After shying away from the spotlight, Hodges faces her first big test

  • Article by: MAYA RAO and ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 3, 2014 - 7:16 AM

After low-key first few months in office, mayor faces challenge and opportunity as she hammers out initial budget.

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The city budget is a key test for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez • Star Tribune,

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Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ low-key approach to running the city is about to face its first big test as she prepares a budget that will begin to define her first term.

After campaigning as a numbers whiz, Hodges must convert her promises to improve racial equity, grow the city and run it more efficiently into a $1.2 billion plan of action — and do it amid criticism that she has not shown enough leadership in her first seven months.

“As mayor, I’m charged with a big-picture agenda,” Hodges said in an interview. “That was what I talked about all last year. That is the agenda I’ve been moving forward on as mayor.”

A former budget chairwoman, Hodges has been less inclusive in the budget process so far than her predecessor. She is not inviting council committee leaders into high-level budget meetings, a move that former Mayor R.T. Rybak often took in his first two terms to smooth the approval process.

“Whether it’s the budget or whether it’s Southwest LRT, in some ways folks like myself who are supposedly on the inside — I don’t know what’s going on,” City Council Member Blong Yang said.

Some other council members said privately that they share Yang’s concerns, saying the mayor’s office has been quiet and distant since taking over at City Hall.

Hodges said that the job of crafting the budget rests with the mayor and that she is talking to department heads “in an environment where I can be free to have those conversations” without the council members’ added political dynamics. She will release her budget outline this month, giving the council its chance to weigh in.

The mayor has publicly offered few detailed new plans on how to accomplish her goals and has been largely absent from debates that have preoccupied the new City Council, from an overhaul of the city’s transportation regulations to ongoing debates over development around the city.

“She’s a quieter person and a more deliberate person than R.T.,” Council President Barb Johnson said, referring to former Mayor Rybak. “She was elected by the people, and I think people obviously like that about her.”

A council member for eight years, Hodges said she has intentionally avoided the “quick wins” in favor of building a foundation that would pay off in accomplishments years down the line. She has launched an effort to streamline small-business regulations and created a so-called Cradle-to-K cabinet, a group designed to ensure that young children have the skills and resources necessary to start kindergarten. Hodges’ initiative is taking direct aim at the city’s stubbornly low graduation rates, particularly among minorities and low-income students. Hodges and many education leaders believe that making sure children are ready for kindergarten will eventually boost high school graduation rates.

“I am going to be glad in two years and three years that I was able to withstand questions and impatience about it, because I know that I have been putting it forward to make sure we get really great outcomes,” Hodges said.

She also cited other steps she called accomplishments in her first few months, such as successfully lobbying for state money to renovate Nicollet Mall, boosting police patrols in higher-crime areas and filling out the final key jobs in her administration. The mayor has assembled a racially diverse staff and hired a Somali liaison as part of a broader effort to better connect with East African immigrants.

But Hodges has also faced criticism for what some see as political misfires.

Her recent social media initiative, “Best Week of Bragging Ever,” unfolded amid shootings and violence in north Minneapolis.

“We felt it was poorly timed to have a campaign bragging about how wonderful the city is in the middle of that,” said Anthony Newby, who has generally supported Hodges and heads Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a group that tries to empower low-income residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Newby added that he would like to see her devote the same level attention to improving racial equality.

The council, meanwhile, has taken action on an array of items, some of them controversial and without much public comment from the mayor. In addition to changes legalizing ride-sharing car services Lyft and UberX, council members forced nightclubs to carry earplugs, renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, ramped up a prohibition on Styrofoam takeout containers and pushed to eliminate strict liquor-to-food ratios for restaurants.

Hodges issued a news release after the council legalized the new car services, but generally has been quiet on the other issues.

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