After just one term on the City Council, Lisa Bender had a clear vision for Minneapolis.
She led the push for bike lanes and greater housing density, and championed policies meant to bring sweeping social change, especially for the city’s poorest residents, from mandatory sick leave to a citywide minimum wage ordinance.
Now, after an election that upended the city’s leadership, she has a new post from which to mold the city. Her peers, including five new members, elected her council president at the body’s first meeting earlier this month, ushering in a generational, geographic and philosophical shift atop the Minneapolis City Council. Bender, 39, is three decades younger than her predecessor, the first council president from south Minneapolis in 24 years, and a fierce ally of progressive advocates who is committed to an expansive role for city government.
“Cities are taking on more and more policy issues that didn’t used to fall to City Councils,” Bender said. “It’s true in Minneapolis and it’s true in cities across the country, because of the federal dynamics and what’s happening in a lot of states, including Minnesota. It’s all coming to the cities.”
Her advocacy for bike lanes and pro-density leadership on the Zoning and Planning Committee has produced an antagonistic relationship with some neighbors in her 10th Ward and members of the business community.
But she won re-election to her second term with three times as many votes as her nearest competitor. That left her time and resources to get involved in races all over the city, campaigning on behalf of Mayor Betsy Hodges and against several of her colleagues on last term’s City Council, three of whom were voted out of office.
“I worked with her for four years and I know that she’ll relentlessly fight for her agenda,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano. “I think what’s yet to be seen is how well she’ll work with others, and particularly how she’ll utilize the experience of people that are here even despite her efforts.”
‘Work toward compromise’
A breast cancer survivor and mother of two who more often than not rides her bicycle from her home in Uptown to City Hall, Bender has developed a reputation for fearlessness.
She helped pass several big policy changes in her first term on the City Council, including the minimum wage, but she said she was often in the minority on the council. Fed up with that dynamic, she worked to unseat several of her colleagues, especially Council President Barbara Johnson, and Council Members Lisa Goodman and Blong Yang.
Goodman, who declined to comment, easily won re-election. Johnson and Yang both lost, giving north Minneapolis two new council members in Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison.
Yet the 13-0 vote that delivered Bender the presidency masked division on the City Council. Vice President Andrea Jenkins also wanted to be president and was backed by a fluctuating cast of four to six others.
All the new council members other than Jenkins, however, were unwavering in their support of Bender, and she split up the council’s committee assignments in ways that left everyone smiling when the council president vote occurred.
“Through this process of deciding council president, I’ve seen her firsthand work in a collaborative way, listen to others, work toward compromise,” Council Member Andrew Johnson said. “So I’m optimistic.”
Bender was an ardent supporter of Hodges in the mayoral election, and after Mayor Jacob Frey’s victory, she openly doubted the sincerity of Frey’s “progressive values.” She said after the election she needed “evidence” from him as he voted on the 2018 budget as a council member.
But Bender and Frey have similar goals on affordable housing, they both say City Hall must promote residential density, and they’ve both sounded notes of unity in recent weeks.
Bender told Frey on Inauguration Day that he would have her “full support” in addressing affordable housing, improving police-community relations and increasing economic inclusion — the three pillars of his platform.
Frey said last week that Bender’s talk of cooperation and their interactions have been “really positive.”
“Council President Bender and I have put the campaign 100 percent in the past,” Frey said. “We’re very aligned with a forward-thinking vision, and I have every confidence that we’re going to work well together.”
Bender is respected by business groups such as the Downtown Council and the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, but not because they agree with her on policy.
“I’ve always found her to be very smart,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council. “Her convictions are strong, and she’s effective at City Hall.”
Cramer was part of the group that started and funded Minneapolis Works, a political action committee that tried to counteract the work of Bender and her allies to reshape the City Council. Several candidates backed by Minneapolis Works — Johnson, Yang and John Quincy — lost in the election, and Bender, Cramer said, “won the day.”
Business groups feared that a Bender-led City Council would not give them a fair hearing, and those fears have not been allayed, with a $15 minimum wage already on the books and the City Council poised to tackle affordable housing in the next year.
“She obviously is viewed as a leader of the advocacy wing, the left-leaning wing, and that’s fine and they had great success in this election,” Cramer said, “but there are other perspectives in the city as well.”
Bender said the first job of the new City Council is to plan what it will do, and how it will do it, over the next four years.
“We need to take some time to set up ways for the council to work with the mayor and the community on these big core issues that we’re tackling — housing, police reform,” Bender said.
Minneapolis resident Anton Schieffer and other Bender supporters are enthusiastic about her chances of making progress on the problems that they say residents are most concerned about. The new Housing Policy and Development Committee that Bender created, which Cam Gordon will chair, was a good idea, Schieffer said, and he applauds her willingness to wield city government to address persistent racial economic inequality.
“Lisa brings a fresh face and fresh ideas, and having five new council members, I think that’s really important for the city going forward, to get new voices,” Schieffer said. “I think Lisa will work well with those council members to help close some of the racial equity gaps in Minneapolis.”