Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said Sunday that she will not seek re-election, capping a tumultuous several months in which the council — and her leadership of it — came under intense scrutiny for their calls to end the Minneapolis Police Department.
In an e-mail to her supporters, Bender, 42, said she made the decision “well before multiple crises hit our city.”
“It has been an incredible honor to serve our community and work beside you for the past seven years,” she wrote.
Her announcement comes at a time when many people are looking to the City Council for a clear plan on what it intends to do with the Police Department following George Floyd’s death, after its first attempt to replace it hit a roadblock.
Policing and public safety are expected to be top issues in the 2021 races for mayor and the 13 council seats. The election is still a year away, but many candidates are expected to announce their intentions this year to boost their opportunities for fundraising, or leave time for their successors to do so.
As they make decisions about whether to run for city office, council candidates are facing a different political landscape. They will run for two-year terms in 2021 and 2023, instead of their usual four-year terms, after voters approved the change earlier this month.
“In light of all the turmoil and upheaval and concerns surrounding our city leadership, I believe that Lisa Bender made the right decision to not seek re-election in 2021,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network.
Levy Armstrong, who favors reforming the department, said she was disappointed with how Bender handled police issues and thought she should have consulted with a wider group of African American leaders before unveiling plans to end the department.
“At the end of the day, I think Lisa Bender was in over her head in terms of being able to address very complex issues surrounding public safety, race relations and police accountability,” she said.
Bender and eight of her colleagues made headlines around the world when, less than two weeks after Floyd’s death, they gathered in Powderhorn Park and promised to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”
Together, they pledged to create “a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis” and engage with “every willing community member in the city of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for you.”
That pledge was embraced by activists who favor abolishing the department but was quickly criticized by others who believe police are crucial to ending a wave of violent crime. Multiple groups held protests near Bender’s home, and this summer she reported that it was vandalized.
At the same time they are debating what to do with the department, council members are also trying to navigate several other challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn that accompanied it, a homelessness crisis, and efforts to rebuild from the riots that followed Floyd’s death.
As they have tried to respond to those crises, Bender has sometimes struggled to balance the citywide demands of the council presidency with the priorities of the constituents in the 10th Ward that she represents. Her ward, which sits just below downtown and runs along the Chain of Lakes, is more progressive than some others in the city.
Bender’s statement did not say what she plans to do after she leaves the council. Reached Sunday night, she declined to elaborate on her decision but said she intends to finish her term, which runs through 2021. She also said she currently does not plan to run for office.
In the e-mail announcing her decision, she focused on accomplishments from earlier in her council tenure. Bender was first elected in 2013 and noted that during her time on the council, it implemented a $15 per hour minimum wage and guaranteed paid sick time for many people working in the city.
She also listed as one of her accomplishments the passage of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which earned Minneapolis attention for becoming the first large city to eliminate single-family zoning citywide.
Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, worked with Bender as he proposed changes to some of the labor mandates when they were moving through the council. During that time, he said Bender displayed a deep knowledge of policy and remained approachable, even when they held very different views on the issues.
“I always knew where she stood, she always knew where I stood and there was no conversation that was off-limits,” he said.
Weinhagen said he was not surprised by Bender’s decision, noting that she had accomplished many of the goals that she listed in her early campaigns.
Before joining the council, she was a city planner in San Francisco and worked at the Minnesota Department of Health and the state Department of Transportation.
In her e-mail to supporters, she encouraged them to work toward ending racial disparities and climate change and to build a public safety system that works for a wider group of people.
“We cannot take for granted that this will continue, that future leaders will center [on] these goals and be able to break through all of the barriers to actually get things done, especially with two Mayoral elections and three City Council elections coming in the next six years,” Bender wrote. “It will take leadership, organizing and your continued support for this work.”