Reinventing public safety will be a central focus of the new Minneapolis City Council elected Tuesday — but it won't be a re-do of the 2020 debate after nine council members stood atop a stage emblazoned with "DEFUND POLICE", and pledged to end the department.

That moment led to a backlash. But the results of Tuesday's election made it clear that voters are still looking for, and comfortable with, major changes to policing.

Unofficial election results suggest the Minneapolis electorate, while hardly healed from the turmoil of 2020, has moved beyond that defund moment, into a more nuanced and incremental period. Voters on Tuesday re-elected a handful of moderate council members who have advocated for more police funding. But they rejected candidates who tried to win by labeling their opponent as a police abolitionist; every serious candidate who attempted that strategy lost on Election Day.

Among the winners were candidates like Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who was one of the architects of the defund-the-police pledge — but now says he, and voters, think about the issue in different ways.

"It's just not what people are focused on any more," Ellison said.

Now, the new 13-member council, featuring a progressive majority, and Mayor Jacob Frey will be tasked with new police challenges, among them:

  • Complying with federal and state court orders to rid the department of a culture that too often violated the constitutional rights of those it was charged with protecting, especially Blacks and American Indians.
  • Replenishing the depleted ranks of traditional officers while also seeking alternatives like mental health and addiction specialists better equipped to de-escalate those in crisis.
  • Funding and rethinking traditional police station, starting with the new Third Precinct and adjoining "community safety center" envisioned to offer a host of community services.

The 'Defund' stage

Less than two weeks after George Floyd's murder, nine council members — a veto-proof majority — stood on a stage in Powderhorn Park and pledged to "begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department."

It was an image seared into the minds of a nation forced to reconcile with the horrors of police brutality, and one that would define the politics of Minneapolis — at least to outside observers — for some time.

But three years and two elections later, the situation has evolved.

Of the nine council members who took to the defund stage, only City Council President Andrea Jenkins and Ellison will be on the council in 2024. Some who were in Powderhorn Park were defeated, while others didn't seek re-election.

While both took the same anti-police pledge three years ago, Jenkins and Ellison today occupy opposite sides of an ideological divide that mirrors the politics of the council: Jenkins has settled into a comparatively moderate wing that generally aligns with Mayor Jacob Frey, while Ellison sits with a more progressive group that believes the moderates are moving too slowly to transform policing.

Ellison and Jenkins have diverged on other major issues: rent control, homelessness response, and the location of a new Third Precinct police station. But they were both re-elected Tuesday.

Jenkins narrowly survived a challenge from Soren Stevenson, who campaigned to Jenkins' left, underscoring he was a "survivor of police violence"; his eye was destroyed when a police-fired projectile struck him in the face while protesting Floyd's murder.

While Jenkins, like several of her colleagues who stood atop the "defund" stage, has abandoned calls to do away with the police department, her campaign didn't focus on portraying Stevenson as a police abolitionist.

That's in contrast to Ellison's opponent, Victor Martinez, whose central theme was one of law and order against an anti-police Ellison.

Ellison, who beat Martinez by 12 percentage points, brushed off Martinez' strategy in an interview days before the election.

He acknowledged that while he had stood on the Powderhorn Park stage — and supported a failed 2021 ballot question to replace the police department — today he considers police an integral part of public safety.

Election lessons

In the 10th Ward council race, candidate Bruce Dachis frequently brought up Council Member Aisha Chughtai's former statements criticizing policing in campaign forums. Chughtai won easily.

Luther Ranheim worked up a news release highlighting a host of since-deleted abolish-the-police tweets by his 12th Ward opponent, Aurin Chowdhury.

The response was telling: Chowdhury didn't disavow the tweets. Instead, she said they reflected her feelings at the time but that her views had evolved — and, she said, so had the feelings of many residents.

Chowdhury beat Ranheim by 17 percentage points.

In the race to replace longtime Council Member Lisa Goodman, who did not seek re-election, Scott Graham earned Goodman's endorsement — a potentially powerful asset.

"Scott understands the importance of public safety," Goodman's endorsement stated. "He has never supported abolishing the police."

In a close race, Graham lost to Katie Cashman, who campaigned to Graham's left but cautiously so, making it hard to pin her as a defund proponent.

Beyond defund

All these victors — Ellison, Chughtai, Chowdhury and Cashman — had the backing of Minneapolis for the Many, a group seeking to create a more progressive majority on the council.

The three defeated candidates were backed by the Frey-friendly All of Mpls, which poured about five times as much money into campaigns to help Graham, Dachis and Ranheim, along with Jenkins and several other relatively moderate incumbents who won easily.

The moderate group spent about five times more money than its upstart progressive foil. But Minneapolis for the Many founder Chelsea McFarren said the messages from candidates backed by her group resonated more than those from candidates trying to sink their opponents by tying them to the fleeting defund-the-police moment in Powderhorn Park.

"I think the candidates that we supported have creative approaches, and are solution-oriented for public safety, "McFarren said. "And I think that voters ... agreed."

Star Tribune staff writer Susan Du contributed to this story.