Minneapolis City Councilmember Jacob Frey attracted roughly a quarter of the first-choice votes in November’s mayoral election, but was an appealing enough second and third choice to an ideologically diverse group of voters to eventually capture the office. Frey, 36, deftly split the difference between several candidates pursuing anti-business and social justice mandates, and a candidate targeting the city’s establishment-oriented voters. We spoke to him in mid-November, as he began organizing his transition. In a wide-ranging interview at Taraccino Coffee on East Hennepin, Frey touched on the major issues of the campaign, most notably City Hall’s skeptical and unresponsive relationship with the city’s business community and his plans to repair that relationship.
Twin Cities Business: Did the election, where five candidates split the first-choice vote, bear out your campaign rhetoric of a divided city?
Jacob Frey: I don’t think so. A division in strategy does not equal a division in goals. I want to establish a commonality of goals and values we can all rally around. And we can handle ourselves going forward in a way that encourages unity rather than division. . . . We’re in this together and we can hopefully treat each other better.
TCB: The political divisions were high-pitched during the campaign. What’s your sense of where these two factions in the city DFL divide? What is the fight about?
JF: There’s a heightened focus on narrative and character traits, and that often outweighs policy considerations. I hope to change that, but these last several years have been highlighted by catchphrases over action and results. I’m encouraging everyone to take a deep dive into policies over hashtags.
TCB: Looking at the council election results, do you have a sense of how the makeup has changed? It appears to be more left-leaning than the outgoing one.
JF: I really don’t. I’ve seen electeds come in as activists and quickly make the transition to public servant, and I’ve seen it take longer. As soon as you are sworn in, you’re exposed to a heap of information — a lot of which [you] didn’t previously know. That was the case with me. It’s the case with everyone. That information does change the mentality.
TCB: Do you feel you have to build a governing coalition within the council?
JF: My hope is if we really are thinking through each individual issue in depth, you will have someone who is your biggest ally on one thing be a significant opponent the next. That’s OK. That’s means we’re thinking independently and not governing by ideology and allegiance.
TCB: Bike lanes became a hot button during the campaign. One supposition is that the city is building bike lanes not to accommodate demand and create a network, but to make driving arduous and move people out of cars. This circles back to business because a lot of small businesses rely on street parking, and often it is being removed for bike lanes.
JF: It’s a balance. The goal is not to dissuade automobile traffic. The goal is to safely accommodate multimodal transportation and provide protected venues for people who need protection on a bike.
TCB: Is there a rhyme or reason to where they are built?
JF: I can only comment on my ward. Some have become successful, but some have been a failure. Washington Avenue is a model, with a protected lane and greening. But what we did downtown on First Avenue was a disaster. We have to be thoughtful.
TCB: How important will your relationship with the council president be?
JF: Very important. But the concept that it’s a weak-mayor system is false. The mayor has full authority over the police force. They mayor sets the budget, which is not amended much. And the mayor appoints all the department heads. It’s a system that requires constant collaboration.
TCB: There’s a supposition circulating in social media that the progressive (Our Revolution MN) caucus on the council now has a veto-proof supermajority (nine votes). Are you concerned that the center of gravity on the council has shifted so much that you may have limited influence?
JF: I believe the council members will think for themselves on each item that comes forward.
TCB: The business community, speaking broadly, has felt it has not been listened to by the current administration and that there has been a lack of interest in even understanding its perspective — that the memos weren’t being read; for example, the tip credit issue, where business had a compelling economic case to make that $15 would likely backfire on tipped restaurant workers.
JF: They did.
TCB: But it was buried in a lot of political philosophy.
JF: That issue took on a life of its own because it was an election year.
TCB: At the national or state level, the perception is the business community has a disproportionate voice with elected officials; at city hall, they struggle to be heard. How does the business community make its case outside of election cycles?
JF: We have a philanthropic, open-minded, forward-thinking business community, by and large, and I think that getting activists and the business community to the table early as partners in furthering collective values and goals is important. They have got to be at the table.
Clearly the candidates [backed by the business community] didn’t win, but that doesn’t mean the newly elected council is [inherently] anti-business.
TCB: There is a perception in the progressive community in Minneapolis that business is a force of exploitation. They are seen not as agents of job creation nor as regular people, your friends and neighbors.
JF: I do think there is that mentality, but we have an involved activist community in Minneapolis, and they get involved when there are socioeconomic issues that need to be tackled. They are there for a reason. We’ve got to get to the in-depth conversation and past the demonization of people and groups.
Mike Sherwood, who runs Pizza Nea down the street, is a wonderful progressive voice who is not getting rich selling pizza. He’s trying to make a living. He values his customers, he has a familial relationship with his staff. And he’s hardly unique. Sharing the face of the business community [like Sherwood], that it’s not just rich CEOs, is critical.
TCB: If business owners feel their council member is not open to hearing from them, is your door open?
JF: My door is open to everybody.
TCB: Taxes were barely mentioned in this election cycle. Property taxes are going up by the max amount almost annually. What’s your thinking on taxes?
