Three Minneapolis City Council members are fighting for their political lives, knocked on their heels by a highly mobilized immigrant community in one race and youthful, energized activism in the other two.
Their vulnerability comes as the mayor and four council members are giving up their seats voluntarily. That means a majority of the council’s 13 seats are up for grabs this Election Day, potentially leading to the biggest turnover in the city since 2001, when seven new members and Mayor R.T. Rybak swept into office.
The three are on the ropes for varying reasons, though many relate to the changing demographics of city politics. Young activism is driving challengers to Council Members Diane Hofstede and Meg Tuthill, while a new ward dominated by East Africans has put Robert Lilligren on the defensive.
Having many new faces at City Hall also figures to disrupt the consensus-driven politics that has been a signature of Rybak’s administration — policy differences often have been hashed out behind closed doors, rather than in front of the cameras.
“It will be very different, there’s no doubt,” said council President Barb Johnson, who is running for re-election. She observed that the newbies will have to get acquainted immediately with citywide — rather than ward-centric — issues. “Finding out what a big enterprise this city is, I think, is kind of an eye-opener for people.”
Ward 3: Youthful energy vs. family history
Two-term Third Ward council Member Diane Hofstede is in what she herself calls “the fight of my political life,” challenged by attorney Jacob Frey in a ward that covers much of the central riverfront, including parts of downtown and Northeast.
Hofstede, sister-in-law of former Mayor Al Hofstede and a representative of a part of Minneapolis long known for family-based political alliances, was roundly snubbed this spring for DFL Party endorsement. That instead went to Frey, who has the support of five of Hofstede’s 12 colleagues on the City Council — a rare but deep chasm.
“This isn’t the same old Third Ward,” said council Member Lisa Goodman. “Jacob Frey is a better match. His energy and his knowledge about the issues facing this very dense part of the city make him the better candidate. “
Hofstede, 67, says her work with developers, city regulatory agencies, the Park Board and community groups has enabled the ward to make over its troubled, postindustrial image and become a magnet for restaurants, art venues, stylish housing, recreational opportunities — and people.
Frey, 32, a former elite professional marathoner who financed law school with his running winnings, uses many of the same terms Hofstede does — “potential” and “vibrancy” in particular — in describing the ward. He says he would back strategies to increase density and, by extension, nurture small businesses, and work to get small parks and a school to keep young families. Asked what is at stake in the race, Frey said “energy and enthusiasm. We need someone who is going to lead.”
Michael Rainville Sr., board member of the St. Anthony West Community Organization, backs Frey in part because of what he described as Hofstede’s unresponsiveness. She has been criticized for being lax in returning phone calls and e-mails from constituents, and for a high rate of turnover in her office. In 2010, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, after investigating a claim from a Hofstede staffer, determined there had been a "hostile work environment" in Hofstede's office.
“It’s not enough to have the familiar name or be the friend of a friend,” he said. “We need results.”
Hofstede said anybody in the ward can call her at home or the office. Of people who say she doesn’t respond to them, she said, “Maybe they didn’t get the answer they wanted.”
Victor Grambsch, board member of the Nicollet Island East Bank Neighborhood Association, supports Hofstede for continuity and experience. “Everything he [Frey] says, she can say ‘Been there,’ ” he said.
Ward 6: New immigrants mobilized
As vanloads of East African immigrants streamed into City Hall, Abdi Warsame’s phone was abuzz in the campaign office at a Somali mall in Cedar-Riverside.
The Somali-American candidate’s aggressive campaign against longtime Council Member Robert Lilligren includes mobilizing hundreds of immigrants in his community to cast early absentee ballots, to ensure voting by the sick, the elderly and Muslims embarking this fall on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
His efforts have paid off: Most of the 585 absentee ballots cast in the city so far have come from the Sixth Ward, where boundaries were redrawn in last year’s redistricting and which now include more East African immigrants.
And as they mobilize to elect one of their own for the first time, Lilligren is more vulnerable than ever. He abandoned his bid for the DFL nomination after hundreds of Warsame’s supporters packed the April caucuses and convention, and Warsame easily won the party endorsement.
Asked if he thinks he is in trouble, the incumbent paused.
“I think this is winnable. I think I can win,” he said, also acknowledging that the East African vote is significant but that he does have volunteers and support from that community. The biggest concern he hears on the campaign trail is over “equity,” or ensuring that minorities do as well as whites in health, jobs and education.
“We need to be comfortable with having a broader dialogue of what racial disparities mean,” he said.
Warsame, too, talks about the struggles of the ward’s minority population: a lack of jobs, a lack of prospects, less access to healthy foods.
“Robert Lilligren has been here 12 years, and the gap has grown,” said Warsame.
He stressed that he would represent everyone in the ward, not just immigrants, and promote better education and simpler regulations for people starting small businesses.
Warsame left Somalia for London as a child and moved to the United States in 2006. He heads the tenant organization for Riverside Plaza, home to 4,000 East Africans.
He said he has it tougher than the other challengers because he needs not only to promote himself, but also to educate residents about the political system and the value of voting. The way Warsame sees it, even losing the election will not matter as long as the community is respected for its political participation.
But the efforts to get so many people to the polls have been exhausting. “I’m tired and burned out,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of gray hairs now.”
Ward 10: The evolving Uptown area
Council Member Meg Tuthill has walked a fine line trying to balance vitality and livability in one of the city’s fastest-growing areas, where homeowners share neighborhoods with 20-somethings starting their careers. The longtime neighborhood activist known for her blunt style is now locked in a tight race against DFL-endorsed urban planner Lisa Bender, whose supporters believe she can better connect with a wide variety of constituents.
Bender, 35, was a co-founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition — the city’s primary bike advocacy group — and was a city planner in San Francisco before managing a program in Minnesota that encouraged safe biking and walking to school.
Her planning résumé has won her the support of Council Member Gary Schiff, the city’s zoning and planning committee chair, who is leaving the council after an unsuccessful mayoral bid. “She’ll be walking into that seat with more [qualifications] to chair zoning and planning than I did 12 years ago,” said Schiff.
Tuthill, 64, has made several decisions that put her at odds with the ward’s renters and younger residents (the percentage of renters has grown with redistricting, which brought the Whittier neighborhood into Ward 10). Her campaign often is asked about her efforts in 2011 to impose new restrictions on restaurant patios and rooftops. She later pulled it after bar and restaurant owners packed a hearing in opposition. A year later, she opposed rezoning an area on Lyndale Avenue to make way for the city’s first Trader Joe’s.
Tuthill, who owned a store on Hennepin Avenue before joining the council, says the noise ordinance won valuable concessions from business owners — bike racks, taxi stands and extra police patrols.
“It was a little rocky, but it’s been a win-win and I’m really happy with it,” she said. As for Trader Joe’s, she said she was merely following the neighborhood’s wishes.
Opponents say Tuthill has stood in the way of innovation. They cite a brusque voice mail she left for a man who wanted to open a microbrewery — which was then lambasted on the Internet — and her initial opposition to people proposing open streets, a festival-like event that has since become very popular. She is now a fan of open streets and said her concerns were about emergency-vehicle access.
“I think there’s a sense that Council Member Tuthill has been very reactive and quick to say no to new ideas,” Bender said.
Known by many as simply “Meg,” Tuthill also thinks Ward 10 needs more consistent representation. It has had three new council members since 2001, one for each city election.
“She knows who, what, where, what to do,” said supporter Dwight M. Carlson, owner of Salon Levante on Hennepin.