Before the dust settled after Election Day in Minneapolis, a new campaign started: the scramble to replace Barb Johnson as president of the City Council.
The 13-member body, including five new faces next year, must choose a new council president after 12 years of leadership from Johnson, who lost her bid for re-election. Whoever is selected as president will be only the fourth person in the post over the past 25 years.
The council president assigns council members to chair and serve on crucial committees, prepares agendas and runs council meetings. He or she speaks for the council, appoints people to city boards and commissions and, ideally, works closely with the mayor’s office. In a city with a weak-mayor system, the council president is viewed by some as the most powerful official in Minneapolis.
“It can be the most influential position in the city,” said Paul Ostrow, the council president during R.T. Rybak’s first term as mayor in the early 2000s. “If the job is done correctly, you have a chance to make the council function the way that it should, and that’s the most important thing.”
The position has also become a political rallying point.
Johnson’s reelection as president in 2014 created a rift on the City Council that lasts to this day.
Council members who supported Johnson became something of a voting bloc, and they decided in 2014 to cut $620,000 from Mayor Betsy Hodges’ budget at the last minute, including $250,000 for an Office of Equitable Outcomes, a key Hodges initiative.
The money was later approved, but the vote to cut Hodges’ budget — referred to as the “latte levy” because the benefit to homeowners was about $2.50 — drove a wedge between the Johnson-led majority and Hodges and became a talking point in the election campaign. Council Member Cam Gordon called attention to it on Facebook the day before the election.
Now, the council presidency is up for grabs, and jockeying for the job is underway. One incoming council member, Jeremy Schroeder, received calls lobbying for his support before the results of his election were official. Another, Steve Fletcher, was called within an hour of receiving news of his victory.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how we can get the most good policy done for our ward and for Minneapolis,” said Schroeder, who was elected to represent the 11th Ward. “Right now the process really hasn’t lent itself to that.”
Incoming council members have asked for more time to learn about their colleagues and the responsibilities of the council president before they make a decision. The official vote will be in January.
“We were feeling as this first big decision comes along that we want time to sit down and talk to everyone,” said Fletcher, who was elected in the Third Ward. “I want what’s best for the city, so I want to figure out what everybody else’s strengths are before we figure out what committee I should be wrangling for.”
Jeremiah Ellison, who won the election in the Fifth Ward over Blong Yang, said his goal is to avoid the schism that defined the past four years at City Hall.
“How are we going to create an atmosphere in which everybody feels like they can talk to everyone else, and that there’s not such a strict split in the way the last council was discussed?” Ellison said. “I think you do that by getting to know people.”
Three candidates for council president have emerged, according to multiple people close to negotiations: Council Members Lisa Bender and Linea Palmisano, and Council Member-elect Andrea Jenkins.
Mayor-elect Jacob Frey said he’s not backing anyone for the job.
“We look forward to working with any president council members choose for themselves, to work on the issues that are important to Minneapolis,” he said in a statement.
Bender, who supported Hodges for mayor, has close ties to progressive advocacy groups and helped get several new council members elected. She declined to discuss the matter, but said in a statement: “This decision isn’t made until January. Council members are all talking about how to best achieve our shared campaign priorities together with mayor-elect Frey.”
Palmisano, who supported Frey for mayor, said last week she was pursuing the job, touting her administrative abilities and arguing that she’s “tolerable to everybody.” The council presidency is “not an ideological position,” she said.
This will be Jenkins’ first term on the council, but she is a City Hall veteran, having served on the staff of two former council members. Her election as council president would be historic, since she’s already the first transgender woman of color elected to public office in a major U.S. city. She did not return calls for comment.
Until consensus emerges around a leader, council members will continue to haggle over coveted appointments such as council vice president, and chair of the Ways and Means and Community Development committees.
It’s often like this, said Ostrow. After the 2001 election, council members were switching allegiances right up to the day of the vote. Ostrow ultimately defeated Barb Johnson that year, but it was deeply contentious.
“It’s embarrassing to bring all this up, but there was actually some kind of consultant brought in to bring peace to the council,” Ostrow said. “It was just a total free-for-all.”