JF: Well, taxpayers are pinched. Property taxes are regressive; it’s not based on your earnings or capacity to pay. I think there are solutions to help offset the impact of property taxes for seniors, for example. It’s not that people don’t want to pay, but they want to see that their dollars are being used with efficiency and purpose. I’d rather concentrate on a few things and do them well than employ a buckshot approach. I’d like us to be more efficient.
TCB: Any specifics?
JF: I’d like to see what new technology can do for us. I probably shouldn’t telegraph specifics until I meet with the budget staff.
TCB: Industrial businesses and warehouses are not a sexy land use, but often they pay living wages and create good jobs. I’ve gotten the sense that the city doesn’t have a plan to cultivate and keep these businesses, rather than losing them to the suburbs.
JF: Diversity of use is exceedingly important to a flourishing ecosystem. We need to retain those businesses in certain areas. Heavy industry that exists in communities of color probably does need to transition.
TCB: Such as?
JF: The areas along the river in North Minneapolis. It’s not the right place for heavy industry. That said, Northeast is an area I’d like to retain industrial employers.
TCB: Public safety is a festering issue, both in reality and as perception. In the campaign, it was presented as a choice between enforcement and economic empowerment. What’s your short-term plan on this?
JF: The root cause of crime is injustice and need. But city government can’t just consider these issues in the abstract, we have to deal with them in real time, including the public safety concerns.
TCB: Is there a policing slowdown, as alleged?
JF: I’ve heard that; I don’t know. I’m someone who thinks we should expect a lot from our police, but we have to give them the tools to succeed. And right now most are running from 911 call to 911 call.
TCB: Minneapolis has roughly 20 officers per 10,000 residents, a ratio roughly half of the nation’s largest cities and the only large Midwestern city with a lower ratio is Indianapolis. Does the city have too few cops?
JF: Yes. We are behind, per capita. We don’t have the budget to go up by 50-100 per year, though. I’ll be meeting with the chief soon to discuss an approach.
I’m arguing for narrowing the beat of each officer and regular schedules so they can establish relationships with the people around them. I’ve heard the argument that poor community relations make a case for disinvesting in the police department. That’s false. The problems worsen. Fewer cops reduces our ability to de-escalate.
TCB: Are you planning some sort of overhaul of the city’s zoning code to accommodate greater density?
JF: The city needs to grow. We have plans, districts and codes that overlay one another and are often inconsistent and ambiguous. That’s one of the problems. We have city goals and values. Comprehensive plans. Small-area plans. Zoning code. Building code. We need to provide more clarity. And there are areas that can and need to grow.
TCB: Such as?
JF: Under-utilized blocks with surface parking lots and other types of dead space. I’m arguing for looking at the lowest hanging fruit by parcel. Every neighborhood has it.
TCB: Developers were demonized by the left during the election cycle. Are developers really to blame for the lack of affordable housing in Minneapolis?
JF: First, we need to dispel the notion that increased supply of housing negatively affects affordability. It’s patently false. It’s not even arguable. We know right now a lot of people want to live in Minneapolis around the core. As demand has skyrocketed, prices have gone up. The most significant way you offset is to increase the supply. We need people to build and maintain the housing.
We also need more subsidized and public housing. [But] we won’t solve this with subsidy alone. People have not been displaced in the Third Ward. All the development happened on surface parking lots and dead space.
TCB: Some of your opponents and much of the new city council describes a housing affordability crisis. Is it real?
JF: It is. We’ve lost 11,000 units of affordable housing in the last decade alone. It’s the issue I’m most passionate about.
TCB: How will you address it?
JF: Supply and demand is big. San Francisco tried rent control and subsidy and inclusionary zoning, and it didn’t work because they tried to limit supply. Secondly, right now in Minneapolis when we offer subsidy for affordable housing, the affordability [sunsets] and flips back to market rate after 15 to 20 years. So you’re constantly losing affordable housing, even as you build it.
Developers are pro-affordable housing. They’re against losing money. Government just needs to fill the economic gap.
TCB: What about rent control and inclusionary zoning? Is that in your plans?
JF: It’s illegal at the state level. We can incentivize inclusionary zoning. Portland [Ore.] recently instituted it in a way that stopped development. And then you depress supply. You want to push a developer as far as possible without causing them to walk away.
In North Minneapolis, where development pressure is low, you don’t want to add too many hurdles. In areas where demand is sky-high, there is oftentimes flexibility to get additional affordable [units] . . . . But even in high-value areas, if we are creating burdens that dissuade developers and lenders, we are doing a disservice to affordability.
TCB: Will you be retaining former Mayor Betsy Hodges’ department heads?
JF: It’s TBD. We’ve set up the transition team and we’ll be working through a process to help me make those decisions.
TCB: Is the Nicollet/Central streetcar project dead? Are we still raising money for it?
JF: I think it is dead. But yes, we are still capturing value on projects to fund a streetcar. Four years ago when I ran for council I was for it, for the economic development benefits it brings; $200 million of public investment can bring $1.4 billion in net gain. But [lower northeast/Old St. Anthony] is booming right now without it.
I think a streetcar down Washington, through the North Loop and up to Broadway, has the potential for economic development.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.