An intense and sometimes bitter ideological battle is emerging in the Minneapolis Park Board races, a campaign that has turned as much on racial equity issues as it has on steering the future of city parks and natural attractions.

Well-organized activists are making a hard run at some of the more established candidates, potentially transforming the dynamics of the board for years to come.

All nine seats on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board are up for a vote Nov. 7, and the competition among the 26 candidates vying for them has been fierce.

Just over half the board's members set out to seek re-election this year, and two of those dropped out after the citywide DFL convention where they lost bids for the party endorsement. Many of the upstart candidates lean further to the left on the political spectrum and are backed by Our Revolution Twin Cities, a spinoff of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

"We saw a progressive group of people who are willing to listen and who would go out of their way to engage with constituents," said Nick Espinosa, co-founder of Our Revolution Twin Cities.

Seven of the eight Our Revolution-backed candidates won DFL endorsements. They have raised concerns about addressing racial disparities, increasing diversity in Park Board staffing, and eliminating the use of pesticides in parks.

Commissioner Brad Bourn, one of the two incumbents to win the DFL endorsement, said he's excited to have more candidates for the Park Board who are interested in talking about policies with disparate impact on minorities, like lurking and spitting ordinances, and Park Board staffing.

"Those conversations keep getting pushed to the back burner," said Bourn, who has the support of Our Revolution and has often been at odds with some of his colleagues on the Park Board. "We really need to start moving those policy conversations to the forefront."

But other candidates say they are worried about many of the DFL-endorsed candidates' lack of experience.

"Being an advocate or an activist is one thing, but actually being a policymaker is a very different role," said Meg Forney, a commissioner at-large who is seeking re-election without the DFL endorsement, declining to drop out of the race after the convention. "Institutional knowledge and proven history and experience is essential."

Focus on equity

The Park Board oversees 6,804 acres of land and an annual budget of more than $111 million.

Commissioners have touted progress in recent years, including a 20-year deal with City Hall that invests $11 million annually in park maintenance. Projects receive that money according to new criteria that, among other things, weighs neighborhood-level socioeconomic factors to boost the priority of parks in areas of concentrated poverty with a high percentage of minority residents.

But the board has also been dogged by criticism about its treatment of employees of color and its staffing practices. Protesters regularly attend board meetings, including one that led to a shouting match between Board Member Liz Wielinski, who is not seeking re-election, and mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds, and the Minneapolis NAACP called for a boycott of the parks in May.

Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller has said the ongoing protests were instigated by a group of disgruntled employees.

Many of the candidates who won the DFL endorsement are touting the need for more equity in the workforce and planning. They are pushing to reform the Park Police Department and provide access to affordable day care and after-school programs at parks.

"We know there have been hurdles and barriers put in front of people of color for years," said Londel French, an Our Revolution-backed candidate who won a DFL endorsement in the race for the three at-large Park Board seats. "If we can fix some of these issues, we can turn things around in our neighborhoods."

Miller said the agency has made "incredible strides" in addressing racial equity, but acknowledged that more work needs to be done. The Park Board's full-time staff is about 75 percent white, down from about 80 percent white in 2010. The percentage of black employees has risen from about 9 percent to 13 percent over that time. Altogether, the Park Board says 25 percent of its full-time employees are people of color.

Candidates band together

Candidates have formed coalitions as they make their pitch to voters.

Forney and Commissioner Steffanie Musich, who was endorsed by the DFL, are leading a coalition of candidates pushing back against the Our Revolution-backed slate, saying it lacks experience and excludes women.

"This coalition brings experience and a diverse group of people who want to continue to bring success on the Park Board," said Mike Tate, a longtime coach who is vying for the Second District seat without the DFL endorsement.

The Our Revolution group said Park Board members have allowed inequity issues to fester for too long.

"It's ironic to see them critiquing the diversity of slates of people that are dedicated to closing those gaps in ways they failed to do so," Espinosa said.

Yet another group of candidates have banded together around the future of Hiawatha Golf Club, which the Park Board is planning to close within five years. There are also a handful of Republican candidates running for Park Board seats, concerned about Minneapolis turning to the "extreme left" said Jesse Pfliger, chairman of the Fifth Congressional District Republicans.

The candidates who win will have plenty to do, from resolving the controversy over Hiawatha to considering Miller's contract that expires in 2018. And just this week, the board dug in on a big project: rebuilding Hall's Island in the Mississippi River.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203