Council Member Phillipe Cunningham faced a skeptical audience at a candidate forum Wednesday when he asserted that 600 of Minneapolis' most active gang members swore off violence last year through a program he championed.

Privacy rights make it impossible to check, but case managers have assured him that the Group Violence Intervention program has prevented shootings and carjackings, Cunningham said. One woman in the audience commented: "You say you have made significant change. I'm not seeing it."

In north Minneapolis, two first-term council members vying for re-election — Cunningham in the Fourth Ward and Jeremiah Ellison in the Fifth Ward — are defending their pledge to replace the Minneapolis Police Department amid a surge of gun violence felt most deeply in their wards. Citywide, more than 500 people have been shot and 78 killed to date, according to police data. About 80% of homicide victims are Black.

A bevy of challengers are hitting the incumbents hard on their public safety records, the distress of the North Side's commercial centers and their responsiveness to constituents. Not one is in favor of ending the minimum staffing requirement for officers.

Some argued that the ballot question is far more popular with south Minneapolis' white voters, who — despite the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd — want to overhaul a public safety system without the consent of the community most affected.

"We're talking about making life better for Black people. How many people that are voting yes on this [public safety ballot question] actually live in a Black neighborhood?" said Kristel Porter, who's running for Ellison's seat. "I can't even count on my fingers and toes how many friends have moved away from north Minneapolis last year because they have countless bullet holes throughout their entire house."

According to the latest Star Tribune/KARE 11/MPR News/FRONTLINE poll of Minneapolis voters, 75% of Black respondents opposed cutting cops, compared with 51% of white voters.

Ellison reconciles that disconnect with a warning to council hopefuls: They may be surprised by their lack of power to reform the Minneapolis Police Department. The City Attorney's Office has told council members that they cannot govern the use of Tasers and chemical weapons. When the mayor makes such changes to the department, the policies don't go through public vetting of loopholes that allow the behavior to continue.

"Even when the rest of the city isn't thinking about gun violence, residents of north Minneapolis were going to funerals, were burying loved ones, were hearing gunshots," Ellison said. "To me that says if the system that we have has never done a great job of keeping Minneapolis safe, then our approaches to public safety really need to advance and diversify."

Fourth Ward

Activist attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, who hosted a virtual candidate panel for the Fourth Ward, said people are looking for strong leaders.

"We've seen so much turmoil in City Hall," said Levy Armstrong, who ran for mayor in 2017. "It's made me consider moving out of Minneapolis, a city that I love. It's just too much, in terms of some of the chaos, some of the decisions that have been made, and not really seeing an end in sight."

Cunningham was elected in 2017 after serving as former Mayor Betsy Hodges' senior policy aide. Major business developments are underway despite the pandemic's damage to the local economy, he said, including a coffee- and barbershop at 44th and Humboldt avenues as well as a new theater and cafe on Fremont Avenue.

Cunningham also pushed the $350 million Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment across the finish line. When he inherited the project, community members feared it would overrun longtime residents for the benefit of wealthy developers. The final plan would keep all 48 acres of land in the public domain while creating deeply affordable housing and an anti-displacement fund for North Siders.

"Undoing generations of disenfranchisement and disinvestment in the community, it's going to take more than three and a half years to be able to really dismantle that," Cunningham said.

His main competitor is LaTrisha Vetaw, vice president of the Minneapolis Park Board and director of health policy at NorthPoint Health and Wellness.

Vetaw supports Chief Medaria Arradondo's efforts to change the culture of the Police Department and believes north Minneapolis needs Black police officers. She hopes to resurrect popular programs like the Police Activities League and Bike Cops for Kids, which vanished with staffing reductions. She boasts having done a ride-along with police in every precinct.

"No matter how small the decision, I will always make sure to consider how it will affect the Black community and people of color," Vetaw said. She called for "accountability within the police force, accountability within ourselves as the community."

Vetaw criticized Cunningham for taking the "Defund Police" stage at Powderhorn Park without engaging north Minneapolis residents. At a candidate forum last month Cunningham distanced himself from the message, saying he didn't realize those words were there when he took the stage last summer.

Leslie Davis is also on the ballot. He sends mass e-mails, including to the Star Tribune, calling COVID-19 a hoax.

Fifth Ward

Civil unrest left a swath of boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots along the W. Broadway Avenue cultural corridor. Liquor stores and gas stations are hot spots of gun violence. Aside from Sammy's Eatery, there are no sit-down restaurants.

In the Near North community, 43% of households — the largest income block — earn less than $35,000 a year, compared with Southwest, where most make at least six figures, according to MN Compass.

Ellison, an artist and organizer, helped design the city's Commercial Property Development Fund, which provides gap financing for small businesses to purchase vacant buildings. A pilot project by the tiny home developer Envision is also in progress.

Ellison championed this year's rent control charter amendment, something people called "impossible" when he entered office in 2017, he said. He has supported other ordinances dealing with housing stability, including a measure to provide free legal aid to low-income tenants facing eviction.

"We've made some strides but certainly the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, these things set our communities back in a big way," Ellison said.

Penn Avenue N. is a forest of Victor Martinez's orange campaign signs. The pastor door-knocks daily across the Fifth Ward.

For W. Broadway, Martinez would "keep it clean, keep it safe and market the space to get people who want to be there." There's graffiti that takes months to get scrubbed, and unshoveled snow piles that compound with garbage, he said, while promising to return calls and respond to complaints.

Martinez has caught flak in recent months for having anti-abortion views and voting Republican in the past despite running as a DFLer. He called his views on abortion personal, denying that he would ever protest at a clinic or reduce abortion access as a City Council member.

"I do not believe in this cancel culture, that if your lifestyle is different from mine … your opinion is less," he said. "My job is to make a table for everybody."

Another leading candidate is Porter, executive director of MN Renewable Now, which is installing solar arrays on top of 24 properties in north Minneapolis, she said. Porter also coaches high school gymnastics and soccer in Farview Park.

She said close working relationships with the city's economic development staff have enabled her to already do some of the work of a council member. With an e-mail to the right person, she has helped business owners put in work orders to collect illegally dumped trash within 24 hours, Porter said.

Over the past year the windows were shot out of her car as it sat in her driveway, she said. Porter advocates improving the Police Department through new hires.

Also in the running are Jordan Area Community Council director Cathy Spann, who sued the city to demand higher police staffing; 25-year-old business owner Elijah Norris-Holliday, who advocates marijuana legalization; construction contractor James Seymour; and small business owner Suleiman Isse.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028