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Minneapolis mayoral candidates don’t agree on who’s a true ‘progressive’ — and what that means

Five of the eight active candidates have figured out a definition of progressive that makes the label fit their politics.

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

When City Council Member Gary Schiff dropped out of the battle for DFL endorsement for Minneapolis mayor, he asked his supporters to vote for City Council Member Betsy Hodges.

Don Samuels
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosDon Samuels

Schiff described himself as a progressive who admired Hodges’ progressive politics.

Candidate Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, also labels himself a progressive, and he is not alone. Five of the eight candidates for mayor have figured out a definition of progressive that makes the label fit their politics.

Labels and definitions

If being a progressive is the hot deal in this race, we all need to know exactly what it means and how those five candidates — and the other three active ones — define themselves.

Don Samuels, the third City Council member to try running for mayor, avoids labels. And that includes the label of progressive, even though he’s all for making progress.

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“I’m not sure what a political progressive is, quite frankly,” said Samuels. “I believe I am motivated by the determination to see progress in our city and especially in the areas where we are most failing.”

Samuels lives in North Minneapolis and chose that area because he sees opportunities there for improvement.

“That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to. That’s why I live in this community, because I believe it’s America’s greatest opportunity community,” said Samuels. “We all make progress when each person is making progress. It’s short-sighted to see the world as otherwise.”

But no labels, please. “I really avoid the labels because you get lumped in with people’s perceptions and prejudices,” he said. “I’d rather be defined by my work, my character, my vision and my results. You have to have results.”

Adds Samuels: “True progressiveness ends up with progress being made, and that is the only test of true progressiveness.”

Dan Cohen, a former City Council member, admires Schiff and even contributed to his campaign. Schiff calls himself a progressive. Cohen is probably not a progressive.

A liberal on steroids?

“I think a progressive, in the politically correct vernacular, would be a liberal on steroids,” said Cohen, who, like Samuels, avoids labels.

“I let other people put labels on me. It’s hard to put a label on yourself,” said Cohen, who says he doesn’t know if he’s a progressive and doesn’t think it’s his job to give himself a political title. “The answer to that question belongs to the electorate, not to me.”

Cam Winton
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosCam Winton

A liberal on steroids does not describe Cam Winton, a Republican who has been a Democrat and is running as an independent. He thinks progressives see big government as the solution to whatever problem they’re trying to solve.

“On the term progressive, I think people use that term when they’re describing themselves as people who see a need for government to keep expanding, for government spending to keep increasing, despite the fact that we’re already squeezed,” said Winton. “When they see a policy goal, their first instinct is to use government, and government alone, to get there. I don’t share that belief.”

Despite that definition of a progressive, Winton has found a way to describe himself as a progressive, but not the kind who turns to government as the ultimate solution.

“If progressive means making progress as a society, where every single person in our society has opportunities, then damn right I’m a progressive,” he said. “A goal may be worthy, but we don’t need City Hall to be involved.”

Bashing former office-holders

Part of the mayoral debate about who is and isn’t a progressive has been focused on government actions of the 1990s. Some say those programs, many of which involved government subsidies, are no longer the solution to the problems of 2013.

It’s become one way to bash anyone who was in office more than a decade ago.

Mark Andrew
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosMark Andrew

One of those people is Mark Andrew, who acknowledges “there’s a little bit of theater” in the debate about who is progressive.

Andrew, who served on the Hennepin County Board in the ’90s, defends his record.

“I created the Midtown Greenway in the 1990s. That has stood the test of time as one of the most brilliant urban redevelopment strategies ever done in Minneapolis,” said Andrew, adding the $25 million investment of public dollars has created $1 billion in economic development. “That was a policy of the 1990s, so the policies of the 1990s must have been pretty effective.”

Despite that past success, Andrew acknowledges that government subsidies have been replaced as a tool for encouraging private development.

“The era of big-government models has passed us by. I think this needs to become an era of innovation,” said Andrew. “To me it’s the smart-government model.”

Better than alternatives?

Still, he hangs on to his progressive label and suggests others might have adopted that title because it seems more comfortable than some of the alternatives.

