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Victor Martinez showed up late to an afternoon door-knocking session on Lyndale Avenue in north Minneapolis’ Hawthorne neighborhood in early September.

“The police chase threw me off,” Martinez told Sahan Journal before heading out to talk to voters. He said he wasn’t sure what the chase was about, but when he hears sirens he tries to pay attention. 

Martinez, 35, is a City Council candidate in Ward 5. On this day, he wore a bright orange t-shirt that read, “Vote Victor Martinez,” with shorts and sneakers. His campaign manager and brother, Joel Martinez, joked that they’d both gone through a few pairs of shoes since starting the door-knocking campaign.

As he made his way from door to door, Martinez also had a fanny pack fitted across his chest that held a water bottle and flyers he handed to residents. It’s hard to boil down his politics into one word, he said, but he’s settled on “moderate Democrat” for now, recognizing that it doesn’t exactly give him an edge in a town that boasts a progressive image.

Martinez is a Mexican American pastor at the New Generation Church, a part of the Assemblies of God. He’s been a youth pastor in north Minneapolis for the last 10 years. “If I try to be something that my history doesn’t say I am, I think people lose trust in you,” he said. “I’d rather lose being real than win being fake.”

Currently, he owns a home in the Willard–Hay neighborhood with his wife and three kids.

Ward 5 is one of the city’s most diverse. Three-quarters of residents are people of color. It’s also about 44 percent low-income. And, according to a February report from the Star Tribune, the area saw a 36 percent increase in violent crime in the last five years, one of the highest increases in the city.

That has put crime and policing at the center of the Ward 5 City Council race between incumbent Jeremiah Ellison* and a small group of challengers, including Martinez, who is running as a pro-police candidate. Compared to his challengers, Ellison says he supports a more comprehensive change in public safety, which would incorporate violence prevention and mental health services. Although it’s not part of his platform, he tells Sahan Journal a new department of public safety would include “a division of law enforcement.”

With a controversial charter amendment on the ballot that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety department, Martinez has drawn support from some north Minneapolis neighbors who say an increase in crime in the city should mean an increase in cops on the street. It’s worth noting that former City Council member Don Samuels used to represent Ward 5 and has been one of the main challengers of the public safety charter amendment.

From the outset, Martinez seemed like an underdog against Ellison, who had the DFL’s backing four years ago, in 2017, and has become a standard-bearer of the city’s most progressive values.

But in June’s DFL caucus, Martinez was just four delegates short of winning the endorsement. For a moderate candidate who is pro-police and pro-life, DFL backing would have been huge. The fact that he was so close to winning the endorsement signaled an unusual moment in DFL politics.

Campaign funds don’t necessarily guarantee victory, but Martinez also has proved a competitive candidate in his fundraising. According to finance reports filed in August, Martinez raised $17,093, $59 more than Ellison. A third candidate, Kristel Porter, an environmentalist and organizer, surpassed both of them and raised $22,075. Cathy Spann, executive director of the nonprofit neighborhood group, Jordan Area Community Council, raised $5,780.

Martinez said he’s getting a sense that other candidates and politicians in Minnesota are frustrated by his campaign, since he’s finding purchase with his pro-police message. He also talks a lot about non-policing issues, which he says matter more in his ward.

Meeting Martinez at the door

Martinez’s strategy is simple: Forget what people are saying on social media, and let voters get to know him one-on-one at their doorsteps.

He’s been door-knocking almost everyday since June. Martinez has found that the issues most important to voters in Ward 5 are not always divisive issues like defunding the police or establishing rent control. Residents want more businesses on West Broadway Avenue, less litter, and a City Council candidate who will do what they say, Martinez said.

“People just want some basic things and City Council is supposed to be boring work,” he said. “You’re supposed to be able to do what the people want you to do. When you get into federal and state stuff, you get into more ideals and things people believe in that are more divisive. But at the city level, only policing has been the most divisive thing I’ve ever heard.”

