For nearly three hours, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges sat at the far end of the council dais, listening as one speaker after another stood at the lectern and unleashed their anger and frustration at a city government they said was ineffective, out of touch and racist.
Many of the more than 60 people who spoke at the council’s final budget hearing in December aimed their criticism squarely at the mayor. Some said they’d voted for her but now felt betrayed. A few said Hodges’ stoic expression indicated that she was unmoved by the often-emotional testimony. The last speaker turned to her with a pointed question: “I want to ask you, the mayor: Are you going to resign?”
Hodges had campaigned on and spent much of her first two years talking about her vision of “One Minneapolis,” a city that would dismantle profound racial inequities in education, employment, housing and the justice system. But in the final weeks of 2015, following the police shooting of Jamar Clark, weeks of protests and flames of criticism sparked by her Working Families Agenda, the mayor was finding it harder to convince even some of her allies that she was moving closer to her goals.
Now, as she steps into the second half of her term, Hodges is facing those new doubts and many other urgent challenges. How she tackles them will be pivotal to the fortunes of the state’s largest city — and to her political fate.
Supporters like Mike Griffin, field director with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and one of the leaders of the movement for citywide workers’ reforms, said the mayor isn’t making the kinds of changes people — particularly people of color — can see and feel.
“The same problems that we faced at the beginning of 2015, we’re going to be facing at the beginning of 2016, which is halftime in her administration,” said Griffin, who remains hopeful the mayor will have a bigger impact in her next two years in office.
Hodges acknowledges that she’s made some missteps: That she needs to be clearer about telling people what she’s working on, and doing it sooner. That her last-minute budget move that prompted the marathon budget hearing was “tone deaf” and ill-timed. But she remains convinced that her work will make Minneapolis better.
“It’s not always glitzy and there aren’t a lot of jazz hands about doing what you said you would do day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year,” Hodges said. “I’m not after glitz. I’m after results.”
The mayor began 2015 in the ice and snow of another wintry city: Harbin, China, one of Minneapolis’ dozen sister cities. It was the first trip in a busy year of travel that also included a mayors’ summit with the pope in the Vatican and another 21 visits to cities across the country for conferences on climate change, youth violence prevention, and violent extremism, among other topics. She traveled to Washington, D.C., and New York City four times each and twice to Boston. The mayor’s office has a travel budget, though some of the expenses were covered by event organizers.
Hodges said the travel built on momentum she gathered in her first year in office, when she made 14 out-of-town trips and began developing relationships with mayors and other officials across the country. She said those travels and conversations have kept Minneapolis at the center of a variety of national initiatives and created a network for her to depend on in challenging times.
In November, after Clark’s shooting prompted a freeway shutdown, a police-station encampment and days of tensions between protesters and officers clad in riot gear, Hodges said she received several calls from mayors who had dealt with similar situations in their own cities. She made some calls of her own, to other city leaders and to federal officials leading a national initiative on policing — a program in which the city had already agreed to take part.
“They kind of understood the dynamics at play, and they shared what had worked for them or what they had learned through the experiences they’d been through … a lot of it was: ‘Hey, I hear what you’re going through,’ ” she said.
But as the protests and police pushback flared up, Hodges was criticized for not doing enough public communication. At one point, protesters looking to talk to the mayor showed up at her home. (She wasn’t around, but her husband invited the group in.) Hodges said she spent long days and nights reaching out to a variety of people affected by the situation, but demonstrators called out for more public comments. On the side of the police station, someone scrawled in chalk: “Where’s Betsy?”
In the second half of her term, Hodges plans to continue to call on her outside networks but will stay closer to home. She says she’ll travel less and spend more time “with folks in the community.”
Hodges said she’s also worked to develop closer relationships with council members, including by giving the council a more hands-on role in crafting the budget. She pointed to work with Council Member Abdi Warsame to fund several programs targeted at Somali residents and with Council Member Lisa Bender on bike improvements and zoning changes.
“More positive” relationships with Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Blong Yang, who represent the city’s North Side and were vocal in opposition to the Fourth Precinct station occupation, were valuable during the tense weeks in November, Hodges said.
Bender, who has aligned with Hodges on a number of issues, found herself at odds with the mayor on two key issues: a decision to pull back on a workplace scheduling proposal that had prompted the ire of business owners and on the city’s attempts to shut down the police station encampment.
But Bender said she remains confident in a mayor who wrote a “really good budget” with money for affordable housing and racial equity work.
“I think her budgets demonstrate where her values and priorities were,” she said. “Last year, the council didn’t support a lot of things the mayor had put forward and this year those budget items passed unanimously.”
While the mayor’s proposal on workplace scheduling crumbled under the weight of business owners’ protests, her Working Families Agenda continues to move forward with a focus on citywide sick leave. A committee formed to study the issue is set to present a proposal to the City Council in late February, and Hodges said she now understands how important it is to communicate with business leaders earlier.
Restaurateur Kim Bartmann, owner of Barbette, Bryant-Lake Bowl, and a handful of other Minneapolis dining spots, said the controversial scheduling proposal — which would have required business owners to provide workers’ schedules 28 days in advance — put her and other progressive business owners in a tough spot. Many said they supported the mayor’s equity goals but felt the proposals were unrealistic and could be devastating to businesses.
Bartmann said it’s clear Hodges and other officials need to listen closely to the concerns of everyone with a stake in the issue, but it’s too soon to tell what kind of an impact the mayor is having on the business community.
“I think it’s unfair to look halfway through a mayor’s term and say how have things improved for small businesses,” she said. “Things don’t move that fast at the city level.”
Leaders of the city’s biggest businesses, who mobilized to push back against Hodges’ scheduling proposal, remain interested in working with the mayor, said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. His group includes the heads of companies like Target and U.S. Bancorp.
Weaver said business leaders recognize that Hodges’ success is inextricably linked with their own and hope the mayor will champion policies that allow the economy to thrive as it has in recent years.
“It’s an exciting time for Minneapolis, but you’ve got to be careful not to kill the goose that created those remarkable opportunities,” he said.
Hodges maintains that she’s willing to listen to those perspectives and others. While she’s often reserved in public — and is prone to describing her work with phrases like “collective impact tables” — the mayor said she’s open to changing the way she communicates. In the new year, Hodges said she hopes to share more about the projects and programs the city is running and the people who are benefiting from them.
And, in a belated answer to the final speaker at the public hearing, she said she has no intention of giving up the office, at least not at the halfway point. Asked if she plans to run again, Hodges paused.
“Well,” she said, “I love being mayor, I will say that. Trying times are difficult, but it’s also an honor to have been asked to be the person leading us through them.”