Jacob Frey was seen as the business-friendly candidate when he announced his campaign for mayor at the beginning of the year.
The City Council member championed the postrecession construction boom in the North Loop, and built a power base among restaurateurs and developers that launched the best-funded campaign in a crowded mayoral race.
But Frey’s shine as the pro-business candidate has been tarnished in recent months. His support for a $15 minimum wage and his inability to help restaurants insert an exception for tipped workers, combined with growing downtown public safety concerns, have opened Frey to criticism in the business community — even from one-time supporters looking for an alternative to Mayor Betsy Hodges.
“There’s no daylight between Jacob and Betsy right now,” said Steve Minn, a developer who gave Frey’s campaign $1,000 in January. “He’s done a ‘me, too’ vote on everything for the last six months. The guy who was ambitious and energetic and full of vision for the last 3½ years is suddenly following and not leading. I get it, he’s in a campaign season, but it’s worrisome.”
Frey is still raising huge amounts of money — more than $61,000 in July — and several downtown business sources say he’s not suffering a mass exodus of support. But Frey the mayoral candidate is not as beloved by business as Frey the council member.
His saving grace may be there’s no better option: Many downtown businesspeople have lost patience with Hodges, and are not yet persuaded that Tom Hoch can compete seriously in the November election.
“I’ve been proud to work with business owners in my ward on their concerns around safety and other issues, and I’ll be happy to work with them in the future, but a mayor has a whole city’s worth of opinions for which to account,” Frey said in a statement. “It’s my duty to be active, engaged, and to work to bring different points of view together to improve the quality of life for all Minneapolis residents.”
The biggest sticking point between Frey and the business community has been the successful $15 minimum wage push, and a now-defunct proposal to count tips toward it. This was something restaurant owners and many servers and bartenders badly wanted in the ordinance, arguing their business model would be rocked without it.
Frey was receptive. He floated a tip credit among his colleagues on the council, and told restaurant owners he thought it made sense.
The city was set to hold a series of “listening sessions” in the spring on a minimum wage before voting in June. Then Hodges came out late February in vigorous opposition to a two-tiered minimum wage. Frey didn’t stake out a position until April, when he joined a majority on the council who backed a $15 minimum wage with no exceptions for tipped workers, long before city staff reported their findings from the listening sessions.
Allison Rose, a bartender who works at two restaurants and is still disappointed the tip credit never gained traction, said she met with Frey just before the public hearing on the minimum wage. Frey was, as usual, engaging and friendly, she said, and he told Rose he wanted a tip credit but couldn’t get the votes for it. “Why don’t you stand up, why don’t you tell them what I told you?” Rose remembers saying. “He couldn’t pull the trigger.”
Frey helped push the effective date for the minimum wage for small businesses to 2024, but he voted with the majority for a $15 pay floor with no tip credit.
More recently, he voted with the 10-2 majority to pass a restriction on sale of menthol tobacco products, despite expressing reservations about the measure.
Some neighborhood stores said the restriction would cut three-quarters of their sales, and Council President Barb Johnson called it “government picking winners and losers … when we have already done things challenging to some of these corner stores.”
Patience running thin
Jay Ettinger, a downtown Realtor, gave Frey $1,000 in March, and said he has always been impressed with the council member’s responsiveness. But he was disappointed that Frey didn’t fight for a tip credit, and considered the extra two years for small businesses a “consolation” prize.
“I question his commitment and I question how strong he is in taking a stance on unpopular things,” Ettinger said.
Especially among downtown club owners, patience with Frey is running thin. Deepak Nath, a club owner and major Frey donor in the past, has signed on as campaign treasurer for Nickolas “LA Nik” Pilotta’s campaign. Nath declined to comment for this article.
Tim Mahoney, the owner of the Loon Cafe, said Frey has been unhelpful, not just on the minimum wage but also because he has done so little to solve downtown public safety problems, which were highlighted when a stray bullet struck a bystander on Hennepin Avenue Tuesday evening.
The Police Department is the mayor’s direct responsibility. Frey’s council staff has pushed to be included in downtown safety planning, and has been frozen out of discussions by staff in the mayor’s office, e-mails provided to the Star Tribune show.
But Mahoney and others are not pleased when Frey repeatedly refers the problem to the mayor he is trying to unseat.
“We needed him to be our leader in the Third Ward. We needed him to help us, especially with the crime that’s happening, the violence,” Mahoney said.
If not Frey, then who?
Some support for Frey is shifting to Hoch, the former head of the Hennepin Theatre Trust who has portrayed himself as the most pro-growth candidate for mayor.
But many business owners, including restaurant owners, say they still support Frey. David Burley, the owner of the Blue Plate family of restaurants, said he’s “absolutely a Jacob Frey supporter” and declined to comment further. Red Cow owner Luke Shimp did not respond to requests for comment, but Frey said Shimp is helping organize a fundraiser for him.
Mike Sherwood, owner of Pizza Nea, said other than R.T. Rybak, Frey is the only city official who’s ever stopped in his restaurant or shown interest. At first he was angry with Frey when the $15 minimum wage passed without a tip credit, but now he’s more understanding.
“I don’t blame him at all for going back on that, because there was no political will and people didn’t understand it,” he said.
Minn said the business community hasn’t completely lost hope in Frey, but many people are looking for him to be a more forceful advocate for growth, and someone who will stand up against expansive municipal business regulation.
Minn said there's concern than Frey has catered to the left seeking the DFL endorsement, which “abandons what he did for the first 3½ years, which was encourage growth, generate jobs, generate tax base and provide for everyone by generating more.”