Robin Wonsley Worlobah poses for a portrait in her campaign office on Lake Street on Aug 13, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The days were cold when activists set up an occupation at the Minneapolis Police Department Fourth Precinct after officers killed Jamar Clark nearly six years ago. It was the middle of winter, and Robin Wonsley Worlobah was new to activism.

Like any newcomer, she helped with mutual aid, offering hand warmers and snacks to the people holding space.

This set off years of direct action for Wonsley Worlobah. She eventually stepped into leadership roles, helping organize protests, writing grants, and holding a central role in the city’s yearslong struggle for a $15 minimum wage.

She found that these issues were connected. And she came to believe that they were rooted in “racial capitalism,” as she calls it. Socialism came up a lot during Jamar Clark community meetings.

Now Wonsley Worlobah is running for the Ward 2 City Council seat as a Democratic Socialist, challenging Green Party incumbent Cam Gordon. The ward includes the University of Minnesota, Augsburg University and stretches south to Seward and parts of East Lake Street. Ward 2 is also home to Glendale Townhomes, one of the oldest public housing allotments in the city.

The race does have two contenders running on the DFL ticket: Yusra Arab and Tom Anderson.

While the ward has a unique makeup, its issues are universal in Minneapolis: Policing and public safety, affordable housing and environmental concerns. It’s also unique because it’s the only seat currently held by a non-DFLer. Gordon has had his position since 2002.

Wonsley Worlobah’s entry into the race means two strong third-party candidates will be on November’s ballot.

Gordon said Minneapolis seems like a one-party town, but if there were a second party, it would likely be the Greens. The party has been around Minneapolis since 1997 when Jim Niland, who was endorsed by the Green Party and DFL, was first elected to the Council. A couple other Green Party candidates have also been on the Council and Park Board during that time.

“I think we’ve at least had a stable and consistent presence in the city,” Gordon said.

A different approach 

Ward 2 has a rich history of social movements.

Wonsley Worlobah notes the 1960s anti war movements in Seward, a neighborhood that has been home to two iconic cooperatives, Seward Café and Seward Community Co-op — which she said means there’s an appetite for alternative democratic economic systems.

The ward’s residents are largely renters (including many college students) and predominantly working class. More than half the residents make less than $50,000 a year. 

“It’s those conditions which I think drive people to be receptive to, one, independent politics, but also to the platform we’re talking about,” Wonsley Worlobah said, referring to ideas like public safety beyond policing, a Green New Deal or jobs for all programs.

It’s also a pivotal moment in the city’s history.

Since the police killing of Jamar Clark, a flurry of high-profile police killings of Black men rattled the Twin Cities, leading up to the murder of George Floyd, which set off days of widespread unrest.

With the 2015 occupation of the Fourth Precinct, “we saw the Democratic establishment do more to repress that struggle,” Wonsley Worlobah said. That establishment put its focus into dispersing groups and getting Black community groups to say “we need to trust our leadership,” while turning a blind eye to police brutality. She said “it was hard to know that Jamar Clark was not going to be the last.”

Studies and articles have recently been published that show racial disparities in Minneapolis are among the worst in the nation, and the pandemic has exacerbated economic conditions and disparities profoundly. Fights for environmental justice have also been ongoing, like with the East Phillips urban farm initiative and efforts to address climate change. 

Both third-party candidates agree that capitalism has been failing the people.

“It has brought us the housing crisis, it has brought us the opioid crisis, it has brought us a climate crisis,” Gordon said. “And the role of government is absolutely to regulate and challenge those kinds of things and put the welfare of the public first and foremost.”

Gordon said racial equity has been a major priority since his early days on the Council and many of his efforts have been consistently informed by his constituents.

Wonsley Worlobah grew up in Chicago and attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. She married her husband in Liberia in 2017 and began a Ph.D. program in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota the year after.  

Wonsley Worlobah said she’s lived under Democratic leadership for years and hasn’t seen the Democratic establishment aggressively take on these disparities.

“All of these crises that we’re experiencing around policing, around climate, around housing, it’s all attached to a failing system of racial capitalism,” she said. The system “cannot meet, and will never meet, our collective needs.”

