In Minneapolis City Council Races, So Far There's Left, and Further Left

"Not progressive enough" a liability at precinct caucuses
Adam Belz
January 2, 2017

Lisa Goodman got started in politics raising money for Paul Wellstone and was the state’s leading abortion rights lobbyist before she ran for Minneapolis City Council, where she has been a steadfast foe of corporate welfare.

Now, 20 years later, she has a target on her back — for not being progressive enough.

Emboldened by Bernie Sanders’ domination of the city in the presidential caucus and prodded to action by Donald Trump’s election, the left wing in Minneapolis is fielding a slate of candidates for council who would usher in a pronounced progressive shift in city government.

Many of them are uncompromising on a $15 minimum wage, outraged at what they see as inaction on racial economic disparities and insistent that Minneapolis defy the Trump administration by remaining a sanctuary city despite threats to its federal funding. They also want council action on the rising cost of housing and for the city to lead the charge against climate change.

“People are feeling power has betrayed their trust and it comes down to the word ‘progressive,’ ” said Alex Hoselton, one of the organizers of a mid-December caucus training event put on by Our Revolution, the national spinoff of the Bernie Sanders campaign. “It’s been thrown around, and it lost its value in this city.”

 

Already an island of blue in the red sea of the Upper Midwest, Minneapolis could double down on that status if riled up progressives prevail.

None of this is comforting to a business community that has limited ability to influence DFL endorsements and already feels beset by the council on paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage and the failed scheduling ordinance.

“I think the concern is if some of these folks end up being successful electorally, will there be any room to have a dialogue?” said Steve Cramer, the president of the Downtown Council. “Will there be any room to understand different perspectives on what’s important for the city? I don’t know.”

No GOP members

Minneapolis hasn’t had a Republican council member since 1998, and DFL control of the city is broken only by the Green Party’s Cam Gordon, among the most progressive members.

Within City Hall there are stark divisions, however. Council President Barb Johnson and Goodman, who have both been in office since 1998, can usually get the necessary seven votes for their initiatives, while more progressive members such as Lisa Bender and Elizabeth Glidden often struggle to get to five.

Activists in the city want to flip that dynamic.

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a progressive group based in north Minneapolis, is forming a political action committee this year and will endorse candidates, behind whom it will throw fundraising support, organizers and promotional power. There will be a formal screening process, but NOC will favor candidates who support a $15 minimum wage, greater police accountability and alternative forms of policing, and protecting the environment with an eye toward racial justice.

The Our Revolution caucus training, which attracted 150 people to the Solar Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis, was aimed at the city’s April 4 precinct caucuses, where the party chooses delegates who will decide DFL endorsements. It was a hip crowd that trended young. Bags of potato chips and pretzels and a canister of peanuts were set out on a table in back, and a few children squirmed on parents’ laps.

Attendees learned about the basics of delegates, conventions and endorsements. They recited an elevator pitch aimed at friends and family.

“Join me and our neighbors on Tuesday, April 4th, to help determine if the government of Minneapolis will reflect how progressive our city is,” they said. “Caucuses can be an insider process and without a presidential election, turnout is likely to be low. By showing up prepared for this process, we can ensure that city politics reflects our values.”

A new cadre

Janne Flisrand, who is challenging Goodman in the Seventh Ward, was in the audience at the training. Council Member Alondra Cano worked the back of the room, and several young challengers — Jillia Pessenda, Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison — gathered a few steps from a bank of laptops where attendees were asked to register their names and contact information.

“The city is increasingly progressive,” said Pessenda, a communications consultant who is challenging Kevin Reich, the council member in his second term representing much of northeast Minneapolis. “People will turn out to vote in a local election if they’re engaged. That gives me hope, that new people will get involved and turn out in 2017 to vote.”

A victory for Flisrand — a consultant, landlord, cycling enthusiast and ally of Lisa Bender — would be a seismic shift on the council. Goodman has dominated her ward, including Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Loring Park and part of downtown Minneapolis, for 20 years. She won 72 percent of the vote against her last challenger.

Despite Goodman’s history, Flisrand thinks there’s a movement of people who will turn out to vote for more aggressive action to protect renters, make housing more affordable, reform policing and combat climate change.

“I think there is a hunger,” Flisrand said. “I think voters are really ready to take those steps.”

Goodman agrees that progressives are uneasy with Republicans coming to power at the state Capitol and in Washington, D.C., but believes they shouldn’t fight among themselves.

“Progressives around the country are scared and fired up,” Goodman said. “I share their concerns, because I look at what’s happening with income inequality, increased tension between people with different views and backgrounds, and I think we as progressives need to unite to fight against division in our city.”

Focus on caucuses

Politicians on both sides of the divide agree that precinct caucuses — now three months away — are critically important.

“Most races are won or lost on caucus night,” said Council Member John Quincy, who represents south Minneapolis around Lake Nokomis and Diamond Lake.

He faces challenges from the left by Erica Mauter, the executive director of the Twin Cities Women’s Choir, and Jeremy Schroeder, policy director for the Minnesota Housing Partnership.

Cunningham, an aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges, will take a leave of absence in January to challenge Johnson in north Minneapolis.

Cunningham wants to build systems to create city policy and write budgets with direct input from people of color, and he believes the city needs a $15 minimum wage that doesn’t include a carve-out for restaurant waiters.

“There is a strong yearning,” Cunningham said, “for progressive values to be manifested in real action, real progress.”
 
Adam Belz covers the economy for the Star Tribune and maintains a blog called 3D Economics. He wrote for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Des Moines Register in Iowa before moving to Minnesota in June 2012. Follow @adambelz
 
January 4, 2017