Mike Elliott was elected Brooklyn Center's first Black mayor in 2018, swept into office as a charismatic change candidate who intimately understood one of Minnesota's most diverse cities and could transform it, as his campaign literature said, from "stagnant status quo to a vibrant city."
Then, in a matter of moments on Sunday — when Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man — the stakes skyrocketed.
A Liberian immigrant who moved to Minnesota at age 11, Elliott has used his pulpit to speak in support of racial equity reforms in topics ranging from fighting COVID-19 to criminal justice. Now, he must navigate his first major political test before a national audience.
Some community leaders are applauding Elliott's rapid decisionmaking in the days after Wright's death — including the removal of City Manager Curt Boganey and acceptance of Police Chief Tim Gannon's resignation — saying they expect nothing short of bold and transformative action. Others have expressed reservations at the untested mayor's decision to clean out the city's tenured leadership staff in a time of crisis. Like many suburbs, the Brooklyn Center mayor is a part-time position with about a $13,000 annual salary.
"Under his leadership as mayor, I have heard that [equity] conversation more and more. It's progress that this is being talked about and he is pushing the conversation," said longtime resident Alfreda Daniels Juasemai, who sits on the Brooklyn Center planning commission. "I want to see more action, of course."
Others are deeply critical of Elliott. Local businessman Gary Anderson, husband of Brooklyn Center City Council Member Kris Lawrence-Anderson, called for the mayor's removal on a public "Friends of Brooklyn Center" Facebook page.
In a post that has been removed, Anderson questioned the decision to fire the city manager and accused the mayor of inviting activists to intimidate council members.
"This city is now ruined. We will be sued, and rightly so," wrote Anderson, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Community leaders say Elliott's legacy will depend on his ability to harness community anger, pain and outrage and deliver on police reform in the city of about 31,000, where most residents are people of color.
"The police force is the least culturally responsive institution in Brooklyn Center," said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services. "For him to be effective, he has to have command and control of the police force."
So far, Elliott is "proving to be a leader and an effective crisis manager," Kiatamba said. "He is acting fast."
In the past week, Elliott has held regular news conferences expressing support for police reform and for Wright's family.
"In the past few days, it has been very difficult for myself and the community to deal with the pain and agony that comes from watching a young man be killed before our eyes," the mayor told reporters Tuesday, while wearing a baseball cap featuring the logo of the city.
Elliott, 37, did not respond to interview requests, but he has shared his story in previous interviews with the Star Tribune.
Elliott arrived in Minnesota as a young boy with his mother and brother, and the family settled in Brooklyn Center. The inner-ring suburb just north of Minneapolis is among the most diverse communities in the state. It's also one of Hennepin County's poorest suburbs, with 15% of residents living below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. census data.
In a 2014 interview, Elliott said he understood the challenges facing working-class families — his mother worked three jobs to support their family. During his swearing-in as mayor in January 2019 — a ceremony attended by several hundred people — he thanked his grandmother for showing selflessness during the First Liberian Civil War, forgoing meals to feed her grandchildren. He also thanked his eighth-grade English teacher for giving him the courage to run for student council president.
Elliott was Brooklyn Center High School class president in 10th, 11th and 12th grades. He organized volunteer projects and spearheaded fundraising activities, including one year when he raised enough money so the senior prom could be held at the Carlson Center rather than in the school gymnasium.
"He had a go-getter attitude. He thought big," said George Larson, the school's retired principal.
Elliott earned a bachelor's degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, where he studied international management. He has started and run several small businesses.
In 2014, Elliott, then 31 and a political unknown, challenged longtime Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson. Elliott called Willson's leadership "stale" and said business development in the city, including a Walmart, was primarily creating low-wage jobs.
Elliott lost by less than 2% of the vote in 2014. He ran again in 2018, defeating Willson 55 to 45%. Barely a year into his term, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted local government online. Elliott has used virtual City Council meetings and social media to speak out on equity issues and police reform.
Elliott attended George Floyd's funeral, according to a Facebook post. In August, the mayor raised questions about the 2019 fatal Brooklyn Center police shooting of Kobe Dimock-Heisler, a 21-year-old man on the autism spectrum. Officers fatally shot Dimock-Heisler six times after he lunged at police with a knife during a domestic disturbance call. The Hennepin County attorney declined to file charges.
In a Facebook post, Elliott listed possible reforms, including more de-escalation training, hiring officers who live in the community and hiring social workers to work alongside police.
"It's a whole system that is at fault. Not easy to fix and a big reason people want to defund the police," Elliott wrote. "Because we pay for them to protect us but instead we fear the ones who are supposed to help."
As city leaders now stare down nightly protests that are being broadcast around the world, the council this week passed resolutions preventing police officers from using tear gas and other more aggressive crowd control tactics.
The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, aided by the State Patrol, National Guard and other agencies acting as part of Operation Safety Net, now appear to be playing a leading role in the response to protesters outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, using armored vehicles and pepper spray to push back the crowd and make arrests.
"I am not OK with how protesters are being treated," said Juasemai, who is also an organizer with the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.
But she and other community members say they're holding out hope that the mayor and council can accomplish real reform. A smaller city with a smaller police force, less bureaucracy and community outcry could finally move the needle.
"It is heartbreaking that this even happened," Juasemai said. "I believe we have been presented an opportunity to do things differently in Brooklyn Center."
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768