A broad coalition

Minneapolis uses ranked choice voting and has a caucus process rather than primaries.

With ranked choice voting, voters can pick their top three favorite candidates. There are no primaries, so anybody who collects enough signatures and pays the fee will end up on the general ballot in November. Previously, the primary process whittled down the candidates to the top two — regardless of party affiliation — who were left for the general ballot. Separately, the caucus process is party led and decides who gets the endorsement from that political party.

Gordon said that because the race is nonpartisan and party affiliation isn’t factored into the process, “people are more open to looking at options.”

It gives room for a wider variety of platforms. Ranked choice voting also means there’s a long uninterrupted process that allows for campaigning without concern for passing through the barrier of the primaries.

“You can have a candidate who represents every different person on the political spectrum in the city on that November ballot,” said Karl Landskroener, research and data director with ranked choice voting advocacy organization FairVote Minnesota. Candidates can build up a broader coalition of grassroots support and voters are more likely to show up, Landskroener said. 

There’s also less of a concern of splitting the vote in the primaries, meaning two progressive candidates can run in the election without worrying that no progressive will get the seat. This is reminiscent of what happened between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, pulling a progressive vote in two directions while a variety of moderates dropped out to back Joe Biden.

Gordon has been endorsed by Our Revolution Minnesota, a Democratic Socialist political organization that spun out of the Sanders 2016 presidential campaign.

Some Wonsley Worlobah supporters said they still support Gordon.

“Cam is great. And he has these years of leadership, and I’m really appreciative for him standing up for things he believes in and really implementing change in the areas he has,” said Leah Dunbar, a Seward resident.

But Dunbar said that if every institution is looking at racial justice and equity, then “we need big shifts, and kind of fast” and she believes in Wonsley Worlobah’s ability to push for those shifts.

While some Minneapolis candidates are close to the Democratic Socialist platform, they chose to run on the DFL ticket, possibly for the support and name recognition that comes with the DFL. The Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America endorsed three candidates besides Wonsley Worlobah: Sheila Nezhad for mayor, Aisha Chughtai for Ward 10, and Jason Chavez for Ward 9. All three filed for candidacy as DFLers.

“It’s kind of like a name brand versus something new,” said Andy Aoki, a political science professor at Augsburg University. “If you’re the name brand, it’s easier to attract people just because people have heard of you.”

But Wonsley Worlobah said “we’re flipping the game of what you need to do in order to have name recognition.” That means doorknocking, phone banking, and publishing a podcast to build excitement for the platform. She said the party caucuses would only allow her to engage with a small handful of the people involved in the process anyways.

She said her race is a continuation of the political struggle of Ty Moore, a Socialist Alternative candidate for Ward 9 in 2013. She mentioned Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen, who ran for Ward 3 in 2017 and ended up with about 44 percent of the votes.

She also notes that Minneapolis had major support for Bernie Sanders during the presidential primaries and that Ilhan Omar’s views are close to the Democratic Socialist platform.

“We are ripe for having a Democratic Socialist be in office,” Wonsley Worlobah said. “People are … looking for the leaders who are actually rooted in working-class struggles.”

For Sneha Narayan, a Longfellow resident, the Democratic Socialist platform resonates because she wants to see representatives with a vision that goes beyond what exists today.

“I think we’ve had kind of a landmark moment as a city in the last year dealing both with COVID, as well as the uprising after George Floyd was murdered,” Narayan said, and now is a time to rethink what it means to be a safe community.

“I think that Robin’s candidacy represents some new energy and a broader vision,” Narayan said. Narayan doesn’t like that there’s one-party politics at the local level and thinks candidates should be able to run and have viable campaigns without affiliation to the “state party apparatus.”

“Robin has such vision, such commitment. She breathes it. She’s young, but she’s done so much already,” Dunbar said. “She just is going to bring this fresh, new approach and I feel like that’s what is needed at this time.”

JD Duggan is a Twin Cities–based reporter with experience covering housing, development, criminal justice and protest movements. JD reports at Finance & Commerce and has bylines in The Intercept,...