On the day President Donald Trump announced his plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Raymond Dehn cleared his afternoon.
The DFL state representative was going to attend a news conference with local leaders and community organizers opposed to the president’s move. Dehn wanted to be there — quietly.
“If I’m asked to speak, I’ll speak. But I’m not going to grab the mic,” he said. “I never did that before; I don’t know why I would do that now. Even though I’m running for mayor.”
After three terms at the Legislature, Dehn, 60, has his eye on the Minneapolis mayor’s office. He is one of 15 people challenging Mayor Betsy Hodges in her re-election campaign — something he said he decided to do after learning the police officers involved in Jamar Clark’s death would not face any discipline.
“I’ve begun to become real concerned about my city the past few years,” Dehn said. “I still struggle with the fact that that was able to happen in the city of Minneapolis — let alone any city in the United States.”
Since launching his campaign in December, Dehn has harnessed the energy that followed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run to build a devoted base on a shoestring budget. At the DFL convention in July, Dehn placed first after one round of voting, outpacing Council Member Jacob Frey and Hodges.
It was an unlikely boon for an unlikely candidate — one who grew up poor, got into drugs, was convicted of a felony and then worked his way out, becoming an architect and then a state legislator. Dehn has been open about his past and has built a platform around it, focusing on the racial equity and criminal justice issues he’s worked on as a legislator — sometimes in ways that few other elected officials have, from participating in the Fourth Precinct occupation to going on a seven-day hunger strike.
“I think from the beginning he felt like it was an outside chance for him, that he was not a favorite candidate,” said former DFL state Rep. Ryan Winkler. “And he felt like there was a justice argument that needed to be made in the mayor’s race.”
A focus on criminal justice
Dehn grew up in Brooklyn Park. His father operated a forklift; his mother worked for a company that made wrappers for toilet paper shipped to American soldiers in Vietnam.
As a teenager, Dehn started drinking and doing cocaine. In 1976, he was jailed on a burglary conviction — a crime he said he committed to support his drug habit.
These days, Dehn tells that story a lot. But for a long time, he didn’t.
He went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota. He raised a son. He moved to north Minneapolis. He worked on the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s last campaign.
Then, in 2009, Dehn attended a conference where the political activist Angela Davis was speaking. When she asked everyone in the audience with a criminal record to stand up, Dehn stood, even though his record had been expunged decades before.
“That experience at that conference made me rethink what I was doing in life and the impact I was having,” Dehn said. “Running for office was about telling my story.”
At the Legislature, Dehn has focused on criminal justice. His work includes a successful bipartisan effort to ban the box felons must check on job applications.
Dehn talks about his work and firsthand experiences with the criminal justice system when voters ask why they should support him over Nekima Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney and former Minneapolis NAACP president who’s made police reform the heart of her campaign. When he encounters a decided Levy-Pounds supporter, he asks that they make him their second choice under the city’s ranked-choice voting system.
Some of Dehn’s views on crime and policing have drawn criticism. After police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned after the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, Dehn issued a statement calling for disarming police officers — and faced an immediate outcry.
“This is a poorly thought out position and would wind up causing officers to die, unable to defend themselves,” Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, tweeted at Dehn the day after his statement.
Dehn has since offered a more nuanced stance. His policing policy calls for banning the acquisition of military-grade equipment, prioritizing de-escalation and examining “when it is unnecessary for officers to carry a firearm.” In Dehn’s view, crime is the result of “scarcity,” not “individual morality.”
“More police and more cop cars isn’t the answer,” he said.
‘Connecting with people’
If the criticism has Dehn worried, he isn’t showing it. His campaign is focusing on connecting with voters, bringing his message of social justice to people who often know little about the mayor’s race.
While doorknocking in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, Dehn stopped to talk with Howasta Means, who was setting up an Indian taco stand for an annual block party. Means nodded as Dehn talked about the concerns he has about housing affordability and policing in the city. Means said he hadn’t heard much about Dehn, or any other mayoral candidates, until that moment.
“This is a pretty good start with him,” he said.
The campaign is also making a big effort to engage students. There’s been a U student group for months, and many campaign organizers are current students.
Aurin Chowdhury, president of Women for Political Change at the U, said she met Dehn when she was working on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. She said she appreciates his attention to issues of racial and economic equity, as well as the fact that his campaign is working to train a new generation of organizers.
“The people that are on his campaign are going to be able to make change far, far from this mayoral race,” she said, “and that’s really inspirational.”
Dehn prides himself on running a grass roots campaign. His staff is young and full of energy, and they’re operating with few resources. Dehn’s most recent campaign finance report shows he raised less than $55,000 in the first part of 2017, about seven times less than fundraising front-runner Frey.
“My campaign is not likely to run TV ads. We’re not likely to run radio ads. We’re not likely to send out flashy mailers,” Dehn said. “We’re going to be connecting with people door-to-door and talking about a message for the city of Minneapolis that includes the residents.”