A younger, more diverse City Council could take the helm of Minneapolis next year if campaigns already launching in neighborhoods across the city prevail this fall.
Many eyes will be on the candidates vying to succeed outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak, but all 13 council seats are also up for grabs. The council’s power over the mayor at City Hall means the outcome of those races have broad implications for everything from taxes to construction in Minnesota’s largest city.
Three seats are entirely open because their current occupants are running for mayor. Fierce battles are already underway with incumbents representing Uptown and the central riverfront. Somali candidates are organizing to represent a new south Minneapolis ward heavily populated by East African residents.
“It’s a new Minneapolis,” said attorney Jacob Frey, who is challenging Council Member Diane Hofstede in a ward covering parts of downtown and neighborhoods east of the river. “We’re no longer suburbs in the city. Minneapolis is, I think, getting both younger and is getting more diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, in terms of skin color, you name it.”
This will also be the city’s first major test of ranked-choice voting, which has no primary and asks voters to order their top three choices for the possibility of an instant runoff. (Candidates need to win at least half of the votes to win the election.) Julaine Heit, president of the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, says voters will need to be familiar with all of the candidates — not just one.
“They really have to be much more educated and earlier on so they understand who the candidates are,” said Heit, whose organization is already arranging candidate forums.
Candidates are mobilizing early because some of the most important decisions come months before the election. The conventions to win the DFL endorsement — a major factor in Minneapolis races — take place between April 27 and June 14. Delegates for those conventions will be elected by April 16.
In south Minneapolis, redistricting has created a new Sixth Ward that follows Franklin Avenue and reaches into Cedar-Riverside. Some estimate that about 40 percent of the ward’s residents are of East African heritage. At least one Somali candidate, Abdi Warsame, has announced a run against 11-year incumbent Council Member Robert Lilligren. Another, Sadik Warfa, is mulling a bid.
“We do need a more diverse City Council,” Warsame said. “And the East African community has never had an opportunity where they could have a seat on the council.”
Warsame played a prominent role in last year’s redistricting meetings, advocating for a redrawing of the map to give East Africans — never represented in City Hall politics before — a more favorable chance of winning election. Lilligren is the Goliath in this race, Warsame said last week, “but David sometimes wins.”
Lilligren is no stranger to political challenges — redistricting changes pitted him against a fellow councilman in 2005 — and said he welcomed all opponents.
He added that he has considerable support from the Somali community, which “is very sophisticated politically. I don’t think someone being Somali will be their primary criteria.”
The city’s burgeoning Hispanic population — jumping 37 percent in the last decade — could also finally elect one of its own in the south Minneapolis ward being vacated by Council Member Gary Schiff as he runs for mayor.
Among the candidates is Alondra Cano, a Mexican-American who last year helped organize a City Hall task force to better engage the city’s Latino population and wants to include more of that group in city decisionmaking.
Another competitive race is already underway in Uptown, where booming development and the accompanying traffic snarls and boisterous night life have created tensions about the future of the neighborhood. One-term Council Member Meg Tuthill faces four challengers.
Some of them say they would offer more inclusive leadership than Tuthill and host broader conversations about how new development should look and benefit the community.
Calling the city’s development process “broken,” candidate Ken Bradley said he wants to see more environmentally sustainable buildings that offer greater community benefit. He also criticized Tuthill’s controversial crackdown on outdoor seating in 2011, saying she didn’t contact enough business owners to address the problem. Bradley, who is program director for Environment Minnesota, said he would have promoted more conversation with bars and restaurants.
Tuthill burst out laughing at the criticism, saying, “I find that fascinating.” She said she called together bars when she first got elected to talk about noise complaints, and when the problem kept escalating, she introduced an ordinance restricting noise and seating at outdoor patios in order to grab people’s attention. They wound up working together to fix the issue, Tuthill said, and grievances have since dwindled. She also noted working with businesses to get extra squad cars and taxi cabs in the neighborhood.
Tuthill said the ward hasn’t had a two-term council member in a dozen years and the lack of continuity hurts the ward.
Jobs a top issue on North Side
In the city’s two North Side wards, candidates are advocating economic development for an area struggling with population loss, foreclosures and many jobless people.
Council President Barb Johnson endured 10 ballots before winning endorsement at her ward’s convention in 2010, and said she is working hard to win the support of delegates this time around. One-time mayoral aide and restaurateur Kris Brogan has stepped up to challenge the seat, formerly held by Johnson’s mother.
“The North Side needs the leadership the rest of the city has,” Brogan said.
Blong Yang is one of three candidates vying for the seat of Council Member Don Samuels, who is running for mayor. Yang, who is Hmong, won nearly 40 percent of the vote when he went head-to-head against then-Sen. Linda Higgins for a Hennepin County Board seat in 2012.
He worries about low turnout in the north Minneapolis ward, however. Only 2,170 votes were cast in 2009, and Samuels won with 1,131.
“That was just kind of ridiculous ... hopefully people are energized to come out,” Yang said.
He’ll compete against two African-American candidates who also have some political experience. Attorney Ian Alexander lost his bid last year for Minnesota House seat 59B, while Brett Buckner has served as field director U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s campaign and the DFL’s Fifth Congressional District from 2006 to 2008.
Battle of endorsements
Frey’s race against Hofstede has been more active than any other in the city. In January, four sitting council members endorsed Frey over their own colleague — an unusual vote of no-confidence. Hofstede countered with her own endorsement list, including three of her colleagues, and the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council.
Hofstede said she would continue her support for public safety, economic development, and projects along the riverfront, and added that her work improving city finances, large network of supporters, and long history in the city distinguish her. She brushed off criticism from some of her colleagues that she is ineffective and difficult to reach.
“I have the ability,” she said, “to accomplish goals regardless of what other people may think.”