The Minneapolis mayor talks to Star Tribune reporter Liz Navratil about his second year in office, President Donald Trump, and what’s next for the city. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’re wrapping your second year. How have things changed? How have you changed as a mayor?
A: The professional responsibility as a mayor you largely anticipate. But there are certain things that happen in the job that there is no playbook for. There’s no playbook for getting phone calls at 3:30 in the morning that someone has been shot and killed or a building full of low-income residents is on fire. There is no playbook for the emotional toll that running a city takes not just on a professional life but also on your personal life. As mayor, you experience acutely both the joys and the trauma of a city. And that’s tough. And so over the last couple years, having those experiences has made me a better mayor, has made me a better person. And going to the next two years, I feel we’re stacked full of momentum.
Q: So going into 2020, what do you want to do with that momentum? What will your biggest priorities be?
A: I’m proud to say that the things that I promised when I was campaigning for office are happening. We promised heavy investment in affordable housing. We promised record production of deeply affordable and low-income housing units. We’ve done that. We’ve got a new program that is innovative and groundbreaking in Stable Homes, Stable Schools, in which just in the first six months or so, we have 600 people that are being helped by the program and 457 people that either were homeless or were on the verge of experiencing homelessness now have stability both at their home and in the classroom. We promised to push for beautifully diverse neighborhoods in every sense of the word and passed a groundbreaking comprehensive plan, a first in the nation. That’s just the area of housing. We promised progress in the areas of economic inclusion, and we’ve got a commercial property development fund that is allowing communities of color to reap the benefits of economic development when it comes to their neighborhoods that they’ve made wonderful to begin with. We set up cultural districts that highlight that which sets these wonderful communities apart. In the area of police-community relations, we promised both accountability and transparency, and just to give you one example here, we saw body camera usage go from 55% approximately when I took office to around 95% now.
Q: On affordable housing, that’s obviously an issue we keep hearing about. And the city, as you mentioned, is doing more investment in affordable housing, but the city also just passed one of its largest property tax increases in a decade. Is there a contradiction there, and what will you do as mayor to ensure that homeowners can stay in their homes?
A: Property taxes are a regressive tax. They have a disproportionate impact on people of lower incomes and seniors. And we’ve seen that for years, in fact for decades, the federal government has not put the necessary funding into affordable and public housing … That has caused an undue strain and burden on cities. It’s not unique to Minneapolis. We’re seeing it all throughout the country. A lot of these more difficult, controversial and at times costly issues get passed to cities, are getting pushed under the rug, and who ends up being the rug? Well, cities. I’m proud, though, that at the same time cities around the country, and particularly Minneapolis, has stepped up to the challenge. We’ve become a laboratory of democracy, where new and innovative approaches can take place and we’ve become a city that is willing to grapple with tough and controversial policies and issues when others look the other way. And so these issues of affordable housing and economic inclusion, police-community relations for that matter, these are tough issues, and if you look through the history of our city and our country, you could spend 20 years on these issues and not see a 100% conclusion. But, the data speaks for itself, and we are making clear progress. We have seen over 1,000 units of new, low-income housing in production this year, which is a record.
Q: Some people are wondering, OK, we’re investing in affordable housing, but property taxes are also going up for homeowners. So how do you balance that?
A: First, some of the funding on affordable housing was one-time, which does not lead to a property tax hike. But second, yes, there is a balancing act to play. I believe strongly in creating and having beautifully diverse neighborhoods and I believe strongly that everyone has a right to live in a great city. And that right is not available to large swaths of the population and the values go up and rents continue to rise. So we’re investing strategically in partnership with our state government which has other taxing authorities that allow for that balance to be struck.
A big highlight in my budget this year was not necessarily as sexy and doesn’t necessarily get the press, but we made tough decisions this year that will prevent taxes from going up as much as they otherwise would in subsequent years.
Q: Can you walk me through that?
A: Sure. So, we’re required to have, I believe it’s 1%, of our general fund revenues devoted to our contingency fund. And that contingency fund was funded in part, substantially on a one-time basis. We brought that into an ongoing [basis], because I don’t believe that a contingency fund should be subject to competing with other more sexy but not necessarily more important items. Ensuring the long-term fiscal stability of the city has to be a top priority. We were more conservative with projections for development fees in future years, and making that decision will help protect us against economic downturns, and the inevitable cyclical nature of an economy in the future. I spent a whole lot of time advocating with the state to ensure that the city was not bearing an undue amount of the MERF [Minneapolis Employee Retirement Fund] and PERA [Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota] funding. We helped create a plan for the future that would fund neighborhood associations. Thankfully, we’ve created a good plan for the future.
Q: We had two tragedies in one month at apartment buildings that served people who are low income or who are homeless. And a lot of folks have started talking more about safety measures for them. What role do you think a mayor should play in those conversations, and how would you ensure that people in those situations have the safest housing possible?
