There is a spreadsheet on Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ computer where she logs promises, large and small.
Come up with a plan to make the city more equitable. Convene a cabinet on the health and wellness of very young children and their families. Run a half marathon. Get that henna tattoo, like you promised the woman in the Somali mall.
Then she checks off items, one by one.
“I am doing what I said I would do, very consciously and very conscientiously,” she said.
“You can still see the henna,” she adds, holding up her hands.
As Hodges looks ahead to her critical second year in office, the mayor says she’s proud of what she’s accomplished in her first 12 months. The process of checking items off the list was faster than she’d expected, despite some rocky times that come with being new, the noise of “pointergate” and the sudden and public debates of the most divided City Council in years.
As she picks up momentum, the mayor also faces new hurdles: growing calls for better police-community relations, simmering tensions with the police union and leaders split on how best to erase racial divides in education, housing and wealth. She must navigate these issues amid lingering questions about her low-key leadership style and as she continues to build relationships with power players around City Hall.
“I think her challenge — but also her greatest opportunity — is to actually lift up and quantify what works,” said Sondra Samuels, president of the Northside Achievement Zone, who shares the mayor’s focus on equity. “That’s the only way we’re going to do this, the only way to bring naysayers and skeptics around, is to have a disciplined approach.”
Hodges said she knew her first year in office would be a “foundational” one, in which she’d have to spend significant time building relationships and trust. Though she’s been on the City Council and knew plenty of people in government circles, she wasn’t used to being the center of attention. Now, strangers at the grocery want to talk politics. Baristas know what name to write on her coffee cup before she offers it.
It is not just in Minneapolis. In her first year, the mayor made a deliberate effort to get face time with the leaders of other major cities — and to raise the profiles of both her own office and Minneapolis. She’s latched on to a pair of high-profile White House initiatives that aim to improve the lives of minority boys and men (My Brother’s Keeper) and to lower crime and boost economic activity and education in high-poverty areas (Promise Zone).
Over the year, the mayor made a total of 14 out-of-town trips, four of them to Washington, D.C.
Earlier in December, Minneapolis got special notice from the White House when it was named one of 16 “Climate Action Champions” for its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A few days later, the National League of Cities picked Minneapolis to get technical assistance on juvenile justice work. Then, officials learned Minneapolis would receive a $2.7 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to evaluate if it distributes services equitably to residents.
“Very intentionally building those relationships has brought a lot of attention to the city of Minneapolis, and it’s not a coincidence that as a result, people are making investments in us,” Hodges said.
A lower profile
Closer to home, however, some council members said they’d like to see more of the mayor.
Council President Barb Johnson said in the past, the mayor and council president had a tradition of meeting weekly. With Hodges in office, she said that’s dropped to about once a month, though the two are working to schedule more time together. Hodges said that she’s aware of the criticism from some on the council, but that she’s spent more time with council members than her predecessor spent with her when she was serving on the council.
Both Hodges and Johnson said it’s taken time for the council to get used to dealing with a very different type of personality in the mayor’s office.
“Mayor [R.T.] Rybak’s best quality was that he was this super salesman for the city, and that was because he had this outsized personality,” Johnson said. “She’s a quieter person … She’s got her priorities of running the city well, eliminating the racial divide. It’s a simple message: That’s my plan and I’m working my plan. That’s a much different way of doing business than Mayor Rybak’s way.”
Johnson said she and some of the others on the council have been frustrated by the mayor’s plans to solve racial equity divides by spending on studies and new task forces. That divide was at the heart of the split that erupted over a small portion of the mayor’s $1.2 billion budget, which otherwise got little resistance from the council.
But the council president said she’s heartened by some of the mayor’s successes, like landing the grant money to analyze city services.
The mayor has been quieter on efforts related to business and development, though she pointed to Minneapolis’ success in landing the Super Bowl and NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, along with money in her budget for the redevelopment of Nicollet Mall.
Todd Klingel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Hodges’ first year was a “wait-and-see” period for many of his group’s members. He said the chamber is pleased the mayor is interested in expanding a youth job-training program and wants to see her influence to help improve the city’s schools.
That influence, he said, should also be used to make the city more friendly to businesses, both by revising policies and by creating a “culture of ‘how can we help make the businesses grow,’ ” he said.
“I think there are tangible things they can do that will make a difference for the community as a whole and for people who want to do business in Minneapolis,” Klingel said.
In the meantime, the mayor acknowledges that people are probably still going to be talking about the photo that made national headlines in the new year. The noisy social media sensation dubbed “pointergate” that spun out of a KSTP-TV story on the mayor posing for a photo with an election canvasser has been at the top of many people’s question list if they’ve had a few minutes with Hodges.
But the mayor said she’s pleased that most of the conversations aren’t about the photo. Instead, she said, the unexpected attention prompted bigger discussions that fall exactly in line with some of the top promises on her spreadsheet.
“The organizing and really intentional, smart conversation that happened around race, around pointergate, I think speaks well to our community,” she said.