For nearly half a century, one family has held the City Council seat representing north Minneapolis’ Fourth Ward.
Come November, two DFL candidates who hadn’t yet been born when the dynasty began will try to end it.
In an election year that’s drawn many first-time candidates with activism backgrounds, two — Phillipe Cunningham and Stephanie Gasca — are challenging Barbara Johnson, one of the longest-serving and most powerful council members. As the third member of her family to hold the seat, she has deep roots in the community and vast institutional knowledge. As council president in a weak-mayor system, she wields significant power to broker deals and set the agenda at City Hall.
If a challenger wins the seat on Nov. 7, he or she will disrupt not just Johnson’s family succession but the dynamics of the council itself. Libertarian candidate Dana Hansen is also in the race.
“This election will decide the next four years of Minneapolis in a significant way,” said Cunningham, a staff member in Mayor Betsy Hodges’ office who took a leave of absence to run for office. “This election. Not even the mayor’s race.”
Johnson, who has served as council president since 2006, was first elected in 1997. She succeeded her mother, Alice Rainville, who was the first woman to serve as council president and held the seat for 22 years, working to bring the Convention Center and the University of St. Thomas to downtown Minneapolis. Before that, Johnson’s cousin John Derus held the seat.
As a council member, Johnson has been an unrelenting, often blunt voice calling for more spending on public safety and championing homeownership and job training programs. She also has supported park projects, including the Webber Natural Swimming Pool.
But critics, including her challengers, say Johnson is out of touch with many constituents and hasn’t used her power to fix persistent problems in the ward, where voter turnout four years ago was the lowest in the city.
Johnson counters that her record as a council member is being misrepresented, and that her experience is essential for representing an often-overlooked part of the city.
“I think it’s important that the Fourth Ward has strong, consistent leadership,” Johnson said. “History is important and experience is important in assuring a stable future for these communities.”
The Fourth Ward, in the northwest corner of Minneapolis, includes Victory Memorial Parkway and the Upper Harbor Terminal. It’s more racially diverse and has a higher homeownership rate than the rest of the city, in part because there aren’t many multifamily properties.
The ward was hit hard by the recession and the 2011 tornado that ravaged the North Side, and it has been slow to rebound. There are more people living in poverty and higher levels of unemployment than in other parts of Minneapolis. There are fewer small businesses, more vacant lots and more abandoned buildings.
“The issues of this community are many,” said Roya Damsaz, who lives in the Folwell neighborhood and listed crime, housing and industrial pollution as the issues that most concern her. She said she’s planning to vote for Gasca as her first choice and Cunningham as her second, in part because they’re willing to bring up neglected issues.
Gasca, who grew up in south Minneapolis and moved to the Cleveland neighborhood in 2009, said Fourth Ward residents’ daily struggles hit home. She’s built a campaign around her experiences of living in poverty and organizing low-wage workers to support paid sick time and the citywide $15 minimum wage. Her platform calls for addressing the root causes of violence, boosting access to affordable housing and improving police-community relations.
“I understand firsthand how these things impact us,” she said. “We need somebody at City Hall who’s going to be a voice for us, because we haven’t been represented and we deserve to be represented.”
Cunningham was a special-education teacher in Chicago and then focused on youth and education as a senior policy aide to Hodges. His campaign website lists eight key issues, with policy ideas ranging from directing more city resources to small businesses to creating plans to guide development in Fourth Ward neighborhoods. If elected, Cunningham said, he wants to work with residents in the community on issues like affordable housing, safety and improving the North Side’s reputation.
“No matter where I am in this ward, people are hungry for a vision — somebody who says that it’s possible for it to be better here,” he said.
What it takes to win
At the DFL ward convention in April, Cunningham got his message across to delegates and was leading when the gathering adjourned without an endorsement.
Still, Johnson has a strong base among homeowners and longtime residents. She has garnered several union endorsements and raised about $40,000 in the first part of 2017, according to her campaign finance report. Cunningham raised about $20,000 and Gasca raised about $9,000 during the same period.
Jackie Cherryhomes, who worked with both Rainville and Johnson while representing north Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward, said there are few families in Minneapolis who have the history of civic leadership that Johnson’s family does.
“Any neighborhood has change over time, so I’m sure not everybody knows who they are,” she said, “but I think the history of their family in the community and their strong relationship of leadership in the community is well-known.”
Fifth Ward Council Member Blong Yang said he doesn’t want the council to lose Johnson’s knowledge and skill.
He pointed to the Working Families Agenda as an example of his colleague’s work. When it became clear that there wasn’t support from the business community and the council to pass the full agenda, which included controversial workplace scheduling requirements, Johnson introduced paid sick time as its own ordinance, co-authored by Council Members Elizabeth Glidden, Lisa Bender and Andrew Johnson (no relation).
“Barb rescued that,” he said.
But voters may not know that — in part, Yang said, because she doesn’t bring it up.
Kris Brogan, a Cunningham supporter and former policy aide who ran against Johnson in 2013, said she thinks the election will come down to which candidate can draw unlikely voters to the polls.
“It’s getting out the vote,” she said. “Endorsements only go so far. Lawn signs only go so far.”
And it may be that history only goes so far. Cherryhomes said some voters will factor in Johnson’s experience and family ties when they go to the polls, but others won’t.
“You see it nationally,” she said. “There’s not a lot of understanding of the importance of the continuity of history.”