A Brooklyn Center businessman who immigrated to the United States from Liberia as a child is challenging the incumbent mayor with a promise of change and a higher profile for the city.
But the mayor says the city's lowest crime rate in decades and a string of redevelopment successes prove he's on the right course.
Mayor Tim Willson is seeking his third term. Businessman Mike Elliott is the challenger.
Brooklyn Center is the state's most diverse city. More than half of its 31,000 residents are minority members, and 24 percent are foreign-born.
In interviews, the candidates laid out their accomplishments and goals.
The challenger: Mike Elliott
Elliott, 31, arrived in Minnesota at age 11 with his mother and brother. He knows the day-to-day challenges facing Brooklyn Center's middle-class families because he watched his mother face them. "She worked three jobs. She worked all the time just to try and put food on the table and make ends meet," he said.
Elliott graduated from Brooklyn Center High School in 2003 and earned a bachelor's degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, where he studied international management. He owns and operates Elliott Consulting Group, which includes marketing, program development and language translation services.
"This campaign is about the future," he said. "As mayor, I really want to fight for people more than we've seen. For me, it's about families and kids, and what is the quality of life for our people?"
Elliott, who has a young daughter, said he would be a strong proponent of education and youth. "Education … [is] the linchpin to income gap, quality of life, property values," he said. "Businesses want an educated workforce."
Elliott served on the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth, a joint venture between Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park to help teens.
Of Willson, Elliott says, "He has old ideas. They are stale. … He is a nice guy, but he hasn't got what it takes to lead Brooklyn Center now."
He said that some recent redevelopment, including the Wal-Mart at the old Brookdale Mall site, have brought in mostly low-wage jobs and that he'd aggressively market the city to businesses that would bring higher-wage jobs.
He said he'd be a more visible face for the inner-ring suburb as it seeks to reshape its image. "We have a lot of potential here that is our greatest strength and asset," he said. "We have people here from everywhere. How do we harness that?"
The incumbent: Tim Willson
Willson, 61, entered politics in his hometown of Kasota, Minn., where he served on the City Council in the 1980s. He and his wife moved to Brooklyn Center in 1990.
"I liked the small-town atmosphere and the great neighborhoods," Willson said.
He has been endorsed by the DFL Party for the mayor's race. Elliott also sought the DFL endorsement.
Willson works for MN.IT Services, the state's IT agency. He is the chief technology officer for the state Office of Management and Budget.
He is married to state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. They have two children. When their 23-year-old daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2007, they became advocates for a law allowing police and firefighters to administer a heroin antidote.
Willson was elected mayor in 2006, when the city was struggling with crime, a less-than-stellar reputation and an economy that many perceived to be in decline.
Since then, he said, "redevelopment has really taken off. We have made some really good choices and really supported development. Crime is down. Community is strong."
Willson said it was his idea to entice the FBI to build its new offices in Brooklyn Center, bringing with it hundreds of professional jobs. The city gave a $3 million parcel — once the site of a rundown hotel — to the federal government. Now it's collecting property taxes. "They paid their first tax bill this spring — $425,000 a year to the city," Willson said.
The old Brookdale site is now Shingle Creek Crossing, a retail center that includes Wal-Mart, and more business development is in the works in that area, he said.
Willson said he has created the momentum that is changing the city's streetscape, its economy and its reputation.
He said he is connected with youth and the community's diverse population. He is the current chairman of the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth and traveled to Liberia in January on his own dime.
"It's a great city to live in," he said. "We have worked hard to change our image … to something much more inviting, much more safe and thriving."