The traditional path to Minneapolis City Hall starts at the neighborhood level, with a stint lobbying the powerful about potholes and controversy close to home while building a broad network of community contacts.
But the 2017 election season brings a slate of City Council candidates who have made names for themselves in a different way — through advocacy on specific high-profile issues, from legalizing same-sex marriage to passing a citywide $15 minimum wage. Council races in more than half the city’s 13 wards include candidates who have led or worked with local activist groups.
“We’re on the ground. We’re doing this work. We’re passing policy,” said Stephanie Gasca, a Fourth Ward council candidate who works for workers’ rights organization Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha. “We deserve to lead and be the decisionmakers as well.”
It’s not clear how issue advocacy will translate to wins on Election Day. But left-leaning groups organizing around national political turmoil have propelled many of the activist candidates to DFL endorsements and fundraising hauls.
Steve Fletcher, a Third Ward candidate and founding director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), won the DFL endorsement after just one round of voting at the May convention.
In November, Fletcher will face Tim Bildsoe, Samantha Pree-Stinson and Ginger Jentzen. Jentzen led the push for a citywide $15 minimum wage and raised more than $60,000 for her campaign in the first part of 2017 — the second most of any council candidate.
The winner will have to pivot from community organizing to governing, and candidates say they are stressing their breadth of experience to voters.
“I was at NOC for three years and people think, ‘Oh, he’s an activist,’ ” said Fletcher, adding that most of his career has been in technology and academia. “But that’s the big public work. That’s the thing that makes headlines.”
Council President Barb Johnson, who was first elected in 1997 after founding the Victory Neighborhood Association in the Fourth Ward, said activists and the groups that support them have a stronger hold in some parts of the city than in others.
“Activism this time, this election season, has produced more candidates, no doubt,” she said. “But we’ll see if it produces more council members.”
A different set of issues
Former Whittier Alliance board chairwoman Erica Christ said she’s concerned candidates with backgrounds in activism may have a narrower focus than more traditional neighborhood leaders.
“It’s not terrible to not have experience in something, or not come into the job knowing everything,” she said. “Ultimately, it will just be about how well they listen and learn and respond and are willing to change their mind, or willing to make up their mind, in some cases.”
If elected, the pool of activist candidates could change how the council operates and what kinds of issues city leaders choose to spend time on.
Seventh Ward candidate Janne Flisrand, a self-described housing policy activist, said she wants to champion housing issues at City Hall. Jentzen said she plans to build on the momentum of the minimum wage victory and be a voice for working-class people.
In the Fifth Ward, candidates Raeisha Williams and Jeremiah Ellison were active in the Fourth Precinct occupation after the police shooting death of Jamar Clark and have pledged to continue to focus on racial equity.
First Ward candidate Jillia Pessenda, whose resume includes stints with Occupy Homes, marriage equality organization Project 515 and a neighborhood association, envisions using a position on the council to reach constituents who don’t typically have a voice at City Hall.
“We will pay attention to the nuts and bolts, the little things, as much as continuing to build participation and input on the bigger issues that the city faces,” she said.
Keeping ties to activism
Advocacy groups expect candidates who are elected to stay in touch with their activist roots.
“It’s not just about going into elected office and making decisions on your own, but working with the community to create the agenda, to work through problems and to really be in it together,” said Kenza Hadj-Moussa of TakeAction Minnesota.
NOC is endorsing candidates for the first time this year and has thrown support behind Pessenda, Ellison and Ninth Ward Council Member Alondra Cano. More endorsements are expected.
Executive Director Anthony Newby said NOC has begun talking to candidates about what will happen if they win — what they’ll work on, who their staff members will be.
“We’ve just seen over the course of history, and even in this city itself, where folks are born out of movements and then they end up in these positions and frankly they don’t have the support, or clear lines of accountability,” he said. “And they can look very different as a governing elected official than they did as an emerging candidate.”