Victor Martinez knocks on doors for his city council candidacy for ward 5 through North Minneapolis on Sept. 2, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis’ Ward 5 is made up of seven neighborhoods on the city’s Northside: Harrison, Hawthorn, Near North, Sumner-Glenwood, parts of Jordan, North Loop, and Willard–Hay. According to a local demographics research organization, Minnesota Compass, people of color constitute about 77 percent of the population in the ward. In the Near North community, according to Minnesota Compass’s research, almost 75 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing. Almost 44 percent of residents make less than $35,000 per year, which is the federal poverty standard for a family of six. And more than a quarter of people living in the ward are under the age of 17.

On an overcast Thursday afternoon, Martinez knocked on the door of a house on Lyndale Avenue. “I don’t believe in abolishing, defunding, or dismantling our police department,” he said to the elderly woman who lived there, after introducing himself.

The woman threw her hands up and said, “There you go.”

“I believe in reform,” Martinez continued. “I want to bring walking beat officers back to our community, that walk the beat to rebuild trust in the community. And I believe in creating a metric system to identify struggling officers earlier in their career rather than later.”

‘He wants to unite the city’s residents’

Operation Safety Now, a group campaigning against the public safety ballot measure in Minneapolis, has endorsed both Martinez and Spann. Porter has also told Sahan Journal that, while she may support defunding the police once the city addresses high crime, she is advocating for police reform at the moment.

Loretta Arradondo is one of Martinez’s most active campaign supporters. She’s running for a City Council seat in Golden Valley, where she lives, and is also the cousin of Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

“He wants to talk to the people that are defunders. He wants to talk to the people that are for reform. He’s out there talking to everyone. And he doesn’t put his nose down at people that are defunders.”

Loretta Arradondo

“He wants to unite the city’s residents,” Loretta Arradondo said of Martinez. “He is interested in police reform in a both-and approach. That resonated with me because I know the community has a voice in the way that police should handle themselves.”

Having Arradondo in Martinez’s corner matters in north Minneapolis. Chief Arradondo was born on the Northside and is a popular figure. Loretta Arradondo admires Martinez’s ambitious routine of door-knocking. “He wants to talk to the people that are defunders,” she said. “He wants to talk to the people that are for reform. He’s out there talking to everyone. And he doesn’t put his nose down at people that are defunders.”

‘He’s not just using the Latino base, he’s using the community base.’

Through door-knocking and community outreach, Martinez said he was able to turn out an increased number of Latino residents in the DFL caucus in June.

“On the Northside, the Latinos feel like nobody cares about them,” Martinez said. “So when they see a candidate that looks like them or sounds like them or has the same last name,” he says they’re willing to listen. Many even become fans.

If he defeats Ellison, Martinez would be the second Latino person elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Alondra Cano, who currently represents Ward 9, was the first.

Augustine “Willie” Dominguez was the first Latino elected official to come from north Minneapolis. In the Minnesota House of Representatives, he represented district 58B, which includes parts of the northside, from 2007 to 2009. Dominguez has been advising Martinez as he navigates politics as a Latino candidate.

“He has a strong message for bringing the community back together, bringing business, bringing opportunities that we haven’t seen in the northside of Minneapolis in some time,” Dominguez said.

He described Martinez as a candidate who’s given his life to his campaign. He especially commended Martinez’s ability to connect with people as a pastor and a City Council candidate. 

“He’s bringing in a coalition of all people. He’s being very inclusive,” Dominguez said. “He’s not just using the Latino base, he’s using the community base.”

Finding his footing in politics

Martinez’s interactions with Minneapolis voters on their doorsteps aren’t always easy and positive, however. Sometimes, he runs into difficulty connecting with residents because of his politically and religiously conservative background.

In June, Wedge Live! tweeted that Martinez had voted for a Republican candidate during the 2020 primary, after the site looked at voter data shared with the DFL party. The candidates on the ballots were Donald Trump, Bill Weld, and Rocky De La Fuente.

“I tell people I’m not a purist,” Martinez said in response to the voter data. “I don’t believe that there’s only one way to do things. I believe there’s good ideas on both sides. And I tell them I don’t believe in cancel culture.”

