In the fi­nal days of the Minneapolis may­or­al cam­paign, the city's fu­ture first gentle­man hun­kered down in Betsy Hodges' cam­paign head­quar­ters and made call af­ter call urging resi­dents to vote for his wife.

By the time he worked his way through North Side phone num­bers in a data­base of like­ly voters, a friend re­called, Gary Cun­ning­ham seemed to know ev­er­y­one who picked up — or, at least, their moth­er or cous­in.

"He was her secret weap­on," said the friend, Sara Bar­row. "He got so many peo­ple to vote for her be­cause he knew them."

While Hodges, 44, has com­mand­ed the spot­light as the new­ly sworn ­may­or of Minneapolis, her hus­band's con­tri­bu­tions to public caus­es also run deep. Cun­ning­ham, 56, has long won at­ten­tion in his own right as a lead­er on some of the very is­sues his wife is press­ing in of­fice, name­ly ad­dress­ing ra­cial dis­pari­ties.

In fact, some ob­serv­ers say, Cun­ning­ham was like­ly bet­ter known un­til Hodges be­gan her may­or­al cam­paign as a two-term City Council mem­ber for south­west Minneapolis.

As­cend­ing from a youth that in­clud­ed run­ning with the Black Pan­thers, be­ing raised by a sin­gle moth­er on wel­fare, and wit­ness­ing the North Side race riots of the 1960s, Cun­ning­ham went on to gradu­ate from Har­vard and serve in a vari­ety of ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions in gov­ern­ment and phi­lan­thro­py for de­cades. He is a three-year mem­ber of the Met Council and vice pres­i­dent of a foun­da­tion that aims to re­duce pov­er­ty.

He and Hodges say they act in­de­pend­ent­ly at work, though their pro­fes­sion­al lives inter­sect.

The Met Council, and later City Hall and oth­er af­fect­ed towns, are ex­pect­ed this year to de­cide the fate of the South­west light-rail line. Hodges and Cun­ning­ham last fall sep­a­rate­ly op­posed ef­forts by the a­gen­cy to ad­vance a plan to route the light rail through tun­nels in a wa­ter chan­nel be­tween two lakes in the Ken­il­worth cor­ri­dor. They sup­port­ed delay­ing the pro­ject for fur­ther study. ­Mean­while, as the may­or makes good on her cam­paign prom­is­es to im­prove op­por­tuni­ties for nonwhites, Cun­ning­ham has long fa­cili­tat­ed dis­cus­sions and re­search on im­prov­ing ac­a­dem­ic and job pros­pects for ra­cial mi­nori­ties in the Twin Cities through or­gan­i­za­tions he has helped found, such as the Af­ri­can-American Lead­er­ship Forum and the Af­ri­can-American Men Project.

Cun­ning­ham ac­know­ledg­es that Hodges' em­pha­sis on im­prov­ing early child­hood health and ed­u­ca­tion — un­der a "Cra­dle to K" program — will not, on its own, lift mi­nor­i­ty achieve­ment.

"By it­self it's not going to move the nee­dle as far un­less it's complemented with oth­er things … I think Betsy agrees with me, " he said.

Active in transit issues

When Hodges was a coun­cil mem­ber, Cun­ning­ham worked with her and oth­er city of­fi­cials to ex­pand public trans­it on the North Side.

Amid a dis­pute about the route of a planned Bot­ti­neau light-rail line, Cun­ning­ham and city of­fi­cials sought more stops in north Minneapolis. While Hennepin County pur­sued a dif­fer­ent plan, Cun­ning­ham was part of a team that pushed to split the cost among the city, the coun­ty, and the Met Council for a study on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a street­car for West Broad­way Avenue to boost de­vel­op­ment on the North Side. They also suc­cess­ful­ly pushed for the area to re­ceive ad­di­tion­al bus serv­ice in a few years.

Ad­di­tion­al­ly, Cun­ning­ham served on an ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee for the $200 mil­lion Nicollet-Cen­tral street­car, and chairs an­oth­er pan­el study­ing im­proved trans­it in Mid­town — both pro­jects for which Hodges has ad­vo­cat­ed. The may­or said that their work would not pose a con­flict of in­ter­est, and that when they do talk about their jobs it is more in the con­text of ask­ing about each oth­er's day than de­bat­ing public pol­icy.

'First gentle­man'

A man who is much more ani­mated when dis­cuss­ing the lat­est re­search on ra­cial gaps in ed­u­ca­tion and jobs than talk­ing about any pos­si­ble in­flu­ence over Hodges' poli­cies, Cun­ning­ham in­sists that his role is main­ly as her sup­port­er. And he has tak­en on the role with good hu­mor, crack­ing jokes about be­ing the first man with Connie Coleman, St. Paul May­or Chris Coleman's wife, at Hodges' vic­to­ry bash last fall at 612 Brew­er­y.

