Joelle Stangler, 22, sat in her northeast Minneapolis apartment, taking two days of “vacation” after the caucuses where Ray Dehn announced himself as a contender to be the next Minneapolis mayor.
Dehn’s precocious campaign manager was relaxed, wearing sweatpants. She offered blunt assessments of traditional strategy — “We’re not going to spend money on mailers right now, it’s a waste” — and chatted with her field director, who combed through delegate lists on a laptop.
A blue-eyed, fast-talking Rogers native who tugs on her hands when she’s not waving them around, Stangler graduated from college less than a year ago. She has emerged as one of the brightest new lights in Minneapolis politics, with a fondness for breaking convention and a knack for organizing voters in the digital age.
Her field work propelled Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, to a historic victory last year, and she helped guide Dehn, an unassuming state legislator with little campaign money, to a strong showing in last week’s Minneapolis caucus.
“She’s tough, she’s disciplined, she’s a good leader,” said Brian Rice, the lawyer and veteran DFL operative who knocked heads with Stangler throughout Omar’s bid to unseat Phyllis Kahn. “She’s a completely worthy adversary. It’s like chess. You want to play the best, and she’s going to be one of the best.”
Stangler is both riding a progressive groundswell in Minneapolis and helping direct its energy. Her candidate has emerged as the favorite of Bernie Sanders supporters, and he is reaping the benefits of a furious round of left-wing political organizing in recent months.
“We made a strategic choice to not invest all of our resources in trying to turn people out to the caucuses, and trust that the other organizations doing that work were doing it well,” Stangler said.
Stangler is the second of four children in a long line of teachers and farmers, and said she grew up in a home where “You’re allowed to love who you love, unless they’re a Republican.” Her first campaign was a run for student body president of Rogers Middle School. She won, and has been running campaigns — her own and those of others — since.
When she arrived at the University of Minnesota, she interned with the Minnesota Student Association, and quickly threw herself into work at the state Legislature, helping to push for amnesty for underage drinkers who call 911.
She was a student representative to the Board of Regents her sophomore year, and ran for student body president her junior year, where her sharp campaign instincts started to emerge.
Rather than spend money on the traditional T-shirts, she and her running mate rented two golf carts and gave hundreds of rides to students across the Washington Avenue bridge, using iPads to take down their information and follow up with them.
“Golf carts were cheaper than T-shirts,” she said. “It made campaigning fun, and really interpersonal and people got something out of it.”
Stangler won, ran for president again her senior year, and won again.
“Very organized, very passionate. She took it seriously,” said state Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, who first ran into her in those days. “She really works the networks that she has from the U.”
In summer 2015, she decided she might want to run for then-Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She was only 20, but confident and well-connected.
At a panel discussion in St. Paul for women thinking about running for office, Stangler sat next to Omar. Both women were thinking of running for the same office.
Stangler asked the panel how white women in politics can be helpful to women of color in politics. Tracine Asberry, a black woman on the Minneapolis school board, said white women can be allies by not running in districts where a woman of color can win.
“I felt like she was speaking directly to me,” Stangler said.
Stangler and Omar chatted in the parking lot, and a year later Stangler was the field director for Omar’s campaign.
Stangler said she “nerds out” over ways to do better political fieldwork.
The Omar campaign focused on first-time caucusgoers rather than only those who’d voted in a primary. They built textbots that tallied support by asking people to reply “yes” if they were voting for Omar, or helped people find their polling location by texting their addresses.
They also avoided indiscriminate door-knocking, instead relying on Facebook events and knocking on doors in apartment buildings — which offer a higher rate of contact due to the concentration of doors and the fact that tenants are notified ahead of time.
“She did a really good job in running Ilhan Omar’s campaign,” Kahn said last week, ruefully.
Stangler also worked to get young Democrats to vote in the November general election, which, she says, was “wildly unsuccessful.”
By December, Stangler was jobless when Minneapolis Council Member Jacob Frey, who is also challenging incumbent Mayor Betsy Hodges, sounded her out to be his field director. Stangler flirted with the idea, but said she couldn’t bring herself to say yes. Meanwhile, Dehn called, the two had coffee, and Stangler said she was sold, impressed by his work on Ban the Box, life experience and humility.
“It’s weird that we’re trying to coach him to be more polished, when usually you try to make your candidate be more natural,” she said.
She acknowledges that Dehn is benefiting from a rising progressive tide in Minneapolis, and she plans to capitalize on the moment. Turning out more new voters is the central task.
“If the same one-third of the people who voted in 2013 vote again, Betsy would probably win,” Stangler said. “But that’s not the campaign we’re running.”