“Let’s remember that some people call themselves progressive because they are afraid of calling themselves liberals,” said Andrew. “Being a progressive is a badge of honor to me. It represents thoughtful, humane policy with a keen eye focused on the bottom line.”

“Some would say I’m the most progressive candidate in the race, but I’m not having a contest with anyone,” he said.

Actually, he is having a contest with at least seven other people who also want to be mayor.

Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosBetsy Hodges

Hodges is one of those candidates — and a critic of the policies that existed when Andrew was on the County Board.

“We don’t need the corporate subsidies. That’s one of the big differentiators here, let’s be honest,” she said. “The ’90s model of opening the pocketbook to give corporate subsidies, picking winners and losers in the private market, that’s not what got our city on firm footing.”

Hodges credits recent immigrants who opened businesses along Lake Street and other small-business owners with being the economic engine that carried Minneapolis through the recession.

“I believe that when we invest in the common good, like transit, like partnerships in education, like having a system that supports small business, that’s the work of government,” she said, noting that she thinks this new model is what is working in the 21st century.

Hodges is not a person who shies away from a fight. For six years, she worked to merge two closed Minneapolis pension funds with the state pension system.

“I was told I was ruining my career. I was told it would never happen,” she said. But it did happen, and it saved Minneapolis taxpayers $20 million in 2012, she said. To Hodges, that battle is proof of her progressive credentials.

“When I think about what a progressive is, it kind of comes down to ‘Are you representing the people or are you representing the powerful?” Hodges said. “I am a progressive who also wants to make sure the budget is balanced.”

The most ‘progressive’ candidate?

Perhaps the most progressive candidate in the race is the schoolteacher who joined the contest to make sure public education is part of the debate. He has plenty to say on topics beyond education.

Jim Thomas
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosJim Thomas

Jim Thomas believes in universal health care, free education all the way through college, living-wage jobs for everyone, affordable child care and affordable housing. He is not a friend to corporate America.

“We cannot have a corporate society where our values are reflected by what is best for corporations, where we outsource our morality to the leaders of corporations,” said Thomas, who thinks that is exactly the current situation in America.

“One of the things I think a progressive society would be is one where corporations are not treated like people,” said Thomas. “Right now, I think the Supreme Court has decided they are, so until that changes, we cannot be a progressive society.”

“I think a progressive is somebody who looks forward seven generations and makes decisions based on that,” said Thomas.

Jackie Cherryhomes, another former City Council member, defines a progressive as “a person who works for social change.” She was part of the anti-war movement when she was in high school and continued to, in her words, “question authority” in college and beyond.

“I was raised in a Quaker household. My family was very politically active, very socially active,” said Cherryhomes. “My father was the absolute definition of progressive.”

Like Andrew, Cherryhomes was in office during the ’90s. She sees part of the debate about being a progressive as a series of litmus tests candidates and their supporters use to measure opponents.

“My whole life has been built around trying to make things better for people, particularly people who might not be at the table,” said Cherryhomes. “I think striving for social justice is never out of date.”

“Progressive is all about putting people first,” said Stephanie Woodruff, the newest candidate in the race. “All people are equal. There shouldn’t be any unemployment; there should be zero poverty. Progressive is more of a principle than politics.”

Jackie Cherryhomes
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosJackie Cherryhomes

Like Samuels and Cohen, Woodruff is not into labels. She sees a progressive as someone moving forward, and she is all for moving forward.

“People should come first, but corporate America and business has a vital part,” said Woodruff, who owns a small software company and works to recruit professionals in finance careers. She knows her businesses are only successful when other businesses are spending money.

“I always want to know “What is the return on investment?” Maybe that’s because I’m an accountant,” said Woodruff, who points out that when businesses are handing out paychecks, workers can buy houses and pay taxes. “I’ve had to live paycheck to paycheck. I want to know the benefit of spending.”

“We need to stop spending and start investing. We need to invest in education options that are going to yield a return 25 years out versus throwing money at quick-fix solutions,” she said.

“If we truly were progressive in our policies in the past, and currently today, then we wouldn’t be facing today [high rates of poverty]. We wouldn’t have the largest achievement gap in America,” Woodruff said.