Lisa Bender wants to change Minneapolis.
The 40-year-old president of the City Council envisions a transportation-friendly city where people could move easily without cars, and more high-density neighborhoods that are free of racist redlining and restrictive zoning.
In her first year leading the council, and only her second term in office, Bender has already acted on that vision. Despite deep divisions among the public, the City Council voted 12-1 to approve the 2040 comprehensive plan, which sets the stage for a historic rewrite of the city’s zoning law that eliminates single-family-only neighborhoods by allowing multifamily housing citywide.
“There has never been anything like this,” Bender said in an interview.
At the same Dec. 7 meeting, the council also passed a slew of other ordinances consistent with its progressive agenda, including an inclusionary zoning policy, introduced by Bender, which will require that developers reserve 10 to 20 percent of new rental units for affordable housing.
That policy was fiercely opposed by real estate and economic development interests. One of them was Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, and a former City Council member. Still, Cramer said he has been impressed by how this new council led by Bender came together to accomplish many of the policies they had campaigned on, such as a renewed focus on affordable housing, the municipal ID program and addressing the widening racial disparities in the city.
“It was a very clear agenda,” Cramer said. “There was effective leadership from her position to get to this point at the end of 2018.”
To get there, Bender has sometimes clashed with others at City Hall, including Mayor Jacob Frey. Council Member Linea Palmisano, the sole no vote on the 2040 plan, accuses Bender of being “hostile and nasty” to the point where she won’t even meet with her alone anymore.
Still, Bender says the unanimous or near-unanimous votes reflect her commitment to collaboration.
“That has been a focus of my leadership this year,” Bender said. “I think the votes that we have had on these pretty large, complex policies, like the comprehensive plan and the budget, really demonstrate how we have achieved that goal of having that spirit of collaboration and respect within the council.”
Bender’s long-range vision was a policy that was several years in the making. In her first term as council member and the chairwoman of the Zoning and Planning Committee, Bender, along with her colleagues, started working on 14 goals that included reducing disparities in the city, fighting climate change, providing access to affordable housing and living-wage jobs. Those goals, adopted in 2017, became the basis of the comprehensive plan.
The 2017 elections swept out then-City Council President Barb Johnson, a moderate who had led the council since 2006, and brought in a slate of new council members with a left-leaning agenda. Bender worked behind the scenes to secure the president’s seat. Her main rival, Andrea Jenkins, was elected the council’s vice president.
Bender talked to council members one-on-one and promised to work collaboratively with them, she said.
Less than three months later, “fourplexes” suddenly became the most contentious word in Minneapolis.
The goals of the comprehensive plan were initially grandiose: to allow the construction of four-unit apartment buildings in virtually any neighborhood.
“I knew we needed to really incrementally build support for this vision,” Bender said. “That wasn’t an easy lift.”
After numerous community forums and thousands of comments from city residents, city planners in late September released a revised version that tamped down the proposed zoning changes.
“That was a massive compromise in the process,” said Gary Schiff, who served on the City Council from 2002 to 2013. “I think it shows that they could listen to some of their critics and focus on the change and density where it was most wanted.”
Schiff said Bender benefits from the harmony of the current council.
“The first four years of Lisa Bender’s term was the most fractious, [least] accomplished, divisive council that lost control at many times,” he said. “I haven’t seen any of the dysfunction of the last four years replay itself this year.”
Bender said the new City Council, perhaps the most diverse in Minneapolis history, reflects the community. “We’re starting to see much move diversity in the folks who are coming to speak at public hearings,” she said.
That has come with its own challenges. Even when no public hearings were scheduled, community members have flocked to City Hall to express their frustrations about policies they oppose. Maintaining order in meetings has sometimes been a struggle.
Bender has credited her collaborative approach for the nearly always unanimous votes on the council. But Palmisano, chairwoman of the Budget Committee, has a different explanation for how the 2040 plan got through. She said Bender tried to “push [the comp plan] down on everybody’s throat, no matter what.”
As a result, she said City Hall has become a “toxic working environment” for her, constantly overhearing snide comments from her colleagues, including Bender.
“It got to the point that things were so bad I did not want to have a conversation with her about the plan,” Palmisano said of Bender. “I won’t even be able to be in a room with her without somebody else present at the same time. She can be so nasty to me that I wanted somebody to bear witness and I felt like she would behave better if somebody else is in the room.”
Bender said she makes space for dissenting opinions and was surprised by Palmisano’s criticism. “Overall, maybe she was just frustrated with her kind of having a difference of opinion with so many of the other council members,” she said.
Council Member Jeremy Schroeder, chairman of Zoning and Planning Committee, defends Bender’s leadership style. “She has given us a lot of space to really run with ideas, but then to make sure that at the end it’s going to be mainly consensus within the whole council,” Schroeder said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who worked with Bender on Southwest light rail and housing policies, said Bender’s background in policymaking and being an organizer has made her effective.
“The public’s expectations of elected officials are evolving right now,” Greene said. “The public is seeking more partnership and more availability and transparency and more of a sense that electeds don’t float above the work, but are very much a part of the work. Lisa really captures that and represents where things are headed.”