Jacob Frey tells the story often. He visited Minneapolis to run a marathon, and fell in love.
It happened somewhere between Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha. The day was momentous for Frey — he was running for a spot in the Pan American Games — and it ended well. He qualified on a bright fall day, gliding through what seemed to him like a “city in a park.”
A decade later, the Virginia native wants to be mayor of that city.
He’s fit, he’s friendly, he jumps on bar tops, his tie always matches, and he’s out there handing out his cellphone number. As a City Council member, he’s presided over a part of the city — the North Loop and near Northeast — that’s grown dramatically in the past four years. He’s raised more money than any of his 15 competitors.
“Minneapolis doesn’t need to settle for being a pretty good city in the Upper Midwest,” Frey, 36, said. “We can be world class in every sense.”
But Frey’s career has been brief and his policy agenda is not substantively different from that of the incumbent, Mayor Betsy Hodges. He is distrusted by the left wing of the Minneapolis DFL and by some in the business community, and he is dogged by the particular Minnesotan criticisms — usually unspoken — that he’s not from here, and he’s too much of a striver.
“If you want one word that most fits him, I think ‘ambitious’ is the word,” said Phyllis Kahn, the former state legislator who lives in Frey’s ward. “That’s not really negative, and no, it’s not really positive either. But my guess is people who are ambitious get more done over time.”
Work before talent
Frey grew up in a suburb west of Washington, D.C. His parents had been ballet dancers and his father was a chiropractor. He played basketball and soccer but gravitated to running.
“My talent wasn’t that I was all that fast or that fluid, but that I could train a heap ton without ever getting hurt,” he said.
At the College of William & Mary where he studied government, one of his professors was Ron Rapoport, the son of liberal Texas donor Bernard Rapoport, at whose memorial service President Bill Clinton gave the eulogy. Frey spent Jewish holidays with the Rapoport family, and the elder Rapoport told Frey he had the mentality to be a politician, and should consider it.
“I know you think you’re great at running, but that isn’t going to last forever,” Frey remembers Rapoport saying.
The running lasted a few more years, but Frey said he realized the social problems he was interested in — homelessness, the rights of gay couples to marry — were tied up with the law. So he went to law school at Villanova University, and then landed in Minneapolis at the law firm that’s now Faegre Baker Daniels in 2009.
In 2013, he ran for City Council in the Third Ward and won. He has been pro-density and pro-growth, and represents the perfect ward for both. The North Loop and near northeast Minneapolis have exploded with post-recession development.
Frey said he’s helped guide that growth, pushed for affordable housing funding and been helpful to people starting businesses. He also authored rules allowing Uber and Lyft to operate in the city, was an early proponent of a $15 minimum wage, and worked for passage of the paid sick leave ordinance.
“He’s a coalition builder, he’s a good friend, and the leader I believe our city needs right now,” said Council Member Abdi Warsame when he endorsed Frey in September.
Frey’s critics say he tries to be everything to everyone, a council member with powerful allies in the business community who courts progressives, but isn’t in step with their agenda on police, the scheduling ordinance and how tips are counted for the minimum wage.
“He’ll dodge issues. He’ll vote against something multiple times in committee, but then once it’s shown that it has enough votes, he’ll switch to be on the progressive side,” said Ashley Fairbanks, a community activist and Raymond Dehn supporter.
Frey has too often sided with Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman, two longtime council members who can usually pull together votes for what they want, Fairbanks said, and he raises too much money from developers and restaurant owners.
Frey prefers to think of himself as someone who makes “unlikely alliances” to get things done.
“It is difficult to navigate a nuanced policy these days, because there’s this demand for ideological purity, and I’m just not a purist,” he said.
Pitching a vision
Frey walked past booths at North Commons Park where the police and fire departments squared off in the Battle of the Badges BBQ competition. The candidate flitted from handshake to handshake, zipped into a firefighter’s suit, and clapped along with the choir from Greater Friendship Baptist Church.
He moves quickly in a conversation. He’s a multitasker, said Don Samuels, a former council member who is not publicly supporting anyone for mayor. Sometimes that quality leaves people unsatisfied, Samuels said, but the superficiality is necessary for a mayor to maintain energy and sanity.
“It’s a flaw, but it’s a required flaw,” said Samuels, when asked about Frey.
If he’s elected mayor, Frey said his first three priorities will be public safety, affordable housing and jobs.
He wants to refine the beat cop system by assigning officers to narrower, more consistent geographic areas, try to increase the number of officers who live in Minneapolis, reform the city’s use-of-force and body camera policies and develop a public-private network of security cameras downtown, among other things.
He promises to end chronic homelessness in five years, and wants to explore sharing responsibility for affordable housing with other local governments.
But the essence of Frey’s pitch is his professed willingness to use the mayor’s bully pulpit “for extraordinary things” in Minneapolis, including promoting business investment to fuel job growth.
The Minnesota United soccer stadium, he said, was lost to St. Paul because the mayor’s office in Minneapolis never sought it, and as mayor he would aggressively pursue projects like the second headquarters Amazon said it wants to build somewhere in the United States.
“The mayor’s job is to set the tone and to set the vision,” Frey said. “We need to regain our citywide swagger.”