Alondra Cano has marched with Black Lives Matter, publicly accused her Minneapolis City Council colleagues of misogyny, tweeted the phone numbers of her critics and called on supporters to elect more like-minded council members.
In her first term, Cano has emerged as a vocal and often uncompromising advocate for disrupting what she calls the “status quo” at City Hall. She has championed the concerns of immigrants and minorities, from workplace reforms to neighborhood pollution, and pushed back against those perceived to be standing in the way.
Her tactics have been criticized by some colleagues, including Council President Barb Johnson, who said Cano’s words in a recent budget debate were “unfortunate” and contrary to “a collegial atmosphere” on the council. But Cano, who represents the South Side’s diverse and left-leaning Ninth Ward, said she’s elevating viewpoints that are often ignored.
“To allow the voice of the new electorate to be here, it’s going to feel different,” said Cano, who frequently calls upon her background as a Latina, a renter and a single mother. “And I think different is OK. I think we need more of that diversity here.”
When two male colleagues proposed nixing funds for a neighborhood sustainability program last month, Cano remarked that she was “looking forward to the day that the misogyny on this council can end.” The comments drew applause from activists in the room.
“I think that makes it more difficult when you start name calling folks,” said former Council Member Tony Scallon, who represented the Ninth Ward in the 1980s and ’90s. “I was taken aback by that.”
Later that month, she attracted controversy for tweeting e-mails — including contact information — from people who were angry she was participating in a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America. In October, when an effort to mandate advanced scheduling for workers wilted under fierce business opposition, Cano said it was an invitation to reform the council in 2017 — a rare mention of electoral politics on the council dais. Cano was among those who voted to table the measure.
“I was kind of posing it as a challenge to the community,” Cano said this past week of those comments. “If you want to see some of these issues move forward, you’re going to have to figure out who represents those issues and get that person here. Because obviously right now we don’t have that.”
Cano, 34, was born in Litchfield, Minn., and returned there for middle and high school, but spent most of her childhood in Mexico. She made her first forays into activism and organizing at the University of Minnesota, where she focused on ethnic studies and was arrested at a sit-in in the university president’s office in a protest over the closure of the U’s racially diverse General College.
Later, she worked in a communications position for Minneapolis Public Schools and as an aide to then-Council Member Robert Lilligren. In 2013, Cano was elected along with a slate of other young and progressive council newcomers who pledged to make racial equity a focus. Her primary opponent ran on the Socialist Alternative ticket and garnered 42 percent of the vote.
Two years in, Cano’s legislative record remains thin. Statistics kept by the city clerk show she has introduced one change to the city code in two years, relating to the size and parking requirements of some grocery stores. Four of her first-term colleagues have authored at least 13 changes.
Her tenure began with an early victory: garnering a unanimous vote for a resolution recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day in the city. “This is basically a symbolic change. But it’s an important symbol” given the city’s large American Indian population, said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. He described Cano as “conscientious and hardworking.”
Cano later steered funds toward an office dedicated to helping immigrants affected by shifting federal policies. She also pushed for retail space and the completion of a plaza for the Midtown Farmers Market in a Hennepin County project to develop housing at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, said Eric Gustafson, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization.
“[Cano] made sure that we were at the table, and made sure we got what we wanted in ways that we probably wouldn’t have without her,” he said.
Cano has enlisted the help of residents on some issues where she needed to move votes on the council. On other initiatives, she’s struggled to gain her colleagues’ support.
When the city attempted to move a major public works operation into the East Phillips neighborhood last year, Cano led a campaign to instead build a center for green industry that could include a bike shop or an indoor fish-growing operation. She spurred protesters with signs to show up at council meetings, and argued that the city’s plans amounted to more abuse of a poor area that already suffers from pollution. She lost the vote.
In each of the last two budget cycles, initiatives championed by Cano have been targeted for cuts. Cano blames the lack of support for her priorities, in part, on her being the only woman of color on the council.
Johnson said alliances shift frequently on the 13-member body, and it’s important to maintain good relationships to build support for ordinances or issues any one member wants to pass in the future. Four other council members contacted by the Star Tribune said relationships between them and Cano are frosty behind the scenes.
“In political business, you already have to think that you never know when you’re going to need that person again,” Johnson said of the misogyny comment. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen, so when you close a door or use a harsh word, it has consequences.”
Cano is undeterred. In a New Year’s Eve Facebook post, weeks after a strong turnout by police critics blocked an effort to upgrade the Fourth Precinct police station, she told supporters that in 2015 they had achieved “a palpable paradigm shift in how politics is done” and “a symphonic interruption halting the ‘business as usual’ that has left so many out.”
“If you’re not getting in trouble, then you’re not doing your job,” she wrote.