In her first 100 days in office, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has held hands with the Dalai Lama and traveled to the White House. She has spent a fifth of her time traveling for business: Three trips to Washington, D.C., two to New York City and one to Portland, Ore. But she has not pushed many new plans, instead building her own team and deepening relationships, particularly with Somali-Americans.
And at a time when growing Minneapolis is a priority, Hodges has yet to appoint people to two of the most important positions in the city, the director for economic development and the city coordinator. The Cradle-to-K Cabinet she touted on the campaign trail to support early childhood health and education is not yet filled.
“I figure in a year, no one will care that it took extra time to hire my staff ... but they will care if we get it wrong,” said Hodges, a council member for eight years before winning last fall’s mayoral race.
“Being deliberate in decisionmaking isn’t always flashy, but it does get results,” she said. Hodges’ office said the 19 days out of town included her working in Minneapolis a full four of those days, traveling in evenings or mornings
Much of what drives Hodges are the same issues confronting other big-city mayors, and she has been building alliances there, too. She is part of a cohort of new, progressive mayors talking about inequality, from Seattle’s Ed Murray to New York City’s Bill de Blasio. She describes her out-of-state networking as important: at urban conferences on education and equality, she said, she is building “a crew to call on moving forward.”
Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who closely followed the mayoral campaign, said Hodges’ national profile may be more impressive than her record in Minneapolis.
“I don’t see, so far, Hodges picking up the bully pulpit in the way that Rybak did,” Jacobs said, referring to former Mayor R.T. Rybak.
But Council President Barb Johnson said she sees Hodges working hard — sometimes catching her phone with full voice mail — whether it’s spending a lot of time at the Legislature pushing for funding for the Nicollet Mall redesign or working on the city’s bid to host the Super Bowl.
Hodges is “a little less off-putting” to state legislators than Rybak because of her willingness to listen, she said.
Despite the vacancies, Hodges has already hired people in her office to address issues she campaigned on, including a liaison to strengthen ties with the Somali community and a policy aide to work on plans to make Minneapolis a zero-waste city. A third new aide focusing on early childhood is helping her decide who should staff the Cradle-to-K Cabinet.
Hodges said the city has hired a search firm to seek out candidates for the economic development post, and is examining candidates internally for coordinator.
Business leaders are wondering about those jobs, said Steve Cramer, head of the Downtown Council.
“What are the plans here? It might be helpful to have those communicated a little more clearly than they have been,” said Cramer, who otherwise speaks highly of Hodges. “They are both critical positions ... that the business community interacts with on a regular basis.”
The mayor has also not been highly public in debates about growth and density that are playing out across the city, including her former ward in southwest Minneapolis, where the city imposed a moratorium last month on teardowns and rebuilds. The City Council this week is expected to lift the moratorium, replacing it with a construction management plan.
Though Hodges thinks concerns can be resolved without a moratorium, she said she views her role on growth as more big-picture and stressed the importance of concentrating growth around transit corridors.
Already, her first major test is shaping up to be the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, where metro leaders voted over her objections last week to sink the line in tunnels in a recreational corridor between two of the city’s lakes.
Hodges, one of two leaders to vote against the proposal, called it “a fundamental failure of fairness” to her constituents, but afterward gave no indication of what she would do if the Met Council tried to push forward without the city’s OK.
3 guiding questions
The whiteboard in her office features three questions, designed to guide everything she does: “How does this move the dial on equity? How does this move the dial on growing the city? How does this make the city run well?”
Since Rybak left office in January after 12 years, Hodges has had his red walls painted over in a cream color, and decorated the room with insignias from her favorite superhero.
Wonder Woman roller skates sit on a shelf and she drinks out of a yellow Wonder Woman cup — though it’s just decaf coffee for her. The mayor doesn’t drink caffeine. Or eat sugar, for that matter. She works at her computer standing up — even in heels — in light of growing research that sitting too much harms your health.
One afternoon last week, meetings dominated her schedule, starting with a sit-down with members of Greater MSP to discuss marketing initiatives as they went over slides of Downtown East. Then she juggled a stream of messages while working on a speech she is due to give in Chicago this week for a conference with other big-city mayors, including Rahm Emanuel.
Would she support an early learning initiative at the Legislature? Yes. Would she endorse in the Hennepin County commissioner’s race? No, she was staying out of that.
“Some days it’s hard to believe it’s been three months already, and some days it feels like it’s been three years,” she told one caller.
Polished and careful with her words in public, Hodges’ sense of humor is quickly apparent when she is out of the public eye, where she laughs and jokes with ease.
There was talk with her staff about whom to invite to the State of the City address, then a meeting with Xcel Energy executives and some council members about the utility’s franchise agreement. As she and other officials pored over the finer details of capital investments in a budget meeting later, Hodges joked, “I’m a nerd.”
When one participant made a crack about being better off making budget requests with a “smiley face rather than a frowning face,” she joked, “Bonus points for inserting a cute cat video.” Later, she made a Wonder Woman reference: “I have a golden lasso of truth.”
On another day, hours after she lost the Southwest light-rail vote, she visited a Somali mall on E. 24th Street in a blue hijab, accompanied by her Somali liaison, Abdirahman Muse. Hodges’ office said she is fulfilling many of the promises she put forth in a 100-day plan for the Somali community, including asking the city attorney for a review of small business regulations.
In an upstairs room, Somali shopkeepers praised her for showing up, and poured out their concerns through translators, telling her they needed more space to park, more opportunities for idle youth, and more Somali police officers.
“The parking issue is challenging,” she told them. “And I will be honest, there are not easy solutions.”
Those who have spoken with her in recent months say Hodges has made clear that she wants to be judged on what she does, not just what she says.
Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, said she recently complimented the mayor on a speech she gave in support of the organization.
Hodges thanked her, according to Samuels, “but said, ‘Time to act.’ She said, ‘It’s not the speeches, it’s the actions I take.’ ”