At the helm of a city on edge
The 40-year-old mayor of Minneapolis talks to Star Tribune reporter Susan Du about his second term in office, stabilizing City Hall, crime in the community, and the future of the city. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Last term, you had three mayoral priorities: affordable housing, economic inclusion and police-community relations. What progress has been made?
A: A tremendous amount of work was done on all three. In the area of affordable housing, we made it a priority for the first time in our city's history. We invested more money on a per capita basis in affordable housing, with a focus on deeply low income, than almost any city in the entire country. [The mayor's office did not provide a source for this statement.] We invested three times the previous record of affordable housing funding in Minneapolis, which in turn produced this last year around seven times the amount of deeply affordable housing than we were getting on a previous average basis.
In the area of economic inclusion, we've had a serious focus on ownership, specifically for [Black, Indigenous, people of color] and immigrant communities. I'm a believer that ownership is the best way to build intergenerational wealth. One of the big pieces that we're pushing on is allowing for ownership, both in terms of residential and commercial property [through the Commercial Property Development Fund], so that our Black and brown communities have the opportunity to not just own their own business but to own the underlying real estate. We're investing millions and millions of dollars towards that effort. It needs to be more.
Q: This year in crime, we've matched the city's previous record of 97 homicides. How confident are you that we'll be able to reduce that?
A: Every major city in the country is experiencing significant upticks in violence and crime, but who cares? We live here. People are impacted by this crime and violence here. I'm the mayor here, and we have an obligation to be doing everything we possibly can to curb this senseless violence, specifically in the form of shootings, carjackings, home invasions, robberies.
We have laid out the plan, which is both comprehensive and collaborative, that will move us in the right direction. That involves one, an integrated system of public safety to include everything from police to the Office of Violence Prevention, mental health responders, violence interrupters, to have a comprehensive approach that is able to provide a unique skill set for the unique experiences that are happening on the ground.
We need to be hiring more officers that are community-oriented and invested in procedural justice. I'll have an aggressive campaign to move in that direction. We need true reform.
Q: Regarding police-community relations, how have you increased transparency into Minneapolis Police Department practices since the murder of George Floyd?
A: Transparency is in part knowing what our officers are doing, and making sure that they're held accountable for those actions. We have a dashboard that is more comprehensive than any other city in the entire state, by a longshot. Now, oftentimes the information that we get from that dashboard shows shortcomings. That's the point. We want people to have the information, good, bad or ugly, and then we want to be able to act on it. We want to continue to improve and enhance that dashboard and improve on its accuracy and consistency as well.
Q: You've said you don't support rent control, although you did support residents' right to vote for it. Are there any provisions that you would support under this umbrella of policies? Are there certain ones that you would veto?
A: I believe that everybody should have a safe place to go home to at the end of the night, to rest their head on a pillow and to rejuvenate for the next day. Clearly that right is not accessible to everyone. In getting there, it's incumbent on us not to follow the politics but to follow the data. Where is our money best used to provide the greatest number of homes for people that need it? I commit to following exactly where that data leads.
Q: The city has recently shut down a number of homeless encampments. Do you think the city's current policy toward encampments has been effective, considering that even though investments have been made into expanding shelter, there are still people who don't want to use those services?
A: We have a housing-first approach, which prioritizes getting people into low- or no-barrier housing, into safe and warm shelter, into spaces where they are not liable to get hurt. We know from experience that homeless encampments are not safe, specifically for women. We have numerous and documented instances of murder, human trafficking, drug trafficking and data showing that homeless encampments have put the people that are in these encampments directly in harm's way.
Q: Just a few years ago, downtown was in a great place, hosting big parties, planning developments for droves of people moving in from the suburbs. It doesn't seem like we can expect people to return anytime soon.
A: There's not a single mayor in the entire country that doesn't wish things would happen faster. Last I heard we're hovering somewhere around 50% or 45% occupancy. That number will continue to go up but inevitably it won't reach the same figures that we saw pre-pandemic. Remote work, doing things via Zoom or Teams was to a certain extent inevitable, but it probably got expedited by six to 10 years by COVID-19. And so some of the space will likely need to be transitioned either to residential or more cooperative-style space.
Q: The Timberwolves' new owners want a new arena. You've said you don't support a subsidy. Are you willing to let the team walk if they play hardball?
A: There's no deal at this point. Commenting on a non-existing deal would be entirely speculative. I've stated my general position with regard to the public subsidy, and at the same time every single deal is different. Obviously if they're coming in with their own monies, I'll listen. That's the first step.
Q: During the civil unrest, there were instances where ordinary bystanders, peaceful protesters and other non-combatants were treated with force. We still don't know what came of those complaints. Are you delaying disciplinary decisions because of the police staffing crisis or the pending after-action report on civil unrest?
A: No, no. That could not be further from the truth. Disciplinary and termination decisions have been made. In some cases, officers have resigned preemptively. In some cases, after the decision has been made, we're waiting on the final arbitration decision. Here's the thing, nobody has more incentive to dish on these disciplinary and termination decisions, or pre-emptive resignations, than I do. The law clearly says that we can't talk about it. I'm not going to sacrifice the ability to hold officers accountable for the sake of politics.
Q: At the beginning of last year, you talked about building a permanent memorial to George Floyd. Where are those plans now?
A: I should not be — nor should any elected official be — the one that dictates the ultimate outcome. Community and specifically our Black and brown communities should be at the center of taking the next steps in shaping the look and feel of the memorial itself.
Q: Are there plans now for a permanent location for the Third Precinct?
A: As you probably know, I supported the leased space [in Seward] that we were looking to have. That was probably a year ago now. City staff is continuing to find a proper and permanent location.
Q: Should we find someone from outside of MPD be the new chief, particularly if there is a cultural problem to overcome?
A: We want the best and brightest. We want an extraordinarily reform-minded chief to come into this job, that is focused on both reform and public safety and understands the deep strategy and collaboration that's necessary to do this right. And yes, as you know we're undergoing a national search to search the nation as to who's the best possible person out there.
Q: During the election season, there was an "Anybody but Frey" campaign that many state legislators and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar signed on to. Have these people reached out to you to bury the hatchet?
A: Some yes, some no. I've always had an open door policy. I believe in good faith collaboration. You work together for the betterment of the city and you put aside politics. Sadly, politics took a front row in this last year, at times even ahead of good governance. The election results speak for themselves, and they were very clear. Often I've seen people speak for communities of color. The difference is we've been listening to them, and the results bore that out.
Q: Public works employees this year have had some trying contract negotiations. These employees have been sent to do grueling work, including clearing encampments and tearing down protest zone barricades. Do you have anything to say to them?
A: They have been doing incredible work through some of the toughest times with diminished numbers. They deserve our thanks, they deserve our appreciation, and their willingness to do the best by city residents through some of the toughest times that our city has ever had in history should be commended.
Q: How does your work as mayor in these times compare to being a new dad?
A: Let me start with Sarah, because she matters the most. She's got a backbone of steel. It's been a heavy last couple of years for our entire city, and my family is no exception. Through the election, it felt like every other day where people were vandalizing our home, sometimes with antisemitism, sometimes with 'defund the police.' It took a lot of courage as my partner to keep trudging forward. She did, and at the same time she was either very pregnant or a new mom. And Frida has provided this beautiful reprieve from everything. She's got no idea what's going on with the rest of the world. She's just thrilled to try to walk down the stairs.