As Minneapolis mayoral candidate Kate Knuth prepared to pepper the Little Earth community with her orange campaign fliers Wednesday, she received a political warning that applies far beyond the neighborhood's confines.
"If you want this community to vote for you, they got to know your name," said Jolene Jones, former board president of the Little Earth Residents Association. "Because if they go in and they look at that ballot form and the only name they recognize is Jacob Frey, that's who they're going to vote for."
With Election Day a week and a half away, Knuth is making her final push to stand out from a throng of mayoral hopefuls — while drawing a particularly sharp contrast with the incumbent.
"I'm running against Jacob Frey. I'm very clear about that," said Knuth, 40, who joined forces with competitor Sheila Nezhad in encouraging people not to rank Mayor Frey on their ballot.
Knuth, a former state legislator and sustainability scholar who lives in Bryn Mawr, doesn't have the name recognition and cash advantage of Frey. And she did not get as much support as Nezhad at the city's DFL endorsing convention in June. But her stack of endorsements has been growing, from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar to Minneapolis City Council members to legislators who served with her at the State Capitol.
Whoever is elected Nov. 2 will lead the city at a pivotal moment, with three charter amendments on the ballot that could transform policing, allow rent control and give more power to the mayor.
"We need a mayor who will be able to regroup from this very divided election season and help lead our community," Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said. "And I really hear Kate speaking clearly, having the courage to highlight what are the challenges and then really thoughtfully bring people together."
Policing and public safety concerns have dominated candidates' conversations at doorsteps and public forums in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the rise in violent crime. Both Knuth and Nezhad support the charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety agency, something Frey and fellow candidates AJ Awed and Clint Conner oppose. Frey said this week that Knuth's public safety plans have been inconsistent.
"Ms. Knuth's constantly changing positions on safety — whether it comes to defunding the department, setting officer staff levels or voting against civilian oversight as a legislator — suggest that her own record and rhetoric are barriers to achieving the outcomes we as a city are pursuing," the mayor said in a statement.
Knuth said she has been clear about her support for the public safety charter amendment since she launched her campaign. She also wants to reach the budgeted police staffing level of 770 officers, which the city is not meeting.
"I've gotten more detailed in terms of my public safety plan that my team built with dozens of policy experts and community leaders," she said.
Her clashes with Frey date back to her brief tenure with the city in 2017 and 2018, when Knuth spent seven months as chief resilience officer, a position tasked with helping the city navigate existing and future challenges. She was appointed to the role during former Mayor Betsy Hodges' tenure and left shortly after Frey took office. A spokesman for Frey's office said it became clear to the mayor at the time that Knuth "had failed to deliver any tangible work product" after almost eight months.
"There's the potential for analysis paralysis," said Otis Rolley, with the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded her post. "We thought more could and should have been done, and then when the new mayor came into office we were very frank and honest about our level of expectations."
Bender said Knuth's departure had to do with Frey's priorities and political connections rather than Knuth's performance. Knuth said she connected with more than 2,000 Minneapolis residents about the city's biggest challenges, but that Frey wasn't interested in that work and had a different vision.
Since then, Knuth has formed a policy, research and consulting business called Democracy and Climate that draws on her experience. She has conservation-focused master's and doctoral degrees from Oxford and the University of Minnesota, developed a leadership program for graduate and professional students at the U's Institute on the Environment and has also served on the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.
As a mayoral candidate, she rolled out a "Minneapolis Green New Deal" along with policy plans focused on public safety, housing, children and economic recovery. Her proposals include updating the city's climate action plan next year, removing regulatory and cost barriers for businesses to rebuild and adding a universal basic income pilot program for families, based on St. Paul's model that gave $500 to a small group of residents.
She also wants to prioritize housing projects for very low-income residents through tax credits and by spending more on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and intends to expand renter protections. She supports the rent stabilization charter amendment and said she decided last weekend to oppose the amendment that would give more executive authority to the mayor.
Knuth was first compelled to run for office at age 25, after watching the economic and racial injustice after Hurricane Katrina and thinking about the role of climate change in the disaster. She moved back to her hometown of New Brighton and ran for state House to represent the same area her father had served two decades before.
Over her six years at the Capitol, just a few of the bills of which she was chief sponsor became law, including a measure that formed a greenhouse gas advisory group and looked into a carbon emissions cap and trade program. But Sen. Erin Murphy, a St. Paul Democrat who served with Knuth, said her impact was broader than those bills. She was respected by colleagues and influenced their environmental policy work, said Murphy, who has endorsed Knuth.
"She is trying to listen to the best and brightest and from a pool of diverse thought so she feels clear about what is before us," Murphy said.
Knuth left the Legislature in 2012 after three terms, in part due to frustration over polarization and inaction on climate change, but also because she had other professional and personal ambitions. She got married to a Minneapolis resident and moved to the city in 2013. They have a 5-year-old daughter.
Supporters described Knuth as quiet, thoughtful and quirky. She wears the color orange every day because it brings her joy. She once aspired to be an entomologist and her favorite animal is an ant. She formerly had giant millipedes, Hank and Milo, as pets.
"Curiosity underlies a lot of my leadership. I try not to listen with judgment or have any answer right away but really just be curious about what people's concerns are," Knuth said. "And I think that curiosity comes from a delight and a wonder in the world."