Mayor Jacob Frey stood near the wall at a meeting in north Minneapolis as a procession of speakers lambasted his plans to hire more police officers.
“You need to call this stuff off. I am serious. I am a very angry mom,” activist Deirdre Darovic said, criticizing a SWAT team’s visit to the neighborhood. “And this is not the last time you have seen me. If you think these people are going away, you are fooling yourself.”
The crowd cheered.
An hour later, he bounded onto the stage at the Brave New Workshop, smiling broadly, for the filming of Minnesota Tonight, a comedy news show.
Host Jonathan Gershberg gave Frey a tiny black top hat, draped him with a blue sash emblazoned with “mayor” in white letters and handed him a giant pair of scissors to snip a red ribbon in a faux act of mayoral authority.
“I’m having a ball!” he shouted to the crowd.
A hundred days into his first term as mayor, Frey is confronted with the work of governing Minnesota’s largest city, and his days jolt from the ceremonial to the lighthearted to dead serious.
He assigned himself the jobs of making housing more affordable and building trust between police and citizens of Minneapolis, a daunting challenge following a series of police-involved shootings of unarmed people. On top of that, he wants to break the cycles that perpetuate poverty and racial segregation.
Whether he can solve these problems — or even earnestly wants to — became a central question from his critics during months leading to the culmination of a bitter election in which he unseated Mayor Betsy Hodges.
“Some chose not to support Jacob Frey because they saw maybe a lack of substance or sincerity. I always thought that was incorrect,” said former Mayor R.T. Rybak, who helped oversee Frey’s transition into office after the election. “He’s got a lot more substance and a lot more sincerity than he was given credit for.”
Frey recognizes that he’s spent the past year making weighty promises on which he must now deliver.
“I am an ambitious person,” he said. “But I think the city could use some ambition — to not just talk about these issues, but also act on them.”
100 days, 200 appearances
On an April evening, Frey was guest bartending at an ACLU fundraiser at Lake and Legends brewery in Loring Park, wearing a black apron over his usual button-down and tie. He filled a tulip glass with a red beer, but when he turned around the customer has wandered away, so he shrugs, takes a sip and scans the room.
This is key to Frey’s strategy — to be everywhere, all the time. By his count, he made 200 public appearances in his first 100 days in office.
The frenetic schedule suits him — working 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day. He’s 36 years old, unable to sit still, relentlessly good-natured in public, and by his own admission, almost pathologically extroverted.
“I’ll go home at the end of the night and if my wife’s not around I’m lonely in 10 minutes and looking for something to do,” Frey said.
“So this job is amazing in that respect because I have this ongoing source of energy supplied by the people I interact with.”
But Frey’s eagerness to please has a potential downside. Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council, underscored perhaps the most widespread concern about the new mayor: Does he have the guts to see through unpopular decisions when he’s criticized?
“He certainly experienced that as a council member, but now it’s obviously amplified,” Cramer said. “Time will tell about how he handles that dynamic.”
Frey is already seeing pushback. At public safety forums in March and April, a proposal to hire more police officers was rejected by residents who say the police are the problem, not a solution. While Chief Medaria Arradondo wants to raise the force to 1,000 officers from its current 890, Frey deflected criticism at those meetings by insisting he won’t hire 100 police officers in his first term.
But he does want to hire more officers, an idea that will cost money and likely face opposition from the City Council. The mayor argues that more police will improve “police-community relations” by freeing up officers who now rush from call to call.
As the man responsible for hiring the chief, Frey took the brunt of the criticism at the public safety forums in March and April.
“He seemed a little scared, but he stayed, which tells me that unless he’s playing, he is serious,” said John Thompson of St. Paul, who was at the first forum. Thompson rose to prominence as a critic of law enforcement after his friend Philando Castile was killed in 2016 by a St. Anthony police officer.
Earlier in April, Frey and Arradondo announced that Minneapolis police officers must turn on their body cameras two blocks away from a call location, and face punishment if they violate those rules.
The mayor and chief also want to split the police union so sergeants aren’t at the same collective bargaining table with the rank-and-file, which Frey believes will make it more likely for supervisors to discipline misbehaving officers.
“He’s going in the right direction,” said City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who has spoken out on police accountability since Justine Damond was shot dead in Palmisano’s ward by a police officer whose body camera wasn’t on.
“I don’t know at the end of the day will he achieve 10 percent of his big talking,” Palmisano said about Frey. “But isn’t this the right way to start it if you’re going to?”
Frey’s top priority in the campaign was affordable housing — finding ways to keep rents from rising and giving poor people more options for places to live. Yet he’s already on the defensive about city planners’ controversial proposal to allow fourplexes in virtually every neighborhood.
In an interview, Frey said he does not support rent control — which cities like San Francisco have imposed — but he wants to give landlords a 40 percent break on their property taxes if they keep at least a fifth of their units affordable to people whose household income is 60 percent or less of the area’s median.
Frey said he wants to give renters legal help in housing court if the city finds that the property is uninhabitable or the landlord has breached the lease. He also wants more “deeply affordable housing” for the homeless, he said, something that would require a property tax hike.
But the center of the affordable housing debate in Minneapolis is the draft update to the city’s comprehensive plan. It would allow fourplexes in every neighborhood and ultimately rezone dozens of major corridors so that four- and six-story buildings will be allowed on them.
Though he declined to say he supports the fourplex proposal, Frey said more density in more places is a way to push back against a history of racist mortgage practices that created largely white, single-family home neighborhoods.
“No matter what we do on the subsidy side, we need more housing options to accommodate demand, otherwise the prices will be continually jacked up,” Frey said.
The comprehensive plan update could turn into the most contentious question that Frey and the City Council will face this year. Nancy Przymus, who’s lived in Windom Park for 34 years, said she’s convinced that increasing density citywide wouldn’t achieve what planners say it will.
“It’s like ice cream on a rotten cake,” she said.
Vision for the city
Inside City Hall, the Frey administration bears a close resemblance to the one he replaced. He has retained nearly every department head who remained from the Hodges years.
In the powerful city coordinator position, Frey hired Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, who was deputy city coordinator. She took over for Spencer Cronk, who left in February to become city manager in Austin, Texas.
Frey says he has a dream for Minneapolis that he calls a “world-class city” — a place where the energy is palpable, and the possibilities for its citizens are not limited by their backgrounds.
“I want to walk on the street and feel a beautiful diversity of people, and use and sounds and tastes and smells,” he said.
“A world-class city is not about buildings. It’s about people.”