As I look for deep meaning in tomorrow’s primary election, it may offer hints about how much fear is still driving local politics.
Think back to the big headline of last year’s election: the public safety charter question. It was twisted, amidst a rising crime rate, as an attempt to abolish the police. Though Mayor Frey agreed with some key elements of that charter question – creating a public safety department, and removing the minimum police staffing provision – the message from Frey’s campaign and the multi-million dollar PAC run by one of his former campaign staffers was fear. They said a yes vote would be to defund or eliminate the police department. They said a yes vote would be like demoting or firing a beloved chief (who many predicted was about to retire anyway – which he did shortly after the election).
Just a few months after he won reelection, along with a new Frey-allied City Council majority, Frey was pushing his own idea for an equivalent to a department of public safety. And that plan is moving along. Last week, the City Council confirmed his pick for Commissioner of Community Safety, a role created to integrate and oversee a handful of public safety-related departments, including the police (if I wanted to scare people, I’d tell you the chief has been demoted and won’t be able to get the mayor on the phone in an emergency). You might say it’s a shining example of what you can accomplish when you work together. Or what you can accomplish when one side isn’t fighting for political survival by spending millions of dollars scaring voters.
It’s also important to acknowledge that in every year since George Floyd’s murder by four MPD officers, the police department has been funded well beyond their capacity to spend the money. I’ll say it again: The city’s 2021 and 2022 budgets, adopted by the previous City Council (the scary one we voted out), didn’t deprive the department of resources. The truth, obvious to anyone who lived through it – or curious enough to read the after action report or the state investigation – is that MPD imploded under the weight of their own racism, corruption and incompetence. But a lot of people stop caring about the truth if you can make them afraid.
There’s another side effect to political fear. It’s mainstreaming conservative candidates and leading us to overlook obvious red flags. I was going to fill this section with complaints about bad local candidates of the last few years, but instead I will recommend a candidate who’s going against the grain this year. (If you want skip ahead to the negativity, there’s a list at the end of this post.)
This year’s big law and order question is the election of Hennepin County Attorney, our area’s top prosecutor. The candidate you’re supposed to be afraid of is Mary Moriarty, who was previously the county’s Chief Public Defender. That Moriarty’s campaign is based in an accurate assessment of the last few years, really speaks to my need to be talked to like an adult.
There are a lot of candidates telling you our problems stem from being too hard on the police. Inherent in some of the law and order messaging is the idea that current Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, 24 years in the job and a product of the DFL old guard, suddenly went soft and became a progressive prosecutor. I remain confident that, to the degree the public safety dynamic in Minneapolis and Hennepin County differs from other jurisdictions — and considering the fact MPD dismantled itself in the wake of a police murder that made Minneapolis world-famous — it results from a long-term unseriousness about holding police accountable.
Moriarty was serious about police accountability before it was cool. As Chief Public Defender she used her power to spotlight racial disparities in policing. And though criminal justice reform has stopped being cool, Moriarty is still serious about it — even as more and more candidates ride the crime wave.
In what seems like a refreshingly obvious conclusion, Moriarty makes the connection between police misconduct and ineffective policing: “To prosecute crime we need good police work. We need to have police officers who do a good job so we can prosecute cases.”
I’m convinced that Moriarty’s the only one with the intention, institutional knowledge, and experience to change the system. She’s watched prosecutors work for decades. She’s led a large public law office, overseeing more than a hundred lawyers. Despite the critics, I believe her when she says her office “will prioritize prosecution of violent crime.”
When Moriarty finished giving her answer about a police culture problem at a recent candidate forum, candidate Paul Ostrow began his answer with indignation: “We have a culture problem but it’s not a police culture problem… I am so sick of law enforcement being blamed for the mistakes of their leaders.” I take his point about poor leadership, but I’d suggest MPD is rotten from top to bottom.
The campaign of Rep. Ryan Winkler has attacked Moriarty for having a campaign run by people who “wanted to tear down the police department” and “dismantle our public safety system.” This is a reference to the charter question whose component parts are being implemented right now by Mayor Frey without controversy. Winkler’s rhetoric has been less fear-mongery than some other candidates, and he seems like an upgrade over current Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. But I don’t think he’s in a position to change the system, no matter his intentions. Some have criticized his lack of courtroom and executive leadership experience — and I think that’s valid.
In conclusion, try not to vote your fears this year.
*A Short List of Recent “We Should Be Better Than This, Minneapolis” Candidates
- Michael Rainville isn’t on the ballot this year but he’s a prime example. In 2021, he rode crime fear and family connections to a City Council seat in Ward 3. He tossed the belongings of a homeless person into the Mississippi River back in the 1990s (as reported by the Star Tribune). Is too-generously described as a “sentient police federation door decal” by David Brauer. He blamed a particularly violent 4th of July on Muslims and promised a white audience he’d lecture elders at a local mosque about their children’s behavior. What results have voters gotten in exchange for electing this racist buffoon? Constituents who thought Rainville was offering a quick fix to police staffing issues have been informed that police are funded and hiring to the charter-mandated minimum will take a long time.
- Don Samuels, the former Ward 5 council member running against Rep. Ilhan Omar. Samuels’ recent claim to fame is teaming up with a law firm known for its conservative activism to sue the city over their failure to meet the police staffing minimum, something that no amount of money appears able to fix. Samuels has a history of supporting school vouchers and troubling connections to a right wing think tank. He invited the founder of the Center of the American Experiment to serve on the board of his non-profit. Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman in 2007: “Samuels has become the darling of a coalition of mostly conservative, mostly suburban groups involved in a coordinated assault on ‘government monopoly schools.'” Samuels says he’s every bit as progressive as incumbent Omar, despite the fact he’s hired our area’s most prominent anti-abortion Trumper, Victor Martinez, as campaign staff. A more exhaustive list of Don Samuels red flags from Naomi Kritzer.
- Martha Holton-Dimick, the Frey-endorsed candidate for Hennepin County Attorney, who responded to a question about taking immigration issues into account in prosecutorial decisions by saying: “The immigration issues that I’ve run across, not only as a judge, but as a prosecutor, they’re violent crimes that they’re committing… They’re rapes, they’re ag robberies, they’re assaults.” Holton-Dimick also publicly congratulated Rainville (“Proud of you” and “He said what a lot of people are thinking”) for his racist comments. Holton-Dimick may feel the need to build her profile on outrageous tough talk because she was a well-documented train wreck as a judge.
- Mickey Moore, last year’s Anoka-based candidate for Minneapolis City Council, who did such a poor job pretending to live in Ward 9 that the only people who believed him were members of the Star Tribune editorial board (who later retracted their endorsement). He was also endorsed by Tom Hoch and Don Samuels.
- Victor “Womb to the Tomb” Martinez, maybe our area’s most prominent Trumper, didn’t win a City Council seat in Ward 5 last year but ran a scary enough campaign that he blocked Jeremiah Ellison from getting the endorsement at the DFL convention.