In the final days of the Minneapolis mayoral campaign, the city’s future first gentleman hunkered down in Betsy Hodges’ campaign headquarters and made call after call urging residents to vote for his wife.
By the time he worked his way through North Side phone numbers in a database of likely voters, a friend recalled, Gary Cunningham seemed to know everyone who picked up — or, at least, their mother or cousin.
“He was her secret weapon,” said the friend, Sara Barrow. “He got so many people to vote for her because he knew them.”
While Hodges, 44, has commanded the spotlight as the newly sworn mayor of Minneapolis, her husband’s contributions to public causes also run deep. Cunningham, 56, has long won attention in his own right as a leader on some of the very issues his wife is pressing in office, namely addressing racial disparities.
In fact, some observers say, Cunningham was likely better known until Hodges began her mayoral campaign as a two-term City Council member for southwest Minneapolis.
Ascending from a youth that included running with the Black Panthers, being raised by a single mother on welfare, and witnessing the North Side race riots of the 1960s, Cunningham went on to graduate from Harvard and serve in a variety of administrative positions in government and philanthropy for decades. He is a three-year member of the Met Council and vice president of a foundation that aims to reduce poverty.
He and Hodges say they act independently at work, though their professional lives intersect.
The Met Council, and later City Hall and other affected towns, are expected this year to decide the fate of the Southwest light-rail line. Hodges and Cunningham last fall separately opposed efforts by the agency to advance a plan to route the light rail through tunnels in a water channel between two lakes in the Kenilworth corridor. They supported delaying the project for further study. Meanwhile, as the mayor makes good on her campaign promises to improve opportunities for nonwhites, Cunningham has long facilitated discussions and research on improving academic and job prospects for racial minorities in the Twin Cities through organizations he has helped found, such as the African-American Leadership Forum and the African-American Men Project.
Cunningham acknowledges that Hodges’ emphasis on improving early childhood health and education — under a “Cradle to K” program — will not, on its own, lift minority achievement.
“By itself it’s not going to move the needle as far unless it’s complemented with other things … I think Betsy agrees with me, ” he said.
Active in transit issues
When Hodges was a council member, Cunningham worked with her and other city officials to expand public transit on the North Side.
Amid a dispute about the route of a planned Bottineau light-rail line, Cunningham and city officials sought more stops in north Minneapolis. While Hennepin County pursued a different plan, Cunningham was part of a team that pushed to split the cost among the city, the county, and the Met Council for a study on the possibility of a streetcar for West Broadway Avenue to boost development on the North Side. They also successfully pushed for the area to receive additional bus service in a few years.
Additionally, Cunningham served on an advisory committee for the $200 million Nicollet-Central streetcar, and chairs another panel studying improved transit in Midtown — both projects for which Hodges has advocated. The mayor said that their work would not pose a conflict of interest, and that when they do talk about their jobs it is more in the context of asking about each other’s day than debating public policy.
A man who is much more animated when discussing the latest research on racial gaps in education and jobs than talking about any possible influence over Hodges’ policies, Cunningham insists that his role is mainly as her supporter. And he has taken on the role with good humor, cracking jokes about being the first man with Connie Coleman, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s wife, at Hodges’ victory bash last fall at 612 Brewery.
He wrote about being a political spouse with some amusement on Hodges’ campaign site last year, saying he was surprised that people rarely asked him policy questions anymore.
The most frequent questions were related to what his title would be: “Top suggestions are, ‘First Gentleman, First Man, The Man, First Dude, ’ ” he wrote.
Now that Hodges has relinquished her council seat, the pair are finally moving in together after 2½ years of marriage, with the mayor leaving behind her rented home in the 13th Ward to live in Cunningham’s longtime house in the Lyndale neighborhood. They lived apart because they represented different areas of the city.
Cunningham has two adult children and four grandchildren.
Both divorced, they met in 2007, when Hodges accompanied her friend Barrow to a goodbye party for Cunningham when he was leaving his post as CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness. They married four years later.
A rough start
His upbringing starkly diverged from that of Hodges, who is white and grew up in what she calls a “rarefied” atmosphere in Minnetonka with two parents.
Cunningham, who is black and the fourth generation of his family out of slavery, was raised with four siblings by a single mother on welfare in Minneapolis. He remembers workers turning off their gas in freezing weather, landlords evicting them, and cycling in and out of elementary schools. His mother moved the family to the South Side after race riots on Plymouth Avenue, but the family struggled.
“I met lots of men at home, ” he wrote later in an anthology about black fathers, “but they were typically heroin addicts passed out on the couch or shooting up in the bathroom.”
By age 13, Cunningham was staring down a grim future. He dealt drugs. He stole. He skipped school and hung out with a gang. Finally, he ran away.
His life transformed after his Uncle Moe, a Marxist and Black Panther, took him in. Moe and his friends helped Cunningham become a dedicated reader and writer and involved him in community projects. After graduating high school, Cunningham ran a co-op alongside his uncle for black residents of south Minneapolis.
Cunningham’s career took him far and wide, eventually leading him to graduate with a public administration degree from Harvard, and included leadership positions in the Minneapolis civil rights department and school system.
Connects easily with people
He has been vice president of the Northwest Area Foundation since 2007 and among other volunteer positions is on the leadership team for Generation Next, a coalition to address the achievement gap that named outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak as its new executive director.
Those who work with him say he is constantly sharing the latest research and pouring over reports, though he also connects with people of all kinds.
“He can be in a room with low-income folks and connect with them because that’s his background, and he can be in a room with CEOs and connect with them because he’s so well- regarded and well-educated … there’s nothing he won’t do. He will try anything, ” Barrow said.
Cunningham and Hodges have busy professional lives. He spends up to a third of his time traveling for his job, while she was making calls on pension negotiations on their wedding day. But they have a standing date each Sunday for brunch, and when they do have time together they like to watch movies, work out, and spend time among friends.
While Hodges is measured with her words in public — she has joked about having an “internal editor” — Cunningham is more gregarious. But she lights up when talking about him. Hodges told supporters at her election victory party that she was so in love with her husband and that he was the light of her life.
“I am very aware that I married up,” Hodges said in an interview, “and I’m lucky for it every day.”