Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges' sudden support for raising the city's minimum wage has thrust the issue into the center of the 2017 mayor's race, with her reversal drawing sharp criticism from those vying to replace her.
Hodges issued a statement late Monday saying she backs an unspecified municipal wage and opposes any exception for tipped employees. She had previously said she preferred a regional minimum wage.
But with mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds demanding a $15 wage and Council Member Jacob Frey mulling a run for mayor, Hodges announced that she favors a Minneapolis wage hike, and called any provision exempting tipped employees from it a "harmful precedent."
The move was greeted with qualified praise from advocates on the left and drew criticism from the restaurant industry, but the next few months will test the mayor's influence with the key players: the 13-member City Council that will decide on the matter.
Frey, who is widely expected to run for mayor but has not announced his candidacy, said Hodges' announcement was a case of "political gymnastics" aimed at disguising her inaction on the minimum wage.
"We're delighted the mayor has joined the conversation my colleagues and I have been having for two-plus years," Frey said. "The odd flip-flop without engagement does not inspire confidence."
Levy-Pounds, the only major challenger who has announced a run for mayor, said she agrees with Hodges on tipped employees, but she criticized her unwillingness to call for a $15 minimum wage.
"Her statement is a step in the right direction, but it falls far short of what's needed," Levy-Pounds said. "I personally tire of the mayor talking about racial equity but doing very little."
Advocates have been clamoring for a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis for years. Hodges first called for a regional solution in February 2015, and the city of Minneapolis fought off a bid to put a $15 wage on the ballot.
Hodges said the November election, in which Republicans took control of the Legislature, persuaded her that a regional minimum wage will be too difficult, so she's pivoting back to a municipal ordinance.
"I'm planting a flag for the new legislative session which begins Jan. 3," Hodges said. "I am still the mayor, and I will be governing while I am also campaigning for re-election, and that's just the reality of it."
City elections are just over 10 months away. The precinct caucuses, where the party chooses delegates who will decide DFL endorsements, are April 4. Most of the election challenges in Minneapolis will be coming from the political left, and Hodges' new position on tipped employees drew praise from such vocal groups as Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha.
The council should take up the issue by summer, but an ordinance will require a "nuanced approach," said Council President Barb Johnson, and the mayor's new stance complicates the work, because her opposition to a carve-out for restaurant servers might work against the interests of kitchen staff at the bottom of the wage scale.
"I think there probably are the votes to raise the minimum wage, but is it $15? Is it $12? Who does it carve out?" Johnson said.
The Minnesota Restaurant Association issued a statement Tuesday expressing support for a "pathway to bring the minimum wage in Minneapolis to $15 an hour over time," but warning that tips should be included in a minimum wage calculation. "Our concern is that Mayor Hodges misunderstands how a tiered wage policy would benefit tipped workers by protecting their jobs and income," the group said.
Minneapolis-specific figures are not available, but for the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, waiters and waitresses earn a median wage of $9.07 per hour including tips, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Servers at some restaurants make much more, but the numbers show that most servers in the Twin Cities are not working at the Bachelor Farmer or Oceanaire. Minnesota law does not count tips toward the minimum employers must pay workers.
"Minnesota has passed wage increases without penalizing tipped workers for decades," Hodges said. "It's one of the points of pride we have as a state."
Hodges this week reaffirmed her preference for a regional minimum wage for the seven-county metropolitan area, but council members scoffed at her assertion that she's been working on a plan.
"If there was a regional strategy, she did not share any specific details with the council," Frey said.
Hodges said she had been working on a plan with labor leaders, several state lawmakers including Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Hennepin County Commissioner-elect Debbie Goettel. Goettel did not respond to a request for comment.
Dibble said Tuesday that the discussion of a regional minimum wage was "more in the conversational stage" but that the mayor was driving toward a regional minimum wage until the election dashed those hopes.
Johnson said the mayor never clued her in to the plan.
"It isn't even election year yet," Johnson said. "But it'll be election year in a week and we're seeing the effects of it."