Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey held a significant early lead in the 17-person battle for the city's top job after the first round of votes were counted Tuesday night.

"All right Minneapolis, we did it!" yelled Frey as he took the stage at his campaign party to address the crowd in what sounded like a victory speech.

But some of Frey's main challengers, who have argued the city is ready for a change in leadership, stressed that they wanted to wait for all votes to be counted as the race was headed into a second day of tallying ranked-choice votes Wednesday.

The pack of mayoral hopefuls spent months locked in an expensive fight over who would lead the city at a critical moment. The race was entwined with a debate over the future of policing and public safety in the city.

Community organizer Sheila Nezhad had the second most first-choice votes after Frey, followed by former state legislator and sustainability scholar Kate Knuth. But no candidate secured the required number of votes to win outright, and Minneapolis residents will have to wait on the redistribution of ranked votes to learn who will be mayor.

Frey had dramatically outspent his opponents headed into Election Day, although Nezhad, Knuth, AJ Awed and Clint Conner had each raised tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the battle for the city's top post.

The municipal election had drawn far more attention — and money — than a typical race. Minnesotans and people across the country had been watching to see whether the city where police killed George Floyd and where violent crime has been on the rise would opt to replace its Police Department.

In addition to selecting the next mayor, City Council members and other local leaders, Minneapolis residents were voting Tuesday on a proposal that could create a new public safety agency that would take a broad "public health approach" and would remove a requirement for the city to have a police department with a certain minimum number of officers. Voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the effort to move forward. Meanwhile, another controversial charter amendment affecting the mayor's office passed — which Frey referred to as one of the most important issues on the ballot. It would change the city's structure to give the mayor more authority over city departments.

While the public safety department measure failed, the mayor will still need to navigate demands for police reform. Frey told supporters Tuesday night that police reform is happening under his administration and must continue. He said changing the culture in the Minneapolis police department starts with replacing bad cops with good ones.

"There was this push to defund the police," Frey said. "That movement has been roundly rejected, all of us now, can stop with the hashtags and the slogans and the simplicity and say, 'Alright, let's all unite around things that we all agree on.'"

Frey, Awed and Conner had all opposed the charter amendment to replace the police department, while Nezhad and Knuth supported it. Nezhad and Knuth had partnered on a ranked-choice voting gambit that some dubbed the "Don't Rank Frey" effort, in which they encouraged voters to rank the two of them and leave the incumbent off their ballots.

"While results are still unclear we're very proud of everything our campaign was able to do in the city this year," Nezhad's campaign manager Luna Zeidner said shortly after polls closed. "We know our success will be because we were consistent with our values and because we put our campaign resources into having direct conversations with residents across our city."

Candidates held election night events with supporters. Frey was joined by campaign staffers and others at Jefe Urban Cocina restaurant. Cathy Lawrence, 60, who lives in downtown Minneapolis, was among the attendees. She voted only for Frey.

"Jacob has the experience that we need today to move the city forward. Jacob is going to make housing a priority," she said.

At Knuth's event at Utepils Brewing, supporter Diana McKeown, who lives in Longfellow, said she was surprised at Frey's lead in the first round of balloting and said she felt Knuth had been surging as the race came to a close.

"Kate has the experience and leadership qualities to take the city in the right direction," she said, calling Knuth "ethical" and someone who can bring people together.

Knuth told supporters that while she is disappointed the public safety department charter amendment failed, she will remain committed to making Minneapolis a city where everyone feels safe.

"We are still waiting to see the final results. We will not know tonight, but we are hopeful for the path forward, for new mayoral leadership," Knuth said.

Nezhad held an election night event at Moon Palace Books along with Jason Chavez, who won a City Council seat. But she did not make a speech to her supporters as the results came in.

The contenders had been making their final door-knocking and campaign literature push into the final hours of Election Day, hoping to increase voter turnout and encourage undecided voters to cast a ballot in their favor. Nezhad and Knuth continued to stress that the city is ready to head in a different direction. Frey has repeatedly defended his record, and said he has been meeting with residents and is confident he will win.

The 17 mayoral candidates' campaigns have spent more than $1.4 million on the race this year, more than half of which was spent by the Frey campaign, according to campaign finance filings from last week. That tally does not show the full picture of spending on the heated race. Outside groups for or against the public safety charter amendment had also funneled dollars toward the candidates.

Carolyn Foreman, who was voting at Franklin Middle School in the Near North neighborhood Tuesday, said she left Frey out of her mayoral ranking lineup.

"I watched him as it all went down last year. He looked so incompetent," she said of the mayor's response to Floyd's killing and the unrest.

But Father Joe Gillespie of the Church of St. Albert the Great, a block north of Lake Street, said he voted for Frey and did not rank anyone else.

"Jacob Frey is someone I've worked with before," said Gillespie. "Anyone caught in those extreme circumstances would be challenged. I feel he deserves another chance."

Staff writer Pat Condon contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673- 4203