The first question at a recent mayoral forum in south Minneapolis was whether the city should consider paying reparations to people of color to redress past wrongs.

None of the candidates advocated cutting a check to every person of color in the city, but the question was in keeping with the dominant theme of the 2017 mayoral election: race.

Fifteen people are challenging Mayor Betsy Hodges, and the problem of racial inequity permeates discussions of everything from affordable housing and education to public works and the police department. In speeches, at the city DFL convention and at public forums, candidates have repeatedly argued for municipal reform aimed at closing the wide disparities between white people and people of color.

Hodges ran on ending racial disparities in 2013 and today calls for further “transformative change.” The surprise candidate of the campaign, state Rep. Ray Dehn, has built his platform on the message that the American system is based on “white supremacy” and the city needs to include those “traditionally left out of the process.” Nekima Levy-Pounds calls for a “paradigm shift.” Council Member Jacob Frey calls for the city to close “opportunity gaps.” Tom Hoch advocates “growing an inclusive economy.”

Steven Belton, president of the Minneapolis Urban League, said he views the talk with skepticism. Outrage over the city’s disparities is widespread among residents, he said, but the candidates’ public attention to the matter is likely strategic in a ranked-choice election.

“The candidates are all trying to align themselves so that they are second and third choices among their competitors and the way to do that is to find an issue that resonates broadly,” Belton said. “There has been a lot of conversation, but from my perspective, that conversation has not yielded much movement. What are they actually going to do about it?”

Minnesota has the sixth-worst income disparity between whites and blacks in the nation and the ninth-worst income disparity between whites and Hispanics, according to census data. It has the third-worst white-black homeownership disparity and the seventh-worst white-Hispanic homeownership disparity. The disparities are similar for the state’s American Indian population.

In Minneapolis, the police shooting of Jamar Clark prompted large protests in 2015 and propelled racial injustice to the center of the local political discourse, helping to prompt runs by a slate of City Council and mayoral candidates demanding a more equitable city.

‘A heightened focus’

Hodges’ rhetoric as mayor — a question on her whiteboard when she took office was “how does this move the dial on equity?” — and as a candidate has helped shape the debate. As the incumbent, she’s in the position of arguing both that more needs to be done and that what she’s done over the past four years is laudable.

She points to the police body camera program, less than a year old, an increased focus on police training and efforts to measure positive contacts between police and the community as examples of progress. The city’s plan for major investment in public works “has equity at the center of it,” Hodges said, and the city is working to make sure candidates of color aren’t disadvantaged in city hiring.

“We’re not going to solve the entire problem, but we can make a lot of progress in the next four years, because we made a lot of progress in the last four years,” Hodges said.

Other candidates, even those who appreciate Hodges’ attention to racial disparities, say she has not accomplished enough.

“This conversation’s been going on for a long time, and what has made Mayor Hodges more of a target in this cycle is that she ran on an equity platform,” said Levy-Pounds. “What I typically raise concerns about is that she hasn’t delivered on that platform.”

Levy-Pounds said the city needs an explicit equity plan and specific goals and measures to address issues such as homelessness and homeownership.

Frey said “there is, properly, a heightened focus” on racial disparities in the Minneapolis elections. City government can help address this, he said, but the mayor needs to enlist help.

“Land use, housing and police can have a significant impact, but like most social reforms you also need partners beyond the city enterprise, from business to community activists, nonprofits, other municipalities,” Frey said. “The mayor’s primary role is building a broad coalition and without the ability to build a broad coalition, we won’t even make a dent.”

Hoch said that even though tackling racial equity has been a dominant theme of Hodges’ mayoral tenure and the city’s election campaign, “the sad reality is that I think we can all question whether the dial is actually moving.” He proposes pushing for job growth and safe neighborhoods.

“We want to make sure we’re growing the pie for everyone, so everybody can experience vitality and inclusive prosperity,” Hoch said.

Dehn said the dialogue about racial disparities is “long overdue,” and the mayor must have a “cohesive” relationship with the City Council and engage the business community to help address the gaps.

He’d focus on police accountability, he said, but his first priority would be affordable housing — looking at municipal bonding for housing, changing zoning rules to mandate construction of affordable units, bolstering tenants’ rights and finding ways to incentivize landlords to hold rents down. “We need to address affordable housing and we need to address that immediately and hard,” Dehn said.

Real progress ahead?

All of this has led to a campaign largely about what’s wrong with Minneapolis, and how to fix it. State Sen. Scott Dibble, a Hodges supporter, said the city is “successful in a lot of different ways,” but it’s appropriate for candidates to focus on the biggest problem.

“Stepping back and talking about the success of the city would seem like you’re giving short shrift to the real struggle that quite a few people in our city face,” Dibble said, suggesting you can’t just say, “Southwest Minneapolis is doing great for white people. Never mind about the rest.”

Tony Williams, a community organizer who lives in northeast Minneapolis, said he can’t help but think if city leaders “go to war” against the disparities, real progress could be made.

“Candidates are paying lip service to it in varying degrees,” said Williams, who supports Dehn. “The real test will be once someone gets elected, seeing whether they actually move to tackle these issues.”


Twitter: @adambelz