Residents of south Minneapolis’ Ninth Ward can tick off the challenges for the diverse, low-income area bisected by East Lake Street — nuisance crime, a lull in real estate development, trepidation among Latino businesses after the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration.
They’re concerns neighbors and business owners plan to air amid a City Council race that’s already shaping up to be among the most-watched contests in a busy city election year.
The incumbent, Alondra Cano, is an outspoken progressive with an activist’s instincts. Her challengers in the Ninth Ward, former Council Member Gary Schiff and nonprofit founder Mohamed Farah, are running on platforms stressing the need for development and public safety.
“I don’t see a need for a lot of new initiatives, we’ve all got our sleeves rolled up,” said Julie Ingebretsen, an owner of Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts on E. Lake Street. “Certainly public safety is a big one for us.”
Caucuses are April 4 and the election is in November. Whether one of the challengers can pry the seat away from Cano will in part depend on whether voters value her high-profile activism or buy her opponents’ narrative that she doesn’t pay close enough attention to the ward.
Cano says her office is already helping residents tackle crime. Her top priorities, however, are removing industrial polluters from the ward, a higher minimum wage and sick leave, and “business development through a culturally relevant lens.” Her efforts to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline and get the city to divest from Wells Fargo align her with the sensibility of residents around Powderhorn Park, and in a 28 percent Latino ward, having elected the first Latina council member is a point of pride.
“It is a diverse, radical, LGBTQ, Latino ward,” Cano said. “Being bilingual, being bicultural, that matters, being the daughter of undocumented immigrants, that matters, being a mother matters. Being a wannabe artist matters.”
Schiff says the ward needs a nuts-and-bolts council member and touts himself as a policy expert who knows how to pass laws and pull the levers of government.
He was the one who sponsored the 2003 ordinance that prevents Minneapolis police from asking about people’s immigration status, a law that is cherished at City Hall. His priorities in the Ninth Ward include turning back the heroin epidemic and building affordable housing.
“There’s nothing under construction right now, nothing breaking ground, and nothing that’s been funded. It’s just not a priority, and not something she’s working on,” Schiff said of Cano.
Farah presents himself as a dealmaker who will bring in public and private investment, leaving no storefront behind. He says 98 percent occupancy on Lake Street is the goal, which will require “fighting for our piece of the pie at City Hall,” developing real estate and insisting on safety and livability.
“As you drive down Lake Street going east it gets worse and worse, and as you drive west it gets better, and I’m running to change that,” Farah said.
In her first term, Cano has introduced just one ordinance, a revision to the parking rules for grocery stores. And critics say she is sometimes inattentive to the details of governing.
In November at a Cafe con Alondra event, she misstated the size of the Minneapolis budget as $1.3 million (it’s $1.3 billion) twice in one meeting. In February, a day after voting to approve a program that offers down payment assistance for people to build new homes in north Minneapolis, she e-mailed staff to express concerns about the program, and said, “I will not be able to vote to support this program in its current structure.”
Cano doesn’t deny her mistakes — “I’m not perfect, and I’m not a robot,” she said — but she also doesn’t agree that introducing ordinances is the only way to represent her ward. With reliable progressive votes and advocacy, she says, she has helped shift City Hall to the left.
“We’ve been an extremely effective voice for workers, for the environmental movement, for cooperative economics, for a new Minneapolis,” Cano said. “I reflect the social movements of our time.”
Schiff also has critics. After serving three terms on the City Council, he ran for mayor and lost. He was hired as executive director of the Council on Crime and Justice in 2014, and then relieved of his duties a year later. The organization closed after he was replaced, and a federal audit highlighted $424,000 in “questioned costs,” finding that the organization “spent grant funds on a variety of unallowable and unsupported costs.”
Schiff wasn’t named in the audit, said he wasn’t interviewed by investigators, and said the grant program that came under scrutiny was frozen while he was in charge. “When I was at this organization, no work happened on this grant,” Schiff said.
He blames the board and his predecessor for the organization’s failure.
Since he ran for mayor, he has also been a consultant for Minneapolis, and worked to revive In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater as a board member.
Farah, who has spent the past 10 years as executive director of Somali nonprofit Ka Joog, can navigate the world of grant-writing. Just last month his organization rejected a $500,000 counterextremism grant, citing Trump’s “unofficial war on Muslim-Americans.”
He says Ninth Ward voters want fresh representation.
“They are ready to set a whole new direction,” Farah said. “Our ward is facing many challenges, and we’re not tackling them.”