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Minneapolis political upheaval signals possible major change at City Hall

Political observers see what one calls “enormous change, transformation and regeneration” in city politics. 

This election will be the second in Minneapolis with ranked-choice voting, where citizens select their top three choices for each office and the winner must get 50 percent of the vote.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

What we’re seeing so far might signal only the beginning of a year of major change at Minneapolis City Hall, according to two political observers.

There is plenty of room for new blood with incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak retiring, but that’s just the start.

Three City Council members are running to replace Rybak, creating three open seats on the 13-member council. And there’s the possibility of a fourth open seat if Council Member Meg Tuthill decides to step back after losing DFL endorsement.

Three other council incumbents also came up short in DFL endorsement battles but apparently are going to run anyway.

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“If you’re interested in city politics, this year Minneapolis is your town,” said professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. St. Paul, where Mayor Chris Coleman is running for a third term, “is going to be a sleeper,” he said.

“What is clear is that there’s enormous change, transformation and regeneration in Minneapolis politics,” said Jacobs, who does not see a “throw the bums out” attitude.

New generation of activists

Instead, he sees a new generation of political activists: “It’s probably going to look a whole lot different after the election.”

Across town at Hamline University in St. Paul, political science professor David Schultz agrees that come January, there could be a very different cast of characters at Minneapolis City Hall, where the all of the city leadership jobs will be on the ballot.

“It creates an incentive to heavily mobilize in order to basically take over City Hall,” he said, adding, “This is pretty rare when you think about it.”

“We have some people on the council who seem to be out-mobilized at this point,” said Schultz, who thinks this might be “reflecting a new generation of city DFLers that are trying to usher out an older generation.”

“This is a new generation, and they look very different from the old-style DFL,” said Jacobs. “You’ve got a lot less of the old-time, union-based, precinct-based politics and more of a highly educated, value-based group of progressives.”

If this movement has taken people by surprise, they might want to blame themselves for becoming out of touch, according to communications professor Kevin Sauter from the University of St. Thomas.

Out of touch?

“People can get isolated by being surrounded by people,” said Sauter. “You can have a lot of people around you, but if they’re all of like minds and they’re all your supporters, you can often lose touch with what’s going on outside of your little circle of friends.

“That’s a danger, because then you think you’re really communicating with people, but you’re not. You’re only dealing with supporters,” he said, adding that sometimes a close election sends a message that should have come from a candidate’s circle of advisers.

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“I think it can be really helpful to have advisers who are willing to tell you the truth — that the emperor has no clothes,” Sauter said.

No one should have been surprised, for example, when members of the Somali community turned out in force to give DFL endorsement to Abdi Warsame, one of their own, over incumbent Council Member Robert Lilligren, who plans to challenge him in the November election.

The Somalis started seeking victory early by turning out in great numbers for ward-redistricting meetings more than a year ago. They even brought their own demographer with them to make their case.

“I would put before you that the character of the Minneapolis population has changed quite a bit,” demographer Hazel Reinhardt told the Redistricting Committee in February 2012. The Somalis did not get everything they wanted, but they ended up with a new 6th Ward where demographics make victory possible.

“Sometimes people aren’t aware of the community around them,” said Sauter, noting that anyone who didn’t know about the ambitions of the East Africans wasn’t paying attention. “The power of the Somali immigrant community has suddenly become very evident for a lot of people.”

Lilligren is not the only council member to see changes in ward makeup.

Third Ward example of change

Third Ward DFLer Diane Hofstede saw the boundaries of her base change in such a way that could have cost her the party endorsement.

The old 3rd Ward followed the east bank of the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis and then crossed the river to include two neighborhoods on the west side of the river in North Minneapolis.

The new 3rd Ward dropped the North Minneapolis neighborhoods and moved across the river downtown instead to include an area dominated by younger residents attracted by the urban lifestyle.

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“It could very well be a new set of voters, a new generation looking for a younger different voice,” said Jacobs of the DFL delegates who handed endorsement in the 3rd Ward to Jacob Frey, an attorney and activist. “The DFL is transforming itself. It’s not the DFL of our childhood,” he said.

Three of the four council members denied DFL endorsement voted in favor of the Vikings stadium plan, a vote that has not prevented three other council members from winning endorsement.

“There were a lot of people who were really angry with the council in terms of the stadium,” said Schultz, who is not surprised that they’re still angry a year later.

“A lot of the incumbents weren’t counting on this [the anger]. They were foolish to think there weren’t going to be repercussions for the votes they took,” he said.

“The people who are opposed to the stadium, they are probably intensely passionate about this issue,” Schultz said, adding, “Opposition generally mobilizes people.”

Hofstede’s vote for the stadium may have been one factor that cost her the endorsement. Ironically, a vote creating jobs for union workers probably would have won her endorsement in her old ward.

DFL endorsement a big deal

DFL endorsement gives candidates access to party donor lists, can turn out volunteers and puts the candidate’s name on the party sample ballot.

“In a crowded field, being able to say that you’re the DFL-endorsed candidate will be the thing a lot of voters go on,” said Jacobs, who thinks endorsement matters a lot but doesn’t come with any guarantees.

“It’s certainly not impossible for a well-organized candidate to knock off the endorsee. That has happened,” he said.

This election will be the second in Minneapolis with ranked-choice voting, where citizens select their top three choices for each office and the winner must get 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate reaches that level based on voters’ first choice, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and second-choice candidates on those ballots are then tallied — a process that continues until one candidate reaches the 50 percent threshold.

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“In this election, it might make sense to be campaigning heavily to ask people to make you their second choice,” said Schultz. With at least seven candidates running for mayor, it is possible that none of them will get much more than 20 percent of the first-choice votes, he notes. “Then it really becomes critical who the second choices are.”

“Ranked-choice voting is like the fairy godmother of politics,” said Jacobs. “This gives anyone running a sense that they have a chance.”

It also gives voters more homework. They can pick three candidates for each race, instead of one.

“The idea that voters are going to have a detailed understanding of a number of candidates, that they’re going to be able to rank them, exceeds any research I’ve ever seen about voter knowledge,” said Jacobs. He estimates that only a quarter or a third of the voters will go past their first choice. “It’s just unrealistic.”

The fairy-godmother factor

Ranked-choice voting was designed to attract third-party candidates and independents to the political process. Four years ago, in the first ranked-choice election, that didn’t’ happen. And so far this year, it has had little impact other than Jacobs’ fairy-godmother factor, which might keep candidates in races they seem unlikely to win.

Minneapolis might be a one-party town, but that doesn’t mean it is a town where everyone if of one mind.

“All of the conflict that occurs in Minneapolis has to occur in one party,” said Schultz, who would like to see competitive candidates who are not DFLers, endorsed or otherwise.

“The fact that the party, and a lot of its members, won’t face serious competition leads to a lack of accountability, and it leads to what I think sometimes is sloppy politics because you don’t have to worry about anybody ousting you,” he said.

City campaigns have not expanded much beyond the DFL participants so far, but there are new faces and new ideas that are part of the process.

“It’s a healthy story for our democracy to have enough flexibility and vitality in the process that new faces and voices can get a toe hold,” said Jacobs. “The fact that we’re seeing that kind of change in Minneapolis is a very good sign. It’s the sign of a working democracy.”