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Minneapolis political upheaval signals possible major change at City Hall

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
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.

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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2013 - 11:43 am.

    Stadiums and unions

    Here’s the problem for City Council votes on stadiums… these are not jobs for their own constituents. Sure, it’s a Union vote, but the constructions workers themselves will come from all over the region, NOT MPLS. There’s no formula to give preference to MPLS workers so you can’t claim you’re creating job for the people of MPLS. The Vikings office is NOT in MPLS, nor do more than a handful of people working for the Vikings even live in MPLS. And the new stadium itself doesn’t promise much in the way of new jobs. Basically this was a vote to use MPLS dollars to create jobs and revenue for people who don ‘t live in MPLS… it was silly to think that voters would fall for that.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/13/2013 - 05:49 pm.

      Your last sentence could be re-phrased as…

      …”Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

      All you say seems true. In addition, those jobs will be very short-lived, and their numbers exaggerated.

      It is just so terribly discouraging that these Council members were able to do effect this awful ripoff before being chased from office. Good riddance !

  2. Submitted by Jordan Kushner on 05/13/2013 - 10:03 pm.

    how much change?

    The DFL endorsement results provide some rays of hope for change, but Larry Jacobs’ prediction of “enormous change” is probably very overly optimistic. The strong challenge to incumbency and the DFL old guard has very recent historical precedent. In 2001, the mayor was defeated, the city council president was defeated, the chair of the ways and means committee was defeated, one council member went to prison and was replaced by a candidate running as a reformer, and two Greens were elected. All of the insurgents were unified in opposing the large taxpayer subsidies for large developers and a possible taxpayer funded sports stadium, as well as raising other issues were incumbents were considered out of touch. What did we end up with? Twelve years later, we have probably a more conformist and out-of-touch group of city officials, led by a mayor who was instrumental in pushing through a more expensive stadium with a far greater burden borne by Minneapolis taxpayers than anyone would have imagined twelve years ago when Rybak’s opposition to any such project was the center piece of his campaign. So we may get new people elected, but the real challenge: how to keep them from doing the same things as those they replace?

  3. Submitted by Kristina Gronquist on 05/13/2013 - 11:07 pm.

    DFL not the only show in town!

    It’s frustrating that Boros, Jacobs and Schultz will not discuss the several Green Party candidates running in this election. This is not a one-party city, other parties and voices do exist outside of the DFL Machine. Greens are working very hard to bring better choices to the voters. The DFL is incapable of transforming itself very much. Enough of the status quo! Greens have always opposed public funding for stadiums, no Green would ever vote for or be part of that nonsense. I wish the media and politicos would provide fair coverage and cover ALL the parties and candidates running in this election.

  4. Submitted by craig furguson on 05/13/2013 - 11:24 pm.


    With 13 city council members, all with staff and a weak mayor, the upheaval in Minneapolis never stops.

  5. Submitted by Chris Lautenschlager on 05/14/2013 - 01:04 am.


    “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.”

    How exactly does one gauge this “impact” in May 2013, six months before the election?

  6. Submitted by Carol Becker on 05/14/2013 - 09:10 am.

    Some more factors…

    I agree with most of the things that were stated above. But there are also a number of other factors at work that deserve mentioning.

    The Obama campaign did grassroots organizing in a way that had never been done before. There are a lot of Democrats that were energized in a way that hadn’t happened before and they are now participating in local elections. Also, the Obama campaign made substantial inroads into minority communities. Minneapolis is over 1/3 minority communities yet traditionally they have turned out low numbers of voters and low numbers of part pants in the election process except in a few pockets of the city. This seems to be reversing, with these communities now turning out more and more individuals.

    As to the turnout of younger folks, there seem to be a couple of factors. I think that numerically, these are the kids of the baby boomers and there are a lot of them. It is not surprising that there are more younger people because there are just more younger people. And they do seem to have a different attitude. These are not the children of Reagan and “government is the problem” thinking. They seem have more communitarian values and this translates into involvement in government.

    Redistricting is having a huge impact on ward races. The new boundaries cut off incumbents from traditional supporters, leaving them vulnerable to people who they don’t have long-standing relationships with. Redistricting also had a big impact on the Warsame convention, as the ward was drawn as a Somali-opportunity ward.

    The Mayor’s race is also providing interest for the ward races. There are a lot of people interested in change and this seems to be carrying over to the wards also.

  7. Submitted by David Cary on 05/14/2013 - 07:32 pm.

    Homework for Professor Jacobs

    California RCV elections that are broadly competitive, like the mayor’s race is expected to be, regularly see 70-80% of voters marking all three choices.

    Ranking candidates can actually be easier because of the increased information gathering and decision making that vote-for-one strategic voting sometimes requires. With vote-for-one strategic voting, you not only have to know something about the candidates, but also how other voters feel about the candidates.

    A significant number of voters vote in traditional vote-for-one elections without a detailed understanding of any of the candidates. RCV can still increase the effectiveness of such voters.

  8. Submitted by Carol Becker on 05/15/2013 - 06:44 am.

    A few more issues…

    I think all the things citied in this article are true. But there are a few more factors that are also important to note. One is the aftereffects of the Obama campaign. They did more grass-roots organizing than has ever been done before. People who had not been involved in politics suddenly became involved. Many of those people are now active in local campaigns. This includes more individuals from minority communities. Typically these groups have voted at substantially lower levels but this may be changing. Caucus and ward events are more diverse than in the past.

    Also, redistricting has created huge issues for certain wards. The new boundaries have cut incumbents off from traditional supporters, leaving them with new constituencies they don’t have personal relationships with. Warsame’s endorsement probably would not have happened except for the ward boundaries that came from the redistricting that created a Somali opportunity ward.

    As to the rise of a new younger group, it is important to remember that these are the children of baby boomers and just like the baby boom, there are a lot of them, demographically. So one would expect more younger people to be involved because there are just more younger people.

    Also younger people were not raised in the Reagan “government is the problem” era. It seems this generation has more communitarian values and thus also seeing a stronger role for government and a stronger role for citizens in democratic processes.

    Also, in the end, when you look at one ward, it does really come down to individuals and the choices that they make. That one person is a strong campaigner and another isn’t. That in one ward, someone decided to run and in another they didn’t. As much as we want to draw broad conclusions, sometimes it is just about the individual. This plays out a lot when you look ward by ward.

  9. Submitted by David Schultz on 05/17/2013 - 03:29 pm.

    DFL not the only game in town?

    Before the 2009 Minneapolis elections I was asked to do a study for the city on how well RCV would work in the elections. My study was released in 2010 and among the other conclusions was that the elections that year were not necessarily a good test of RCV. There were some problems with it but in many ways it is or was too soon to tell about its impact.

    One possibility for RCV is that it will help transform Minneapolis from a one-party town. Yes there is a Green Party presence but the real problem in Minneapolis and St. Paul is that the DFL Party has become too factionalized. There are too many individuals and groups operating under a DFL banner that should actually be operating under a different party designation.

    FYI: I support RCV as an important experiment. Ihave stated that support in an op-ed with former Senator David Durenberger. Whether RCV accomplishes all that it promises I do not know but it should be encouraged as an experiment.

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