While Betsy Hodges takes the reins at City Hall, Gary Cunningham is busy trying to right racial disparities in the community.
In the final days of the Minneapolis mayoral campaign, the city’s future first gentleman hunkered down in Betsy Hodges’ campaign headquarters and made call after call urging residents to vote for his wife.
By the time he worked his way through North Side phone numbers in a database of likely voters, a friend recalled, Gary Cunningham seemed to know everyone who picked up — or, at least, their mother or cousin.
“He was her secret weapon,” said the friend, Sara Barrow. “He got so many people to vote for her because he knew them.”
While Hodges, 44, has commanded the spotlight as the newly sworn mayor of Minneapolis, her husband’s contributions to public causes also run deep. Cunningham, 56, has long won attention in his own right as a leader on some of the very issues his wife is pressing in office, namely addressing racial disparities.
In fact, some observers say, Cunningham was likely better known until Hodges began her mayoral campaign as a two-term City Council member for southwest Minneapolis.
Ascending from a youth that included running with the Black Panthers, being raised by a single mother on welfare, and witnessing the North Side race riots of the 1960s, Cunningham went on to graduate from Harvard and serve in a variety of administrative positions in government and philanthropy for decades. He is a three-year member of the Met Council and vice president of a foundation that aims to reduce poverty.
He and Hodges say they act independently at work, though their professional lives intersect.
The Met Council, and later City Hall and other affected towns, are expected this year to decide the fate of the Southwest light-rail line. Hodges and Cunningham last fall separately opposed efforts by the agency to advance a plan to route the light rail through tunnels in a water channel between two lakes in the Kenilworth corridor. They supported delaying the project for further study. Meanwhile, as the mayor makes good on her campaign promises to improve opportunities for nonwhites, Cunningham has long facilitated discussions and research on improving academic and job prospects for racial minorities in the Twin Cities through organizations he has helped found, such as the African-American Leadership Forum and the African-American Men Project.
Cunningham acknowledges that Hodges’ emphasis on improving early childhood health and education — under a “Cradle to K” program — will not, on its own, lift minority achievement.
“By itself it’s not going to move the needle as far unless it’s complemented with other things … I think Betsy agrees with me, ” he said.
Active in transit issues
When Hodges was a council member, Cunningham worked with her and other city officials to expand public transit on the North Side.
Amid a dispute about the route of a planned Bottineau light-rail line, Cunningham and city officials sought more stops in north Minneapolis. While Hennepin County pursued a different plan, Cunningham was part of a team that pushed to split the cost among the city, the county, and the Met Council for a study on the possibility of a streetcar for West Broadway Avenue to boost development on the North Side. They also successfully pushed for the area to receive additional bus service in a few years.
Additionally, Cunningham served on an advisory committee for the $200 million Nicollet-Central streetcar, and chairs another panel studying improved transit in Midtown — both projects for which Hodges has advocated. The mayor said that their work would not pose a conflict of interest, and that when they do talk about their jobs it is more in the context of asking about each other’s day than debating public policy.
A man who is much more animated when discussing the latest research on racial gaps in education and jobs than talking about any possible influence over Hodges’ policies, Cunningham insists that his role is mainly as her supporter. And he has taken on the role with good humor, cracking jokes about being the first man with Connie Coleman, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s wife, at Hodges’ victory bash last fall at 612 Brewery.
He wrote about being a political spouse with some amusement on Hodges’ campaign site last year, saying he was surprised that people rarely asked him policy questions anymore.
The most frequent questions were related to what his title would be: “Top suggestions are, ‘First Gentleman, First Man, The Man, First Dude, ’ ” he wrote.