on the ballot at the same time, including the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation. If council members are elected to a four-year term in 2023, however, they would no longer be on the same ballot as the mayor and the other offices in 2025.

There are three options facing the city, none of them especially attractive to city officials.

  • Live with it. The city could stand pat, holding its council election for two-year terms in 2021 while the mayoral election that year would be for a regular four-year term. Then, in 2023, council elections would be back on the ballot for a four-year term, while the mayor would be on the ballot in 2025 for a four-year term.
  • Try to reverse it. The city could ask the Legislature to overturn the Kahn Rule completely and go back to the days when it could stay on its current election cycle. The problem: that idea was shopped informally to lawmakers during the 2019 session, and it went nowhere. 
  • Double up. It could ask the Legislature to let the council run for two-year terms in both 2021 and 2023 and then return to four year terms along with the mayor in 2025. That would get all city officials back on the same ballot, but it would also require three council elections over four years — in 2021, 2023 and 2025 — at additional expense for both the city and candidates.

On Monday, City Clerk Casey Carl sent a message to council members on the issue. “In order to assure a shared baseline of awareness about this statute, I will be organizing a series of briefings for policymakers in the next two weeks,” Carl wrote. “My goal is to provide a high-level summary of the statute and its requirements, the practical affect on Council Members, and strategies for addressing these challenges (including potential amendment).”

A series of meetings rather than a single briefing would allow the sessions to avoid the requirements of state open meetings laws.

Council President Lisa Bender said she wasn’t aware of this pending problem until after winning her second term and becoming the leader of the council in 2018. Since then, city staff and council members have been studying what it could do to avoid what she sees and the least desirable scenario: having the mayor elected in one election and council people two years later. 

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Even though other cities — including St. Paul — follow just such a schedule, Bender said she thinks it would add to election expenses, harm turnout and increase political tensions in City Hall, especially when any or all of the council members could run for mayor without having to give up their seats.

When asked if she was concerned that the council elections would be on a different election from the mayor, Kahn said she wasn’t. “I don’t know if I care,” she said. “What I was really irritated with was the four-year wait between redistricting and running in new districts.”

Frey not interested in adding another mayoral election

Bender’s preferred solution is still another option: that the council and mayor would go to the Capitol together and ask for a bill that would direct both to run for two-year terms in 2021 and both run again for two-year terms in 2023 before returning to four-year terms in 2025 and 2029 elections.  She said she would like the Legislature to give the city flexibility to solve the problem as long as it included an election under the new wards by 2023.

That, however, would require Mayor Jacob Frey to volunteer for a burden that current law does not require of him, namely adding an expensive re-election campaign in the middle of his next term, assuming he runs and wins in 2021. Unlike council members who represent wards with roughly the same number of residents, the mayor’s jurisdiction is citywide. He can veto a solution that he doesn’t favor.

City Council President Lisa Bender
Bender said it would be a good move on Frey’s part to help keep all city elections together. “If you have the mayor and the council offset the City Council, members will be able to run against the mayor while retaining their office,” Bender said. “Some City Council members might support that, but I don’t think it’s the right structure or in the best interests of our city. It will create a lot of disruption at City Hall. It would just be a very political environment.”

Frey, however, was less enamored of running another election when nothing in the Kahn Rule would require it. He said he would support a change that would have the council running for two-year terms in 2021 and 2023, but he would rather not join them. “I’m open to conversation with my council colleagues regarding the rules that apply to their wards,” Frey said. “I want to be a team player. But that being said, because the boundary of Minneapolis is not affected in any way as ward boundaries are, it’s not a mayoral issue.

“Arbitrarily adding another election doesn’t make any sense for the voters,” he said. “I’m very open to scenarios that the council is looking at with that one exception because it makes no sense.”

Elections can be destabilizing for a city, he said. Having three mayoral elections between 2021 and 2025 wouldn’t help. “Right now our city government needs more stability, not less. Throwing in another unnecessary election would certainly destabilize.”

For candidates, there’s also the matter of funding. Elections aren’t cheap. Frey raised more than $800,000 for his 2017 campaign, while council races are in the $50,000 to $75,000 range.

Legislature not rushing to do Minneapolis favors

Council Member Andrew Johnson, the chair of the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said he expects the issue to be included on the city’s 2020 legislative agenda, which directs the agenda for city lobbyists at the Capitol. Despite it being worked on by staff last session, it was not on the 2019 agenda as adopted by the council. Johnson said he expects the new legislative agenda to include some push for two two-year terms for the council so all elections could be reunified by 2025.

 “Nobody is excited about a two-year term because you then are constantly stuck in campaign mode rather than being able to focus for a good length on what the people sent you to do,” Johnson said. “We’re not champing at the bit to want to have a second two-year election. But I also don’t think it’s wise to split the municipal ballot. It’s wasteful of taxpayer dollars, but more importantly it’s not going to be a positive in terms of voter turnout and voter experience.”

Initially the city explored simply repealing the Kahn Rule, arguing that the unintended consequences of holding additional elections at considerable cost and uncoupling the mayor from the council were too burdensome. Minneapolis DFL Rep. Ray Dehn, chair of the House subcommittee on elections, said he advised the city to gauge support in the Senate. There was none.

“There isn’t any appetite to change the language for the convenience of the Minneapolis City Council.” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who is chair of the Senate State Government Committee, which deals with election law. She said having elected officials run in new wards or districts as quickly as possible is a fundamental issue that she adheres to. 

But Kiffmeyer said she was open to looking at other changes, such as those offered by Johnson, that would allow the council to run for two-year terms in both 2021 and 2023 in order to return them to the same schedule as mayoral elections.

“I look forward to meeting with them and talking about it and they can lay it out to me. It’s interesting,” she said. “I appreciate that they’re on the concept that the people should have the choice of who represents them.” 

Dehn said he would support whatever solution the city agrees to, but he did say that most legislators don’t much care about Minneapolis facing additional elections since House members run every two years and senators will run for two-year terms next year because of the census and subsequent redistricting.

While he said he would sponsor a city request, it might be better if he doesn’t because it could be seen as a conflict. Dehn lives in the city, ran for mayor in 2017 and could be a council candidate, though he said he has no such plans. “If city leaders lean on me enough because no one else would, then absolutely I’d be willing to sponsor it and as elections chair give the bill a hearing in my committee.”

But the city also has to wrestle with the attitude of some non-Twin Cities lawmakers toward the metro area, something he said he tries to ameliorate by talking to rural legislators about what the state has in common and how the economy is linked rural and urban. “For some reason, there’s not a lot of affection for Minneapolis,” he joked. “The difficulty Minneapolis has is it’s Minneapolis.”