Barb Johnson was battling a stomach bug, picking at a slice of wheat toast at Emily’s F&M Cafe, pondering whether to turn in her key fob at City Hall that afternoon or wait until her last day in office.
“I really don’t know if I should, while I think about it, just in case there’d be some kind of emergency or something,” Johnson said.
The longest-serving City Council president in Minneapolis history, Johnson narrowly lost her re-election bid to Phillipe Cunningham in November. Cunningham will be sworn in Tuesday.
Johnson was famous for early morning phone calls to city staff about vacant lots or potholes, and she leaves office with a reputation for even-keeled leadership, attention to the details of city government, skepticism of ambitious social policy at City Hall, and vigilant advocacy for the North Side ward her family represented for 40 years.
“Despite how she’s sometimes portrayed, Barb ran things in a really fair way overall as council president,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson, who often opposed her on issues, but said she separated that from her role as council leader. “That’s a hard thing to do and that quality is going to be hard to follow.”
She was also a target of the political left in Minneapolis, which has grown impatient with a lack of progress toward narrowing the city’s racial economic inequalities and viewed her as a protector of the status quo. That she was often dubious, after 20 years in office, of new initiatives aimed at solving large social problems only antagonized her detractors.
“Cities here and around the country are taking on more and more policy issues that they didn’t take on before. This is a big change from when she first took office and the majority of the time that she was on the City Council,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, who campaigned against Johnson. “I think she was a bit reluctant to embrace some of those big policy moves that people were asking us to take on, because it wasn’t the traditional role of city government.”
Johnson was disappointed to lose, but said she is “leaving in a good spot.” She is proud of her work to launch the Midtown Global Market, merge the Hennepin County and Minneapolis library systems, and build the city’s tax base through construction of the Target Center, Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium. And several recent projects are complete: a 20-year parks and street maintenance program passed in 2016, the Webber Natural Swimming Pool, the Webber Park Library and the North Market grocery store.
Since the election, Johnson has worked closely with Cunningham. They met for two hours, are planning a lunch and driving tour of the ward, and are in regular phone contact, discussing, among other things, the Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment.
“You could have somebody who burns everything up on the way out the door, or you could have somebody who says, ‘You know what, it is what it is, and I love this community and I want this next person to succeed,’ and that’s how she’s showed up, and I am grateful for that,” Cunningham said.
To the end, Johnson was not afraid to be unpopular. In her last council meeting, she quickly, without public discussion, brought a salary increase for council members and the mayor to a vote. She said Saturday that salary increases always get blowback, elected officials’ pay had fallen behind, and passing the pay hikes was the right thing to do.
“We don’t discuss any of our wage settlements publicly,” Johnson said. “If you had a public hearing about police officer pay, do you think that would attract a lot of attention? Probably. I don’t think that’s valuable. You’re never going to have people agree that public officials are fairly compensated.”
Losing the election
Looking back on the campaign, Johnson, 68, said there are several reasons she lost to Cunningham. He was a tireless campaigner and door-knocker, she said. Early political organizing by Bernie Sanders supporters helped swing the caucuses and convention, social media “was pretty powerful,” and Minneapolis’ population is getting younger.
The money spent on her behalf by Minneapolis Works was also a factor, she said, but it worked against her. The group sent mailers attacking Cunningham and one in favor of Johnson that portrayed a black mother and child with a white police officer. The mother and child had been photoshopped into the picture.
“I wasn’t running a negative campaign. I was talking about what I had done, my record, and that introduced negativity into the campaign and it brought people out to support Phillipe in particular, because they were mad about how he was treated in some of the mailings,” Johnson said. “That photo-shopped thing was just ridiculous.”
A lot has changed in Minneapolis politics in the past four years, Johnson said. Not only have demands on the City Council become more complex, but the atmosphere at City Hall has grown more harsh, as activists fill council chambers on more issues and don’t accept disagreement.
“It’s not pleasant when you’re conducting a public hearing and people are screaming at you,” she said. “If you’re not 100 percent with somebody, then you’re evil.”
Johnson credits activists for pressuring large companies to raise their wages, and she said she is glad the City Council passed a sick leave ordinance. But she remains uncomfortable with a municipal minimum wage in Minneapolis and resists the idea that city government should be an arena for major social change.
“In the end, when people get their property tax bill, they want to have their streets plowed, their garbage picked up, the police there when they want them, the fire department, the same thing,” she said.
Johnson’s critics say she was too slow to embrace the City Council’s role in curing injustice and reshaping society.
“Racial and economic inequalities are worsening in Minneapolis as in many other cities, and her ward is seen as a canary in the coal mine of both issues,” said Anthony Newby, director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, an advocacy group in north Minneapolis. “Barb struggled at times to acknowledge emerging and innovative ideas in a moment that requires both.”
Cunningham, a black, transgender man, is “unapologetic in his progressive policy positions and represents the future of the ward and the future of the city,” Newby said.
What Johnson said she will miss most about the job is helping constituents with problems. She plans to keep working for another three or four years, she said, as a consultant and maybe lobbying at the State Capitol.
“I feel like I’ve established a reputation as something of a problem-solver, and I want to use that,” she said.
She also wants to spend more time with her grandchildren, and needs to undergo knee-replacement surgery in February, something she has put off for years.
Two cups of coffee in, but with little of the toast eaten, she pushed away her plate, pulled on a pale green knit cap, and walked out of the cafe into the snowy morning, up the block toward Victory Memorial Drive, to her car.