In her first 2½ years on the Minneapolis City Council, Lisa Bender has been doing her best to shake up the way her council colleagues — and the city's residents — think about how and where Minneapolis should grow.
A city planner by trade, Bender has vigorously led efforts to build more bike lanes, ease parking requirements, ban drive-throughs, boost housing density and design streets that favor bikes and pedestrians as much as they do cars. And in recent months, she's become one of the council's most outspoken voices on workplace reforms and policing, showing up at protests and chanting alongside activists.
That approach has made the 10th Ward council member a favorite of progressive leaders and advocates, who see her as an unwavering champion of their causes. But it's also made her a frequent target for criticism from residents and neighborhood leaders who say Bender's drive for development, density and reform sometimes mows over the character of neighborhoods and the concerns of the people who live in them.
Bender said she knows these issues — from parking spots to paid sick leave — can provoke emotional responses on all sides, and she's willing to listen to other views. But particularly on development issues, she said her training, experience in city planning and growing network with other officials around the country give her a perspective worth pushing.
"I've been able to get a lot of policies through the council where even when some of my colleagues have said: 'No, I'll never support this,' I've been able to get folks to yes," she said. "And we have been able to get things done relatively rapidly, too."
Focus on development
Bender, 38, didn't set out to be a politician or a city planner. She grew up in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Shoreview and studied biology and Spanish at the University of Minnesota, before earning a master's degree in city planning and working as an urban designer for the city of San Francisco. When she moved back to the Twin Cities, settling in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood north of Uptown, she brought along a list of ideas that were taking root in West Coast cities. Chief among them: carving out more space for bikes.
Bender founded the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group that continues to play a leading role in promoting and expanding bicycling in the city. By fall 2012, inspired by a convention speaker who urged women to get into politics, she'd decided to try to bring those ideas to the City Council.
As the election neared, Bender impressed voters by spending hours knocking on doors, often traveling by bike, even when she was just weeks from having her second child. Diana Boegemann, president of the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG), said Bender stands out for her dedication to meeting with neighbors, listening to their ideas and then making something of them.
"She's kind of given us the confidence to go forward with a lot of the projects we do," Boegemann said.
In the fast-developing neighborhoods of the 10th Ward, however, Bender has also found neighborhood groups less impressed with her style. In the Whittier neighborhood, plans for a large, modern apartment building — which would tower over other historic buildings in the neighborhood — was one of several projects that have divided neighbors and sparked criticism of Bender's interest in high-density development in her ward.
Erica Christ, board chairwoman for the Whittier Alliance, said that while Bender attends neighborhood meetings to talk about new developments, it sometimes seems as if it's a formality.
"She has often at least appeared to have already decided things before people call her up and say: 'Hey can I talk to you about this?' " Christ said.
Bender said the frustrations of some residents point to bigger issues with the city's development process and high turnover in the 10th Ward council seat. The cycle repeats itself: developments are proposed, neighbors want more density, or less density, battle over parking spots and building design, and feel powerless when the decisions don't go their way.
She said she approaches each project with a long-term view.
"At the end of the day, it may be easier for me politically to say no to projects," Bender said. But "we need housing in the 10th Ward, in the city, and if we say no, we're just exacerbating the problem with affordable housing in the city."
A 'rising star'
Last fall, when she joined the mayor and other council members to launch the Working Families Agenda package of workplace reforms, Bender was again trying to convince a divided crowd about a long-term vision.
The pushback from businesses was heavy enough to stall the scheduling proposal and delay the sick-leave plans. It was a setback Bender said she's learned from and will reflect on as the city considers raising the minimum wage. (Bender publicly donated $1,000 to the "15 Now" campaign but said she's waiting for the results of an economic impact study before she supports a particular dollar figure.)
Bender also drew criticism from some council colleagues when she stepped out with strong support for demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Jamar Clark — and when she literally stepped in front of a police officer's gun during the weekslong occupation of the city's Fourth Precinct.
"I didn't run for office to dismantle white supremacy, but that's the issue of our time," she said.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said taking those kind of stances has made Bender a known presence in north Minneapolis and a "rising star" across the city and beyond. Among those who took notice were leaders of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, he said.
"People like her, they know her, they respect her … I think she's definitely making her mark," he said.
Council President Barb Johnson said she's disagreed with some of Bender's tactics, including her presence at the Fourth Precinct protests, but said she's also found that Bender is a hardworking policymaker who has the skills to move beyond differences to get things done.
"Certainly to make that kind of change you have to have somebody who is focused on it," Johnson said. "She's got an agenda and she's really working it."