This is intended as a preamble to my forthcoming Minneapolis City Council endorsements, and to give readers a better sense of how I see some of the issues at stake in this election. My endorsements in key races will follow in this post.
It’s a city council election year in Minneapolis. Early voting is underway. 13 seats are up for grabs, I’d say only 5 are competitive. The mayor is not up for reelection until 2025. If you haven’t been tuned into Minneapolis politics for the last several years, here’s a recap, along with my thoughts on the big issues.
FEAR & POLARIZATION
The city is more polarized than ever, a trend accelerated by George Floyd’s murder, the pandemic upending daily life, and the politics of crime. Council factions vote in predictable blocs on key votes — not a new thing, but increasingly common. The left side of the council is smaller, but further left. The new majority, allied with the mayor, is more conservative. For the second election in a row, the rhetoric from the big business PAC run by Mayor Frey’s close friends and supporters, paints the progressive side as an existential threat, saying they will “dismantle public safety” and bring “ruin” on the city.
City hall has implemented the new strong mayor form of government, approved narrowly by voters in 2021 following a campaign bankrolled entirely by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. The post-Floyd crisis in Minneapolis was cynically used by the business community to empower a mayor who already had complete control over the rogue city department that kicked off the crisis by killing George Floyd. This has had the intended effect of marginalizing the city council.
Crime is down in Minneapolis, but still elevated from pre-2020 levels. Life feels more normal than it has in years. Even so, gun crimes, carjackings, car thefts, crimes committed by teenagers, addiction, mental illness, and homelessness are all driving a real sense of urban disorder. The officer minimum is still in place, as it has been for generations. But MPD staffing is lower than ever, and still on the downslope. Police have literally been over-funded — unable to spend their entire budget — in every year going back to 2020.
Since the 2021 election, the state and federal governments have told us what we already knew. MPD imploded under the weight of their own corruption, poor leadership, poor training, no oversight, racism, misogyny. Insert your adjective. Big business interests bought and paid for that version of MPD. City leaders covered for it, accepted it, encouraged it as the cost of doing business — for generations. Those same interests are still here, unashamed and blaming others for their failure.
We shouldn’t accept the revisionism — that it’s the police critics (the defunders who didn’t defund) who are to blame. No expense has been spared trying to patch MPD back together, but it hasn’t been enough. The problem is deeper than a question of funding. We should reject candidates who want to re-run 2021, exploit fear, suggest the police staffing issue can be solved by electing an anti-progressive slate, offer blank checks, or complain that activists have been too harsh with their anti-police rhetoric.
It’s true, many of the problems we’re having can be traced to the disintegration of our police department. We need police. And the charter says we will have police — it even mandates an arbitrary number for how many. But coddling cops out of fear and giving in to the constant hostage taking is kind of how we got here.
We should be looking for candidates with a willingness to challenge the mayor, question the city’s public safety leadership, and a commitment to building out the city’s alternatives to police. I’ll note as an example that the progressive side of the council were the ones questioning the seriousness of Cedric Alexander, asking whether he had a plan for the new Office of Community Safety (he didn’t). We might be further along the path if there’d been more than just the five progressive votes against appointing Alexander, who announced his retirement after 11 embarrassing months on the job.
In the current term, progressives have challenged Mayor Frey’s approach on encampment evictions, advocating for a housing first approach. They say the city needs a plan for closing encampments, that it’s counterproductive and inhumane to keep pushing unhoused people from place to place. Anti-progressives tend towards the message that encampments are inhumane, dangerous for everyone, and can’t be allowed to fester. This is not an easy issue, but the “whack-a-mole” criticism is accurate. Mayor Frey has been consistently unable to address it despite the city being plagued by the problem throughout his two terms.
Progressives tried to initiate a legislative process on rent stabilization this year. Rather than engage or put forward their own ideas, the anti-progressive faction took the opportunity of a Muslim holiday, with three observant council members absent, to make sure the issue never got on the calendar for a discussion. While I would like to see a policy implemented, I have serious concerns about progressives’ pursuit of a harmful St. Paul-style strict rent stabilization ordinance.
On the other hand, anti-progressives have played procedural games and refused to engage. Even the ones who’ve claimed to support a compromise version of rent stabilization brought no amendments to the table. They oversimplify the issue by presenting the most strict version of the policy as the only possible version they could pass.
Streets and transportation are underrated local issues, and a lot is at stake here in 2023. Mayor Frey, despite attaching himself to the glory of the 2040 plan, angered transportation advocates like myself by vetoing full-time bus lanes in favor of parking on Hennepin Ave through Uptown. in 2022, Frey appointed a public works director who is hostile to the city’s ambitious (and very, very good) Transportation Action Plan. A more progressive city council will be more likely to push for faithful implementation of city policies that encourage safer streets and more sustainable transportation. If parking and bike resentment is an issue that drives you, you’ll tend towards supporting the anti-progressives.
Remember when the mayor vetoed a rideshare regulation, then negotiated a non-binding, unenforceable side-deal with one big company (Uber) but not the other (Lyft)? It was effective at winning headlines, though a bizarre way to run a government. But it’s what we have because the anti-progressive side of the council is content not to participate in the legislative process.
The rideshare ordinance put forward by progressives would have ensured the equivalent of the Minneapolis minimum wage and other protections for Uber and Lyft drivers within city limits. While claiming to support higher wages and protections, anti-progressives showed up to the meeting with no amendments to offer, and echoed the mayor’s call to let the state legislature take care of it. Even if you allow room for disagreement on the policy details, if these moderates had ideas, it’d help if they put them on paper, and participated in the legislative process — so we could judge how serious they are.
*Note on language: People who don’t understand context, who don’t understand the relative nature of things, or don’t understand that I almost exclusively write about urban politics — they get mad when I use phrases like “more conservative” to describe one faction of the city council. But the term “moderate” (used by most other news outlets) implies a middle ground that doesn’t accurately reflect two groups operating at different wings, often in opposition. I’m using “progressive” and “anti-progressive.” Let me know if you have a better idea.