A: I start from the premise that housing is a right. Everyone should be able to go home at night to a home, to rest their head on a pillow and to rejuvenate for the next day, and clearly that right is not available to everyone. And, yes, in the last month, we’ve had difficult and traumatic events that have tested the very fabric and mentality on which our city is built.
First, the city’s primary function is ensuring safety, and I’m so proud of our firefighters who ran, quite literally, into a burning building, and due to their work and bravery we had … no loss of life and no serious injuries [in the Drake Hotel fire on Christmas Day]. I can’t thank them enough. The building code as you know is a state-based piece of legislation. And I have a feeling that your next question is probably going to be about sprinklers.
A: Of course, I would like to see all buildings outfitted with the necessary safety precautions, so something like this never happens. In instances like with public housing, I also don’t want to see an unfunded mandate or by an entity that is already substantially in arrears.
Q: You talked about police-community relations. You go to a public meeting and you’ll see people raising concerns about various departmental policies, and racial inequities. Do you think there are changes that need to occur in the police department and, if so, what would you change?
A: Yes. Our Chief [Medaria] Arradondo is leading a full-scale culture shift in the way our Minneapolis police department does business. He has acknowledged the wrongs and pain of the past, and he’s made commitments of improvement to the future. I full-heartedly support our chief. If you look at the work that we have done around accountability, there’s numerous different facets. We started right off the bat with the body camera policy. That’s progress. We banned warrior training, which was controversial and it was a first-in-the nation initiative, but it was the right thing to do. Officers shouldn’t be going into every interaction with the supposition that an individual was deemed a threat until proven otherwise, and prohibiting warrior training both on and off duty was a step in the right direction there. We entirely revamped our sexual assault policy, making sure that it was victim-centered and trauma informed. We’ve added a victim advocate in our interactions. More recently, there was the bringing our police department into line with almost every other major city throughout the country, which was prohibiting the wearing of uniforms when endorsing political candidates.
Q: Is there anything left on your to-do list in the police department?
A: Yes. There is work still to be done. The cornerstone of what Chief Arradondo is pushing for right now is procedural justice and, as we are seeing, the best way to see that shift is to allow our chief to train in new officers from the very beginning with the mentality and methodology that he has set forth. We saw the beginning stages of that in this recent budget, where we previously had two recruiting classes; now we will have three recruiting classes. We talk about officers, we’re not talking about just adding any officers. We’re talking about adding officers that are groomed from the very beginning with procedural justice baked into every interaction, with the necessary culture that our Chief Arradondo has instilled from the get-go and that are ready to serve with the integrity that he talks about. And, so that’s a change. Does it take time? Yes. But, I mean, it’s one that’s worth it.
We’re also looking at reforms as to how officers do off-duty work. As you may know, in addition to the work on duty in uniform, there is also work that officers are doing when they’re hired by private entities. And there are many ramifications of having that work be a substantial segment of their overall workload. We’ve got a whole plan in place right now to see how we can improve it.
I believe that our Minneapolis police department should be a reflection of our city, and you can’t have an accurate reflection without diversity. If you look at our recent police department recruiting classes, they’re diverse. And they are full-heartedly signed up to the vision and mentality laid out by Chief Arradondo. That, in and of itself, does begin to create a culture shift.
Q: The city recently declared a climate emergency, following a report that said it wasn’t on track to meet its 2050 goals. What role should a city play in fighting climate change?
A: When you have a federal government that’s pulling itself from the Paris climate agreements, it’s on the shoulders of cities to step up. When you have gridlock at the state and federal levels and you have people that are moving back to cities in huge rates, cities are placed in a position where they can transform the way they operate to reduce the per capita carbon footprint. And making a declaration is one thing. Taking the necessary action steps to change the projections for the better is another. And so we’ve got a number of initiatives that are underway right now in terms of sustainability and reducing carbon output. I’m happy to talk about those.
First, let me say that if you read … Janette Sadik-Khan, she was the transportation and public works head of New York City. She said, “You want to save the environment, you move to New York City.” The same mentality applies to Minneapolis. Simply living in the city, allowing for additional density and housing in our city is one mechanism in and of itself that reduces your carbon footprint. You don’t have a 45-minute commute in from the suburbs. You can live in a building that allows the heating not just of one single-family home but many. That was one, and that’s baked into the comprehensive plan. The green business cost-sharing program gives businesses the necessary assistance and resources to retool their entity, allowing for necessary reductions. That program, by the way, is funded in part through a plan that attaches fees to pollution. So, several years ago, I introduced an ordinance that tacked fees to pollution. For every pound of pollution that’s emitted into the atmosphere, there is now a fee. And in just one year alone, it reduced the carbon output by about 6 million pounds, and the criteria pollutant output by 18,000 pounds. Now, those numbers have dramatically grown since then, because that was now three or four years ago. And, the fees that are collected then get dumped directly back into environmentally sustainable work. Additionally, we got the American Cities Climate Challenge award, along with St. Paul, and that award will allow us to expedite some of the work already underway. One example are these bus-only lanes, and so we’ve got bus-only lanes now that are on Hennepin, making it even easier and more efficient to get from Point A to Point B in an environmentally sustainable fashion. There is a lot of other work going underway. I’m thinking about the energy disclosures for buildings that are now required and are in place. There’s the work that’s happening over at our clean energy partnership that’s making some strides right now. We’ve got a long way to go on the environment, but there’s no — I can’t think of a more worthy task than saving the planet.
