Vacant lots and rundown storefronts still plague West Broadway, the commercial heart of Minneapolis’ North Side. Residents worry about crime and tense police-community relations, especially after the police shooting of Jamar Clark and the protest outside the Fourth Precinct. And the community still hasn’t recovered from the foreclosure crisis and 2011 tornado that forced many residents out of their homes.
The problems are familiar in the Fifth Ward northwest of downtown, and city voters are perpetually looking for someone who can solve them.
“People are concerned about many of the things they’ve been concerned about in the past,” said Jackie Cherryhomes, the former Fifth Ward council member. “It’s ongoing work.”
More than six months before Election Day, a group of candidates has emerged to challenge Council Member Blong Yang from the left: activist and former Minneapolis NAACP spokeswoman Raeisha Williams, local artist Jeremiah Ellison and neighborhood organizer Cathy Spann.
As in the neighboring Fourth Ward, the candidate pool appears to signal a shift from the status quo, said Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), which has endorsed Ellison.
“It is a bit unprecedented to have this many young people, this many folks of color, thinking in really innovative ways about the future of the city,” he said.
Reaching new voters
Yang was first elected in 2013. In describing how the ward has benefited during the past four years, he points to home ownership programs, developments including the new Thor Construction headquarters and his ongoing efforts to reach constituents, sometimes in three languages.
But some residents say he’s been out of touch: absent during the Fourth Precinct protests, opposed to a citywide $15 minimum wage and unresponsive to resident concerns.
His biggest threat appears to be 27-year-old Ellison, the son of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who had a strong showing at the April 4 DFL caucus and has garnered endorsements from NOC and Our Revolution, an outgrowth of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
The Fifth Ward’s DFL convention is April 22, and only Williams is not seeking the endorsement.
Yang, the first Hmong-American elected to the council, came in as an outsider.
The Fifth Ward has notoriously low voter turnout. In 2013, about 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Still, Yang managed to reach those who in the past had stayed home on Election Day — members of the East African, Lao and Hmong communities, non-English speakers, those disenchanted with the process — and they came out to vote for him.
Yang said he plans to use the same strategy this time around, and believes that even as city politics shift left, the Fifth Ward is home to moderate voters who will support him. Still, he admits nothing is certain.
“Sometimes you sit in this seat and you maybe don’t see what the shift is that’s happening in the ward, or you think you know more than what you do,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
Campaign finance reports show Yang has the backing of labor, business and political heavyweights. But his critics have suggested that Yang doesn’t advocate for all people of color. The implication visibly upsets him.
“Wow,” he said at a March 30 candidate forum, after Ellison criticized him for voting against equity initiatives. “There are days when people talk about me like I don’t have any color on myself.”
Ellison’s campaign centers on his roots in north Minneapolis, a proud community where many families live for generations.
On his campaign website, his slogan — “A Northsider for the Northside” — is superimposed over a photo of him speaking at a City Council meeting. Rather than standing at the podium to face the council, he is turned away and speaking to the people in the crowd.
Ellison is a charismatic speaker who, much like his father, can captivate a room. But he sometimes struggles to articulate policy ideas, leading some voters to worry that he’s too young and inexperienced for the job.
Kristel Porter, executive director of the Cleveland Neighborhood Association, said Ellison’s speech during the precinct caucus at North High School made her nervous. He “has a lot to learn in order to be able to do the work,” she said.
Ellison said he’s not focusing on concerns about his age.
“Instead what we’ve decided to focus on is that the fact that, even at the age of 27, I’ve spent my entire working life collaborating with people in north Minneapolis,” he said.
Williams and Spann also talk about their community ties.
Williams describes returning home after living in Washington, D.C., and struggling to open a restaurant on West Broadway. It was around that time that she decided to run for office, she said, a decision that was solidified after she got involved in the Fourth Precinct occupation.
“I knew that [Yang] wasn’t going to be a good leader for us going forward as a community, so I decided to step up,” Williams said.
Spann talks about her sons being stopped by police, her gas meter being shot out and her successful push to start community policing programs in the Jordan neighborhood.
Though the four candidates diverge on certain points they come back to the core issues that keep North Siders up at night.
“All of us that are running, we just really want what’s best for this community,” Spann said. “Isn’t that exciting to be a part of that?”