The last time a new mayor and seven new council members swept into Minneapolis City Hall, the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and cuts loomed for the city’s debt-loaded budget.
A far rosier climate awaits new Mayor Betsy Hodges, who will be inaugurated Monday with seven new council members. The economy is improving, and the city budget is on firm footing. Unlike her predecessor, R.T. Rybak, who was setting hard deadlines soon after being elected, Hodges and her new council colleagues are focused on more abstract goals like closing racial and income gaps, in addition to helping the city grow.
“The advantage that I have is that I will be governing during a recovery,” Hodges said in an interview. “So we’re going to have a lot of opportunities to think about development and growth.”
Just how that translates into policy has not been outlined in great detail by the new mayor. But activists are wasting no time ensuring that the city leaders keep their promises. More than 100 people plan to converge on City Hall on Monday to call for policies that alleviate racial inequalities in housing, education and jobs. The rally is sponsored by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
Anthony Newby, executive director of the organization, said affordable housing, education funding and police accountability are three primary tenets of their charge.
“A lot of these newly elected folks have run on an equity platform and agenda,” Newby said. “We want to make sure that that’s more than just lip service. That that actually means something when it comes to policies implemented at City Hall going forward.”
A few contrasts
Two weeks before he was sworn in during January 2002, Rybak had already set a three-month deadline for the City Council to review and pursue his recommendations to streamline development approval, partner with St. Paul on affordable housing matters and rezone properties. He also pursued a post-9/11 emergency response plan and strengthened ethics policies after two council members faced corruption charges.
Rybak entered office in a more stressful time, said former aide Peter Wagenius. And since Hodges’ priority is broader — ending racial disparities in education, jobs and other areas — “that takes a really thoughtful, comprehensive approach … there isn’t going to be a silver bullet,” he said.
Unlike Rybak, who campaigned against the incumbent administration, Hodges ran largely in line with Rybak’s policies. Whether she will diverge from them is a key question. She has hired Rybak’s communications director, John Stiles, as her chief of staff. Wagenius is also staying on board.
In an interview last month, Hodges discussed some of the issues that will likely dominate her first months. She will assemble a “cradle-to-K” cabinet to address youth issues, and has put forth a 100-day plan for the Somali community that includes having a Somali community representative in her office and assembling a Somali board of advisers. Other plans, she said, include reviewing business regulations, fighting for state aid to help renovate Nicollet Mall, pursuing a Nicollet-Central streetcar line and guiding development of the Southwest Light Rail.
Logistics dominated the first staff meeting of the new administration on Friday. Hodges and eight staffers — some of whom aren’t permanent — sat around a meeting table in the largely barren transition office in City Hall. Topics ranged from event scheduling to Southwest Light Rail meetings and council committee assignments.
An unexpected update from last week’s Cedar-Riverside blaze that injured 14 people stopped discussion of Monday’s inauguration. “Second body recovered from the fire,” Rich Lillard, the mayor’s security detail, announced to the room.
“Oh, my God,” Hodges said.
Hodges called for a moment of silence. Afterward, Stiles said, “When funerals are announced, you’ll want to go. So we’ll just have to adapt the schedules.” Another staffer said Hodges should consider her policy for appearing at future tragic events.
Hodges is embarking on a 10-day “One Minneapolis” tour that features a different theme each day, from children to transportation.
Hodges’ “brand” now is listening, said Robert Lilligren, who was elected to the City Council at the same time as Rybak and was voted out last fall. He’ll participate with her in a conversation about racial equity on Sunday afternoon at All My Relations art gallery.
“R.T. moved his agenda by just leaping forward and waiting for people to catch up and come as far as they could in his direction,” Lilligren said. “Betsy will probably lead more from consensus … she’ll work more closely with the council.”
While Rybak lined up a majority bloc of the council by the time he reached the mayor’s office, it is unclear who Hodges’ allies on the council will be. More than half of the 13-member body is new, and only a few others made an endorsement in the mayor’s race. John Quincy backed Hodges; Kevin Reich and Lisa Goodman supported mayoral runner-up Mark Andrew.
Council President Barb Johnson said that given the discussion around racial equity, she would like to examine the balance of affordable housing across the city. “North Minneapolis has, I would say, more than its share at this point, both private market and publicly subsidized housing,” Johnson said.
She thinks the new council will have more focus on education and children’s issues. “I think that there may be more attention to some of the social issues within the city,” Johnson said, adding that there is also more interest lately in public safety.
Johnson said Hodges knows how the council operates, so “I think there’s no real learning curve there. But I do think once all this pomp and circumstance gets done, we need to figure out what the regular interaction is between the council and the mayor and make sure we’re on the same page and don’t jump ahead of each other.”
She added that Hodges “has a quieter personality and that’s a good quality — more thoughtful, perhaps.”
But, Johnson said, “She’s going to have a stronger outreach to council members … she’ll have to make sure her staff is keeping members informed.”