The possibility that the Minneapolis City Council could be dominated by a left-wing majority after next month's election has prompted an unprecedented late push from business groups to protect council members they view as open to compromise with business.
Leaders of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Council and Building Owners and Managers Association sent a fundraising e-mail last week with the subject line "A call to action in Minneapolis," warning donors, "don't be filled with regret on November 8," and asking for money for a political action committee called Minneapolis Works to pay for mailings and efforts to get out the vote. Rather than the high-profile mayoral race, the focus is on the City Council elections.
"I've lived here and been active since 1979, so I've seen a few of these come and go. This by far is the most consequential," said Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council.
"What's at stake here is not whether we're a progressive city or not — we are — it's whether we're going to go down the rabbit hole on policies that we think would be very destructive to the community."
In the past 18 months, the Minneapolis City Council has approved a $15 minimum wage, a paid sick-leave ordinance and restrictions on sales of menthol cigarettes, all measures opposed by business groups.
But to Cramer and his colleagues downtown, things could get worse. Rent control, another run at a municipal scheduling ordinance and talk of additional taxes on income or developers are their top concerns.
Seven of the city's 13 council seats are hotly contested ahead of the Nov. 7 election, and in all but one of those races, an incumbent's loss would move an already DFL-dominated council further to the left. Young, progressive candidates backed by calls for change at City Hall have gained traction, and allies of incumbents such as Council President Barb Johnson are worried.
"The last thing we want is for Barb to lose her seat and then who becomes president of the council? That's a terrifying thing," said Joanne Kaufman, president of the Warehouse District Business Association, which formed its own political action committee Monday.
Council Member Lisa Bender, who's expected to win re-election in the Tenth Ward and has lent her support to several progressives challenging incumbents, is noncommittal about whether she wants to be council president. But she said Wednesday the City Council needs to change and business groups are out of step with Minneapolis residents.
"It's unrealistic for the business community to fight back against what people in Minneapolis want their elected officials to do, which is protect workers, close our racial equity gaps and protect the environment," Bender said. "This isn't being invented by me or other elected officials. It's coming from people in our community."
Calling out challengers
Cramer, Jonathan Weinhagen, president of the Minneapolis Chamber, and Kevin Lewis, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, used their e-mail soliciting donations to highlight Ginger Jentzen, a Socialist candidate for the council seat that will be vacated by mayoral candidate and Council Member Jacob Frey.
"If you thought it was impossible for a committed Socialist to run on a platform of rent control and establishing a municipal income tax to pay for social engineering … meet: Ginger Jentzen," they wrote, adding that she is a "leading candidate" in the Third Ward.
Jentzen, whose most recent campaign finance report shows she has raised more than $60,000, said the business groups are just protecting their own interests.
"These bold ideas of raising rent control and taxing big developers to pay for affordable housing are in the interests of working-class people," Jentzen said. "My role on the council would be helping to set that agenda and being firm in whatever room I'm in."
The e-mail from Cramer, Weinhagen and Lewis also singled out Phillipe Cunningham, who is running against Johnson in the Fourth Ward, and Janne Flisrand, who is running against Council Member Lisa Goodman in the Seventh Ward, highlighting the challengers' statements that the city could one day get on without a police department.
Cunningham issued a statement late Wednesday saying, "Our campaign has so much momentum right now exactly because people are realizing just how much the Council President has not only grown out of touch with our community on the Northside, but also how closely she is aligned with big money Republicans downtown."
Not all incumbents have welcomed Minneapolis Works assistance. Johnson disavowed the group on Facebook after it sent out a mailing in support of her that displayed photos altered to include a black mother and child, when the original picture was of a white woman and white child.
"I was very disappointed to see that manipulation of that image, and it's not helpful in my campaign," Johnson said.
Johnson said she wants a city that's successful for everyone and a healthy tax base is needed for the city to spend money addressing problems such as its racial gaps.
"I think you have to take seriously the concerns about people investing in the city," Johnson said.
Cramer said altering the photo on the mailing was an error, and "we're going to try not to have that happen again."
Minneapolis Works, according to the latest campaign finance report, was formed and initially funded with $10,000 from Steve and Lucille Minn, developers, with contributions from the Downtown Council, Cramer and Weinhagen.
The group is also asking for corporations to donate to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican-aligned organization, which will funnel the money to Minneapolis Works. No money has been received through that mechanism yet, Cramer said.
The incumbents the group supports — such as Johnson, Goodman and Council Members Kevin Reich and John Quincy — have hardly been in lock-step with the business community, Lewis said, and that they've been criticized for not being progressive enough was a wake-up call to business leaders.
"When they're painted as conservative, that's I think what really got us so mindful of what's happening in these elections," Lewis said.