One of the closest elections possible took place this week in the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A recount of the special election for mayor in the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park has found that city councilor Lisa Jacobson defeated nonprofit executive Hollies Winston by two votes. 

Jacobson, who led the initial ballot count by a single vote, is on the verge of being sworn in. But legal wrangling over the election continues. Following the hand count, the Winston campaign is challenging five ballots, while Jacobson’s campaign is challenging two ballots. 

Those challenges will be presented in front of the Brooklyn Park city council next Monday evening, August 23, at which time the city council will make determinations on each challenge and certify the results. 

The position of mayor was vacated earlier this year after long-serving mayor Jeffrey Lunde was elected Hennepin County Commissioner for District 1. Jacobson, who represents the city’s East District on the city council, won Lunde’s endorsement and the backing of much of the city’s political establishment. 

But in Minnesota’s largest majority-non white city, Winston, a Black nonprofit leader who first ran for mayor in 2018, quickly gained traction. He captured the backing of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party and a number of top elected officials, including Governor Tim Walz, U.S. Representative Dean Phillips, and Melissa Hortman, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. 

Winston handily won the April primary, while Jacobson finished second, setting up a clash between the Brooklyn Park political establishment and a coalition of progressives, immigrants, and communities of color in a city rocked by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of Daunte Wright in next door Brooklyn Center.

City councilor Wynfred Russell, who also founded and serves as director of health equity for the Brooklyn Park–based African Career, Education, and Resource, Inc., said that for much of the race, it appeared that Winston had momentum. 

“I think there was clearly a buzz on social media and in many places about this special election, and I think the reason is that we had for the first time a person of color who had a real shot at becoming the mayor of Brooklyn Park,” he said.

The statewide spotlight on the race, the recent turmoil, and the city’s changing demographics set the race up to be close. Brooklyn Park is roughly 42 percent white non-Latino, and includes a large African immigrant community from countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Liberia.  

Much of the city’s wealth and resources are concentrated where a majority of its white residents live, in its East District. Historically, that area of town has dominated local politics. 

Christian Allen Ray, a progressive organizer who grew up in Brooklyn Park and now lives in nearby Maple Grove, said that the events of the last 18 months have made people in Brooklyn Park more aware of the social and economic divides in the city.

“There’s just a lack of investment on the side of town where we call home,” Ray said. “And I don’t feel like that’s by accident, either.”

People like Ray, who regarded affordable housing, the plight of immigrant and Black-owned small businesses during the pandemic, and public safety as the major issues in the race, saw Winston as a candidate they could identify with, and expect something from. 

Winston proposed increasing the public safety budget and investing in housing and youth services, while Jacobson campaigned on addressing rising violent crime in the city through a variety of means. 

Hassanen Mohamed, a Somali immigrant and longtime Brooklyn Park resident who campaigned for Winston, said that Winston’s support of increased public transportation options was a point of contrast with Jacobson. Some felt that Jacobson’s decision to skip two candidate forums hosted by non-white owned media outlets also sent a signal about her priorities. 

But not everyone was on board with Winston’s candidacy and a changing of the guard in the mayor’s office. Some voters in the city trumpeted Jacobson’s experience, including her position as president of the city’s Economic Development Authority. Other supporters used less savory talking points. 

‘Bringing Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park’?

“They used racial overtones to cause fear,” Mohamed said of Jacobson’s supporters. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, Hollies wants to bring Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.’”

“You really do have one side of the city that has been nicely taken care of, and why would they want to change? And then you have one side that has been ignored,” Ray said. “And they showed up in this election. That’s why it was so close.”

“You really do have one side of the city that has been nicely taken care of, and why would they want to change? And then you have one side that has been ignored.”

But in the end, that increased excitement may not have translated to the voter turnout needed to make history in Brooklyn Park. 

The geographic breakdown of each candidate’s supporters is telling. Jacobson carried the East District, which she represents on council, with 56 percent of the vote. Winston won the West and Central Districts by similar margins, but the East District accounted for 45 percent of the total votes cast in the race. 

“If you look at the vote count… you see that the candidate of color won those two districts,” Russell said. “So we’re thinking our folks did show up to vote, but maybe they did not show up… in a large number that would have turned the election around to where the candidate of color was going to win.”

Mohamed wonders if  immigrants and communities of color assumed Hollies would come out on top—and perhaps stayed home.

“On election day I drove around trying to get people to go vote, and they told me, ‘Don’t worry, Hollies is going to win, he has all the endorsements, everybody is going out for him,’” Mohamed said. 

‘It’s important that we are represented’

Another hurdle, Russell said, may have to do with communicating to residents the importance of local elections.

“If the police pull you over on Brooklyn Boulevard, you don’t pick up the phone and call Governor Walz or Joe Biden,” Russell said. “You call the city council. It’s the city council who is responsible for those policies. So it’s important that we are represented, and have people here who look like us [and] understand our issues, our experiences.”

Of course, there is a chance that the challenges could still swing the election in Winston’s direction. But even if it does not, this election may serve as a signal that the city’s political landscape has changed. 

“Hopefully we start getting taken more seriously,” Ray said. “Because there is power that we’re building. There’s a second half of this city, and we’re here, we’re watching, and we want to be included.”

Friday, August 20: Following the recount results, this story has been updated with additional reporting.

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.