He wrote about be­ing a po­lit­i­cal spouse with some a­muse­ment on Hodges' cam­paign site last year, say­ing he was sur­prised that peo­ple rare­ly asked him pol­icy ­ques­tions any­more.

The most fre­quent ques­tions were re­lated to what his title would be: "Top sug­ges­tions are, 'First Gentle­man, First Man, The Man, First Dude, ' " he wrote.

Now that Hodges has re­lin­quished her coun­cil seat, the pair are fi­nal­ly mov­ing in to­gether af­ter 2½ years of mar­riage, with the may­or leav­ing behind her rent­ed home in the 13th Ward to live in Cun­ning­ham's longtime house in the Lyn­dale neigh­bor­hood. They lived a­part be­cause they rep­re­sent­ed dif­fer­ent areas of the city.

Cun­ning­ham has two a­dult chil­dren and four grand­child­ren.

Both di­vorced, they met in 2007, when Hodges ac­com­pa­nied her friend Bar­row to a good­bye par­ty for Cun­ning­ham when he was leav­ing his post as CEO of NorthPoint Health and Well­ness. They mar­ried four years later.

A rough start

His up­bring­ing stark­ly di­verged from that of Hodges, who is white and grew up in what she calls a "rar­efied" at­mos­phere in Minnetonka with two par­ents.

Cun­ning­ham, who is black and the fourth gen­er­a­tion of his fam­i­ly out of slav­er­y, was raised with four sib­lings by a sin­gle moth­er on wel­fare in Minneapolis. He re­mem­bers work­ers turn­ing off their gas in freez­ing weath­er, land­lords evict­ing them, and cyc­ling in and out of el­e­men­ta­ry schools. His moth­er moved the fam­i­ly to the South Side af­ter race riots on Plymouth Avenue, but the fam­i­ly strug­gled.

"I met lots of men at home, " he wrote later in an an­thol­o­gy about black fa­thers, "but they were typ­i­cal­ly her­o­in ad­dicts passed out on the couch or shoot­ing up in the bath­room."

By age 13, Cun­ning­ham was star­ing down a grim fu­ture. He dealt drugs. He stole. He skipped school and hung out with a gang. Fi­nal­ly, he ran away.

His life trans­formed af­ter his Un­cle Moe, a Marx­ist and Black Pan­ther, took him in. Moe and his friends helped Cun­ning­ham be­come a dedi­cat­ed read­er and writ­er and in­volved him in com­muni­ty pro­jects. Af­ter gradu­at­ing high school, Cun­ning­ham ran a co-op a­long­side his un­cle for black resi­dents of south Minneapolis.

Cun­ning­ham's ca­reer took him far and wide, e­ven­tu­al­ly lead­ing him to gradu­ate with a public ad­min­is­tra­tion de­gree from Har­vard, and in­clud­ed lead­er­ship po­si­tions in the Minneapolis ci­vil rights de­part­ment and school sys­tem.

Con­nects eas­i­ly with peo­ple

He has been vice pres­i­dent of the North­west Area Foundation since 2007 and a­mong oth­er vol­un­teer po­si­tions is on the lead­er­ship team for Gen­er­a­tion Next, a coa­li­tion to ad­dress the achieve­ment gap that named out­go­ing May­or R.T. Rybak as its new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

Those who work with him say he is con­stant­ly shar­ing the lat­est re­search and pour­ing over re­ports, though he also con­nects with peo­ple of all kinds.

"He can be in a room with low-in­come folks and con­nect with them be­cause that's his back­ground, and he can be in a room with CEOs and con­nect with them be­cause he's so well- re­gard­ed and well-ed­u­cat­ed … there's noth­ing he won't do. He will try any­thing, " Bar­row said.

Cun­ning­ham and Hodges have busy pro­fes­sion­al lives. He spends up to a third of his time trav­el­ing for his job, while she was mak­ing calls on pen­sion ne­go­tia­tions on their wed­ding day. But they have a stand­ing date each Sun­day for brunch, and when they do have time to­gether they like to watch movies, work out, and spend time a­mong friends.

While Hodges is meas­ured with her words in public — she has joked about hav­ing an "in­ter­nal ed­i­tor" — Cun­ning­ham is more gre­gari­ous. But she lights up when talk­ing about him. Hodges told sup­port­ers at her e­lec­tion vic­to­ry par­ty that she was so in love with her hus­band and that he was the light of her life.

"I am very a­ware that I mar­ried up," Hodges said in an inter­view, "and I'm luck­y for it every day."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210