Nekima Levy-Pounds’ desire to become mayor of Minneapolis dates back to the death of Jamar Clark, a black man from the North Side shot by the police.
She was well into her career as a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, and six months into her tenure as president of the Minneapolis NAACP. But the November 2015 occupation of the Fourth Precinct police station in protest of Clark’s death thrust her forward as an advocate for racial justice and police reform.
“That experience at the Fourth Precinct, those 18 days, was life-changing for me,” Levy-Pounds, 41, said. “[It] took the fire that was already burning in me to a whole other level to be a stronger catalyst for change.”
She quit her teaching job the next year. A few months later, she resigned as head of the NAACP. On the anniversary of Clark’s death, she announced her run for mayor, the first person to do so.
In a crowded field, with 15 candidates challenging Mayor Betsy Hodges, Levy-Pounds has hammered on the theme of police reform and demanded greater racial equity.
A dynamic speaker, Levy-Pounds has led protests and marches for victims of police shootings across the Twin Cities. She commands attention at demonstrations with blunt, stern messages drawing cheers from the crowds. On Twitter, she addresses her supporters and followers as “Friends,” and in person, especially in more informal settings, greets supporters with a handshake or hug and a wide smile.
She said it is important voters know she has plans around many issues, including affordable housing and jobs, not just policing.
“That’s a life or death issue, but it’s just one facet of what I’m bringing to the table,” she said.
For voter Tara Beard, Levy-Pounds’ track record of speaking out against injustice is reason enough to put her in the mayor’s office.
“We’re just not going to get anywhere if we don’t resolve this racial equity issue,” said Beard, who lives in south Minneapolis and first heard of Levy-Pounds during the Fourth Precinct occupation. “There’s no stronger candidate when it comes to that.”
Social justice emphasis
Levy-Pounds was born in Jackson, Miss., and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Her path to Minnesota wound through boarding school in Massachusetts, the University of Southern California for an undergraduate degree, and the University of Illinois for a law degree.
At St. Thomas, she was the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a legal clinic focused on race and social justice issues.
That mission — to improve the lives of people of color and the impoverished — is still her focus and the centerpiece of her mayoral campaign. She wants to increase the amount of affordable housing in Minneapolis, suggesting the city sell its vacant lots to low-income families. She also wants to use her influence to create new paths to employment for students, including pushing them toward trade and vocational schools.
“Our folks in Minneapolis who are doing well are not an island unto themselves,” she said. “The future vitality of the city depends upon how we treat everyone, but especially how we treat those who are at the bottom and who are marginalized.”
In her run for mayor, Levy-Pounds has made a point of being an outsider. She opted out of the DFL endorsement process, calling it “confusing and unwelcoming,” and discouraging to women of color. She also decided not to seek the endorsement from Our Revolution Twin Cities, an activist group that spun off Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and ultimately endorsed state Rep. Raymond Dehn for mayor. Their survey included a question about whether mayoral candidates would veto initiatives the group supports.
“I did not want to put myself or the people of Minneapolis in that position,” Levy-Pounds said. “I want to be free in terms of being able to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people.”
Still, Kevin Chavis, chairman of Our Revolution Twin Cities, praised Levy-Pounds.
“She doesn’t pull punches,” he said. “She’s helped organize a voice for people that feel disenfranchised, that feel powerless in the current political system we have.”
Her approach, however, has also alienated some well-known black leaders in Minneapolis.
Rev. Jerry McAfee, a pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, said Levy-Pounds has publicly denounced some programs and policies supported by black preachers and politicians. He questioned her ability to bring about the change she seeks by herself.
“There’s a difference between walking it and talking it,” McAfee said.
From protest to campaign
Levy-Pounds said she doesn’t want to be “pigeonholed” as a candidate seeking the support of black residents and leaders. She noted that she has a diverse group of supporters, many of whom have marched in protests with her.
Her campaign finance reports show many small donations of $10 or $25 each, but has pulled in far less money than others in the mayoral race with six-figure totals. Levy-Pounds raised $20,255 this year, according to campaign finance reports filed in August, less than half of what Dehn, the candidate whose policies most resemble her own, brought in.
“I want to set the example that a candidate can stay grounded in her values … and can run a grass roots campaign that puts the people first,” she said.
In July, Levy-Pounds gave birth to a daughter, Assata. She called Assata a “future freedom fighter,” and a bassinet rests in a corner of her campaign headquarters.
“I’m proud to be a working mom,” she said. “[It] has demonstrated the power of perseverance and strength and courage.”
When Beard and her husband hosted a meet-and-greet with Levy-Pounds and a dozen neighbors in their home last month, the conversation gravitated toward the Minneapolis Police Department.
“It’s not enough to just have ethnic and racial diversity,” she told them. “What is the mentality behind the people that we’re bringing in?”
Beard said Levy-Pounds is well-versed in criminal justice and race relations, topics that find their way into other facets of city government, from housing to employment.
“Being mayor … is not the kind of job where you come in knowing how to do it,” Beard said. “Where she still has places and topics to learn on at this moment in time, she’ll get there.”