Before the first forum for Minneapolis mayoral candidates at Calvary Baptist Church on Wednesday, Pastor Jeff Cowmeadow remarked that the large crowd was the largest political turnout at the church since 1920, when people gathered to hear the results of the presidential election. Warren G. Harding won that contest in a historic landslide, capitalizing on the public’s dislike of immigrants, promising a “return to normalcy” after an era of progressive change and a vow to put “America first.”
It was perhaps a fitting historical context to see the six people running for mayor unanimously agree to fight the coming onslaught against American cities and their policies by President Donald Trump, while trying to distinguish themselves from one another.
The event was fittingly labeled a forum, not a debate, because it was largely a pillow fight between besties. This race seems like it will be less over direction than voice. Apart from a stray issue or two, all the candidates seem to be selling different iterations of the same doohickey. The job of Minneapolis voters now is to pick the best seller of doohickeys.
Though no one directed barbs or criticism at current Mayor Betsy Hodges, each candidate’s description of what they offered was a telling insinuation of what they think she lacks. Vision. Leadership. Presence. There was a lingering theme that her challengers think Hodges is missing in action.
Hodges claimed progress in dealing with inequities and “moving the center of gravity” in police relations with the public. In fact, she could argue that the platforms of her challengers prove she is moving in the right direction.
They want the 21st century policing plan created by President Barack Obama? We’re already doing that.
They want community policing? Already doing that, she said.
Implicit bias training? Check, Hodges said.
Hodges’ essential problem for the average liberal Minneapolis voter is not her ideology or platform, it’s her inability to explain them very well. She speaks in a kind of imprecise vernacular you often hear from people who have spent time in rehab or therapy. Her predecessor, R.T. Rybak, seemed like he got up every morning gleeful to be mayor. I’m not sure Hodges likes the job much.
“It’s not about headlines, but outcomes,” Hodges said. “Now Trump is coming after us.”
We need someone with a “spine of steel,” Hodges said. “I am that leader.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds wasn’t buying it. Levy-Pounds sold herself as what politicians like to call the “change agent,” the drainer of swamps from the left. She got perhaps the biggest applause when she warned the Whittier audience to be wary of both the Republicans and the DFL status quo. It’s easy to get applause for running against the status quo; the problem comes when the maverick becomes the status quo and has to run a city.
Moderator Tane Danger started the evening by asking why anyone would want to be mayor in a city with a weak mayor system and suggested Levy-Pounds might have had more impact as head of the NAACP. I agree. With her passion for more universal concerns about human rights that are beyond the scope of a city mayor, I think she’s running for the wrong office.
Council Member Jacob Frey sold himself as the candidate of nuance, a tough stand when you’re in front of an audience looking for simple answers. On the topic of making businesses set worker-friendly schedules, for example, most of the candidates gave the safe answer — yes, protect workers!
Frey said it was more complicated than that and depended on the size of the business and how it operated. A mortuary owner called him, for example, explaining he couldn’t schedule his employees in advance because “you don’t know when grandma will die.”
Frey also spoke, indirectly, to Hodges’ biggest weakness. “We need a visible mayor,” he said.
Past mayoral campaigns have brought crank candidates, so it was refreshing to hear from political newcomer Aswar Rahman, a filmmaker who showed up prepared and spoke with uncommon candor. He had dissected the city budget and declared it “a mess.” He also broke with the crowd on a citywide $15-an-hour minimum wage, saying every business on the city side of France Avenue would simply move to the other side of the street.
If Rahman is going to continue in politics, he probably needs to hone his obfuscation skills.
Tom Hoch, who previously ran Hennepin Theatre Trust, predictably envisions a more Busby Berkeley Minneapolis. He’s on point when he says it lacks the vision of other upstart cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas, which are “thinking big and acting big and making a big mark” with events like the SXSW music festival. Thoughtful but low key, Hoch is a favorite of chamber types but lacks the experience and sizzle of other candidates.
Raymond Dehn, who represents north Minneapolis in the Legislature, came off as a champion of the underdog who understands how to get things done. He surprised some people who don’t follow the Legislature closely.
The city’s next leader will soon emerge from this group, I hope with that “spine of steel” Hodges mentioned. We shouldn’t need a Geiger counter to find them when they do.