Crucial development issues, lingering political tensions and a huge learning curve await the new Minneapolis City Council, a largely untested group with seven new politicians who bring their own priorities to a City Hall that will also be led by a new mayor.
Voters on Tuesday elected a new, younger majority and the first council members of Somali, Hmong and Hispanic descent, lowering the median age from 53 to 37. It’s the biggest turnover since 2001, when Mayor R.T. Rybak swept into office with seven new council members.
While most eyes were on Betsy Hodges’ mayoral win last week, the 13-member council collectively holds much of the power in city government. Outgoing members say the newcomers will have to learn on the fly, prioritize and resist the urge to overspend.
“The learning curve is vertical,” said outgoing Council Member Robert Lilligren, who was elected with Rybak but defeated in a landslide last week. “You first get in here, and unless you’ve done something like this — and there’s very little that’s like this — you have no perspective. And everything coming at you seems equally as important.”
Votes on the council today are frequently unanimous, and policy debates only occasionally flare up in public. That culture is likely to change as new members enter the fray with their own strong beliefs.
Sandy Colvin Roy, who opted to stop running for re-election after 16 years, remembers when daily food fights played out on the dais and at competing news conferences. They made a concerted effort to stop it, she said, particularly because “it never did us any good at the Legislature.”
That’s important, since the city is reliant on getting its sales taxes back in the form of local government aid.
The city has been in budget-tightening mode for years, as it cleaned up fiscal messes left behind by previous administrations. Colvin Roy worries that the next council will take the sound financial footing, and recent injection of state aid, for granted.
“It might be a little too easy to start increasing spending again,” Colvin Roy said. “Because in order to do what we’ve done in the last 10 years, virtually every cycle there is some vote that you have to stop and think, ‘Is this going to end up growing, incrementally, our budget?’ ”
They will have a big agenda to work through when they are sworn in Jan. 6., including a rebidding of the city’s largest contract with IT provider Unisys, a redo of Nicollet Mall, the future of the Fire Department, a $200 million streetcar line and decision on Kmart, a major development around the new Vikings stadium and the utility franchise agreement with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy. That is in addition to ongoing disputes about residential density in corridors across the city.
On top of that, they’ll be grappling with the intricacies of a $1.1 billion city budget and competing needs and demands for funds without Hodges as budget chairwoman, a role she had for nearly four years.
Some council members who supported Hodges’ main rival, Mark Andrew, will also have to smooth over their relationship with Hodges. That includes one of the body’s most influential members, Lisa Goodman.
“I’m an old friend of Mark’s and strongly supported him, but Betsy and I have worked together for ... years, and there are very few issues we disagree on,” said Goodman, who helped Andrew raise money and campaigned on his behalf.
“This a small town and you can’t hold a grudge, and hopefully she won’t hold one against me,” she said.
New cultural agendas
Cultural shifts over the past decade prompted groups of East African and Hispanic voters to press for ward boundaries to be redrawn in a way that gave them a better chance of electing one of their own during redistricting in early 2012.
The number of East African-born residents jumped 53 percent in the last decade, while the Latino population soared 37 percent.
A member of the East African advocates, Somali-American Abdi Warsame, was elected Tuesday over Lilligren in a landslide, and hopes to better connect his community with city services and be their voice in creating higher-quality housing and jobs.
And Mexican-American Alondra Cano, who also attended those redistricting meetings as Lilligren’s aide, will represent the increasingly diverse Ninth Ward in south Minneapolis.
Aside from broader efforts to build living-wage jobs, Cano plans to push one issue of particular interest to the Latino community: working with Minnesota legislators to approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
One largely overlooked development is that despite the council’s greater racial diversity, it will no longer have an African-American member in the North Side’s Fifth Ward.
Blong Yang, a Hmong-American, will replace Don Samuels, who was born and raised in Jamaica and gave up his seat representing the ward for more than a decade to run for mayor.
His candidacy in a largely black ward “has been an issue all throughout the campaign, and it will continue to be an issue,” Yang said.
Yang, born in a refugee camp in Thailand, said he was from the margins and would be mindful of representing everyone’s interests. Given that the Hmong population of the district is no more than 15 percent, he noted that he won by reaching out to a broader coalition of voters, including black residents.
Yang opposes some measures supported by Hodges and a number of future colleagues on the council: He considers streetcars a luxury and wants to boost Fire Department staffing.
Though Hodges and the fire union have clashed over staffing — and the fire union was among the biggest spenders for Andrew in the mayoral race — Yang said that people forget the City Council will have a lot of input.
“The mayor isn’t necessarily going to get everything she wants,” he said.
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