In the still of the night at a New Mexico home for the mentally ill, Betsy Hodges turned on the television.
It was 1992, and late-night host Dennis Miller opened his show with news that three officers had been acquitted in the high-profile beating of Rodney King. Hodges, a 22-year-old recent college grad working the overnight shift, was outraged. “I said to myself, ‘What?’ ” Hodges recalled. “And I turned over to all-night news and the uprisings had started.”
It’s a moment Hodges, now a member of the Minneapolis City Council, would recall 20 years later as a catalyzing event that spurred her career in politics and interest in tackling racial inequalities. Now vying to be the next mayor of Minneapolis, she is hoping to capitalize on experiences as a social activist and holder of the city’s purse strings to propel her into the seat being vacated by Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Her eight years on the council have been marked by work on politically sensitive issues that won her enemies and allies, including on pensions, firefighter staffing and neighborhood programs. As head of the city’s budget committee, Hodges has cut an image as one of the council’s most calculating personalities, numbers-oriented and careful with her words. Underneath that persona is a more eccentric character who loves Wonder Woman and named her cat Nakatomi after a building in the film “Die Hard.”
“There’s always another layer and another dynamic that I’m learning, it seems, as I work with her,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, Hodges’ former boss.
On the campaign trail she has sold herself as a firm Rybak ally who has helped restore the city to sounder financial footing — particularly through pension reform. That’s reflected in the allegiances of Rybak’s staff, three of whom have volunteered for her campaign. Former colleagues say she is adept at untangling complicated financial matters.
“She’s thorough and does her homework,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, “and has a real obviously good eye for numbers and budgets.”
Close ties with the mayor also garner occasional criticism. Hodges’ predecessor as budget chair, Paul Ostrow, believes she has been too complicit with recent Rybak-engineered financial arrangements such as a new plan to fund streetcars and the Vikings stadium — the latter of which she voted against. “Nobody’s minding the store in terms of being a watchdog on these deals,” said Ostrow, who is now managing Stephanie Woodruff’s campaign for mayor.
Lessons in stadium politics
A theme of activism around social justice runs through her pre-council résumé. Hodges packed up her car after college and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she started an AIDS program focused on women. The King riots convinced her to go to grad school in Wisconsin, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology. She then returned in the late 1990s to Minnesota, her home state, and began working with Progressive Minnesota.
Her strong social beliefs had been shaped earlier when she left the wealth of her hometown in Minnetonka, allowing her to reflect on “what had only been a nameless discomfort with how things were. It really for me … is about people being separated from one another by things that don’t matter.”
She cut her teeth in public life on stadium politics, however. After working to defeat a St. Paul referendum to fund a new Twins ballpark with a sales tax, Hodges was appointed to a citizens committee in Minneapolis to explore the feasibility of private financing.
Consultant Mark Oyaas remembers the first meeting, in which Hodges began by dispelling notions that she was “planted here to blow this thing up and I’m not for stadiums.” The group elected her co-chair.
“Throughout the process she displayed a leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and kept people together,” said Oyaas, who is supporting Mark Andrew for mayor.
No. 1 issue: pension reform
Hodges has waded into many high-profile fights while on the council.
In 2011, she took the Fire Department to task over data showing that firefighters were calling in sick more often on summer weekends. The firefighters union considers Hodges one of its top enemies at City Hall because of cuts to department staffing. Their ire was on display at the DFL convention this June, when they dropped their endorsement of Gary Schiff because of his last-minute alliance with Hodges.
Council President Barb Johnson said Hodges holds the line in areas like public safety, but “finds it hard to say no” to requests for social services spending — like affordable housing and health department initiatives. “She’s got a soft heart for that kind of stuff,” Johnson said.
Hodges responded that public safety budgets involve “big ticket, long-term, structural questions,” and much of the social spending is comparatively small. The affordable housing trust fund, which costs the city about $2 million a year, “makes sure people of all income levels can live in the city of Minneapolis,” she said.
She also helped guide the controversial restructuring of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and successfully introduced a large-scale development moratorium in Linden Hills in 2012 after a project upset residents.
More than anything else, however, Hodges prides herself on a long fight to reform the city’s pensions, an issue that confronted her soon into her first term. “The way those closed pension funds were set up was one of the most egregious things I’ve seen in government,”she said.
Police and Fire Department retirees administered their own benefits, which were tied to the pay of current employees. In 2008 that meant the city owed $768,000 extra because three police officers worked overtime during the bridge collapse. The city successfully sued the funds after learning that they were overpaying benefits, then went to the Legislature to merge the funds into the state plan — giving the city more time to fund them.
Rybak credits Hodges for taking a political risk, especially for someone looking to run for mayor: “She tackled it. Mastered it. Took massive amount of heat. And her leadership was a very important way that we got there.”