Mayor Betsy Hodges looked rattled when a “Fox & Friends” reporter cornered her after her State of the City address at a mosque in north Minneapolis.
Pete Hegseth, a Fox contributor and Iraq war veteran, asked why she spoke in a mosque and not a church, and why she didn’t demand that Muslims “drive out the radicals in their midst.”
Hodges smiled tightly in the camera light, said “You do a good job of that, Pete,” and ducked past him down the hall.
It was a scene, as is common for Hodges, of awkwardness and discord. But there was a silver lining. The segment that aired on Fox the next morning portrayed her as a defender of Minneapolis from President Donald Trump — the theme of her campaign since December.
“There are going to be some people who see that nationally and hate it, but in this political marketplace it’s going to be a positive for her, without any question, and I also think it’s sincere,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council, who is sometimes at odds with the mayor.
Hodges isn’t coasting to an easy re-election, with rivals lining up and challenges from all angles. Her campaign manager recently quit. Business leaders are expressing dismay over new sick time requirements and a likely minimum wage hike. She lost support with activists during the Fourth Precinct protests. And Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau have at times feuded openly.
Yet the mayor is sticking to a style and a strategy that she is convinced will lead to a victory in November — stressing resistance to Trump and her commitment to behind-the-scenes work to make the city more just and equitable. And, so far, it seems none of her opponents has mustered the message or other advantages, such as endorsements, that would give them a clear path to winning either.
“I have made really tough decisions, and I have stood by them,” Hodges said. “And I have taken my lumps for them.”
Hodges’ slate of opponents includes the well-funded Council Member Jacob Frey, the former head of the Hennepin Theatre Trust Tom Hoch, civil rights attorney and activist Nekima Levy-Pounds, North Side DFL state Rep. Raymond Dehn and the young filmmaker Aswar Rahman.
The candidates sense vulnerability because of the perception that City Hall is rudderless, with a mayor and City Council too beholden to local advocacy groups, reacting rather than setting an agenda for Minneapolis, said Paul Ostrow, a former council member and attorney who lives in Northeast.
“I think they see an absence of leadership,” Ostrow said. “They don’t necessarily see the mayor with her vision, stepping out on that vision.”
‘Work and persistence’
As mayor, Hodges has emphasized combating racial inequality. Much of that work has been at the Minneapolis Police Department, which has undergone changes “more thorough and more rapid than any other city in the country,” she said in an interview at her campaign headquarters on Lake Street.
Officers responding to 911 calls now wear body cameras, the city rolled out a plan to help gang members straighten out their lives, and Hodges has pushed for implicit bias and procedural justice training for all police officers. Her 2017 budget included $500,000 for residents along West Broadway and in Little Earth to help design public safety strategies for their neighborhoods.
Hodges describes the work as “transformational,” but also slow and difficult.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to make a pronouncement about what you’re going to do,” she said. “But whatever the pronouncement is, to make it real, that takes time, and effort and work and persistence, and that is what I bring to the table.”
Hodges’ latest budget drew approval from advocates such as Anthony Newby, president of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change on the North Side. Newby also applauded Hodges’ decision to rescind Chief Harteau’s appointment of Lt. John Delmonico to head the Fourth Precinct, saying it “was a strong, courageous move, and she took a lot of criticism for that, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
But he and others still say they don’t fully trust Hodges, thanks to her reluctance — until 2017 — to back a $15 minimum wage, and her handling of the Fourth Precinct protests. They thought she should have listened to them more.
“We and many others could have offered her real-time advice on how to de-escalate, resources that were needed,” Newby said. “Those needs could have been met with a proactive response, and that not only never happened, there was never an opportunity to have that conversation.”
City Council maneuvers
When it comes to raising the minimum wage, Hodges has long argued Minneapolis should not “go it alone,” and she said she still believes a regional minimum wage would be better than a municipal one.
Even so, she has shaped the debate over the wage ordinance the City Council will take up this month.
Frey, a candidate who some view as more business-friendly than Hodges, floated the idea of a tip credit to restaurant owners last fall. Counting tips as wages was, to restaurants, an important concession.
But Hodges headed Frey off, coming out hard in opposition to a tip credit in December with the backing of labor unions and advocates for low-wage workers. Frey and a majority of the council agreed with Hodges in April. An ordinance raising the minimum wage to $15 without an exception for tipped workers is expected to go to the council for a vote before the end of June.
Hodges has sometimes clashed with council members, including a disagreement over a tax increase to support racial and environmental equity programs in her first budget proposal in 2014. But she dismisses the idea that she is responsible for the council’s divisions.
“The first question to ask is, does the council get along with one another?” she said. “I have done my best to build as positive a relationship as I can with each council member.”
Candidates in agreement
The race for mayor has so far been cordial. After Hodges revealed in April that she is a survivor of child sexual abuse, Frey and Dehn joined a chorus of support, thanking her for empowering others.
In mayoral forums, Hodges and Dehn raise similar points about improving economic equality and racial justice. Frey and Hodges back roughly the same minimum wage proposal.
Levy-Pounds, a skilled and blunt public speaker, and Hoch, who touts a vision for Minneapolis focused on job growth and a vibrant downtown, have been the most distinct candidates. But Levy-Pounds is not seeking DFL endorsement and attracted only a handful of supporters for a rally at City Hall in April. Hoch is aiming for the DFL endorsement, but earned little support on caucus night.
“To take someone out after only one term in office, you still have to be able to make a pretty strong case for why me and not her,” said Cramer, president of the Downtown Council. “The other candidates still need to really refine their cases.”
Hodges argues the ambivalence toward her from various parts of the city is evidence that she is willing to say no to special interests, and is in fact a good leader.
“She’ll take her knocks, and she kind of keeps moving,” said Robert Lilligren, a Hodges supporter and former council member.
Still, Hodges has lost donors who switched their support to Frey in 2016. She ended the year with a fourth of the money Frey had accumulated. Hodges says that doesn’t trouble her.
“I’ve never won with the most money,” she said. “But I’ve always won.”