Q: We can’t really talk about 2019 without mentioning the Trump rally. You got a lot of attention for asking the president to pay costs related to his campaign rally, and some folks had criticized you, wondering if that was a publicity stunt, since the city didn’t have an extensive track record of charging other folks. Was it? And would you do anything different?
A: First, let me say I’m proud of how the city as a whole handled the situation. We stood on our values, noting that we believe diversity is a strength. We stood up for our population, for our communities that we knew full well would get attacked with really hateful rhetoric from our president. And, I’m proud of how our city presented on the national stage and they saw a whole lot of really hateful rhetoric. We stood up and we were quite simply Minneapolis. We were ourselves, and I’m proud of that. Secondly, we handled a very difficult and controversial rally. We kept everyone safe. We made sure that our city was protected and that people felt supported.
We found out that Donald Trump was coming to town. Our city coordinator came and had what was maybe a three-minute meeting. He was sitting right in the seat where you’re sitting now. He says, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Well, recover what costs you can.” That was it. We didn’t ask for this. We weren’t looking for some sort of fight. Then, I don’t know five, six days later, whatever it ended up being, I get back from a run, about to jump in the shower and I get a phone call or a text, I don’t remember, from I think him [one of his press officers] saying that the president of the United States is tweeting about our city and you as the mayor.
Q: One of your more interesting moments in office, right?
A: It was bizarre. I mean, I’m a mayor of a city that has a population of 435,000 people, and I don’t have the time to be tweeting out garbage. I’m working on affordable housing and potholes and economic inclusion. So, the notion that a president with this massive population, massive constituency has the time to be tweeting at me is ridiculous.
I work my tail off every day, often with little publicity on issues like affordable housing and filling potholes. But the national scene has this weird incentive structure where the work and the results almost get less credence than the clever tweet. That’s perhaps a societal trend that’s frustrating to me. And it signals, I think, the need to kind of make politics not about being somebody but about doing something.
Q: You had mentioned after this that you wanted the city to come up with some sort of policy for how to handle these costs in the future. Have you guys made any progress on that?
A: There are parts of this that I can’t talk about due to legal ramifications.
Q: Are those discussions still happening?
A: They are. I’m trying to think of what I’m able to say. One of the good things that came out of this is we were able to shine a light on a persistent problem that many cities around the country, not just Minneapolis, are experiencing and that’s this difficult scenario where municipalities are forced to bear the costs and the burden of hosting presidential campaign rallies.
Q: It was around that time that the “hot mayor” discussion went viral online. Some folks have also made comments about your looks at different public hearings. Do you feel like you get objectified, and does that change the way you do your job in any way?
A: To answer your first question, yes. To answer the second question, no.
Q: Have you had a most difficult day on the job, and maybe a most rewarding day on the job?
A: Good question. I’ll give you the most difficult issue. It was definitely the homeless encampment. The level of complexity built on centuries of genocide and historical trauma resulted in many things, but one of them is homelessness in our Indigenous community, our Native community. And working with approximately 12 different tribes in our urban American Indian community, activists and multiple jurisdictions to find a solution and engage in a process that was Native-led was tough. But it was also one of the more rewarding in that we were able to dramatically improve the positive outcomes from approximately 15% placement in housing, which is what our homeless shelters normally see on an annual basis, to around 50%.
Q: Are you running for re-election?
A: I fully anticipate and plan to.
Q: What else is it crucial for folks to know?
A: We’re going into 2020 with a … ton of momentum, and it’s because the things that we promised when I ran for election are very much underway. We’re also finding ways to be innovative and there’s a number of firsts that we put forward in these first couple of years, not just firsts in Minneapolis, but in some cases first in the state, first in the country. We have our first cash bail alternatives program, which is funded in this year’s budget and will be underway in 2020. I mentioned Stable Homes, Stable Schools already, and the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, where we got rid of single-family exclusive zoning, also a first which is now being copied throughout many cities and states are attempting to replicate it throughout the country. We have a hospital-based intervention system for opioid use, which is also a first here. And, in fact, these firsts have become somewhat of a regularity.