Martinez showed Sahan Journal his voting history, which confirmed that he voted in the primary for a Republican candidate. As a pastor, he said, he doesn’t publicly say which candidates he supports. And, he reiterated that he has voted for Democrats in the past and does not align with one party.

In May, Martinez was accused of deadnaming a resident on Twitter (“deadnaming” refers to the use of the former name of a transgender or non-binary person). Zola Richardson had asked Martinez about his stance on abortion and conversion therapy in an email, and Martinez responded using both of her names.

“Victor’s bigotry and lack of consent is something that has become more and more prevalent during campaign season,” Richardson said in an email to Sahan Journal. “Our elected leaders should have a moral compass and he does not.” 

The interaction drew scrutiny from LGBTQ community members and allies, some of whom called him homophobic. But, Martinez told Sahan Journal that the use of the former name was a misunderstanding. He said he’d been referring to a name registered on a delegate roster. 

“Our differences don’t have to divide us,” Martinez said. “I don’t have to agree with you 100 percent, but I respect you and I’m willing to work with you.”

Martinez, who noted that he counts members of the LGBTQ community among his friends, said he respects the community “100 percent.” When he knocks on the door of an LGBTQ person, he says he’s able to find common ground. 

“They’ll say, ‘Victor, all I want to know is do you respect me and my partner?’ And I say, ‘I respect you and your partner.’ And they’re like, ‘You’ve got our vote.’ And I offer them my hand.”

‘I’m probably the only openly pro-life candidate in the whole city race’

Martinez is eager to explain his beliefs to voters, and he said he usually gets an understanding response. But, he’s also faced difficult interractions regarding his stance on abortion.

“I’m probably the only openly pro-life candidate in the whole city race,” Martinez said. “I want to be real with people. For the most part, people really respect it, because it’s not really a city issue.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to knock down a near-total ban on abortion in Texas earlier this month, fear that women’s reproductive rights could be left to the states shook the nation. Pro-choice advocates fear the court may soon strike down Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, creating in its place a patchwork of state-by-state laws.

Asked how he would respond to this scenario as a City Council member in the most populous city in Minnesota, Martinez said, “There are 12 other people you’ve got to talk to, so I really don’t think my voice would matter. Plus, it’s not an issue that I’m willing to die on. I’m not the guy in front of abortion clinics stopping people. It’s more a policy of my convictions, but not an aspiration for political change.”

‘All of those things he’s done in life have prepared him for office.’

Joel Martinez, Victor Martinez’s brother and campaign manager, said they both grew up in a household that valued loving and respecting people of different faiths, from their diverse Northside community. Before moving to Minneapolis, the family lived in Chaska and Shakopee, as well as California and Mexico.

When asked whether he ever imagined his brother running for office, Joel Martinez said, “It’s a combination of how we were raised and how the community raised us.” Joel, Victor, and their four siblings were raised by a single mother. “He’s been engaged in the community before this,” he said, referring to Martinez’s background as a pastor. “All of those things he’s done in life have prepared him for office.”

Unlike his brother, Joel Martinez has been involved in politics. He served as the vice president of Minnesota Voice, a nonprofit civic engagement group. He also humbly suggested that he was the one to convince his brother to run for a City Council seat.

“When you see things that haven’t worked here, everybody wants to be part of change,” he said. “The community needs a voice of change, they need healing, they need answers, they need accountability.”

Engaging voters of color

Victor Martinez, reflecting on his lack of political experience, said he used to hear a myth about his hometown: People of color—particularly immigrants—in north Minneapolis don’t turn out to vote.

“I believed it for a while, but now that I’m out here talking to people of color, they’re just not used to anyone talking to them,” he said. “It’s our job to engage them as candidates.”

Martinez’s background as a pastor works to his advantage. He’s used to expressing big ideas to a wide range of people. So, when he finds himself on the doorstep of a young Minneapolis resident who fervently disagrees with him, such as on the issue of policing, he digs in and has the difficult conversation.

“I tell them, ‘I love you guys because you talk like me on Sunday morning about this ideal that you’re shooting towards,’” Martinez said. “As a pastor, I talk about my ideals all the time.”

Then, he bends the discussion toward policy, telling the resident that, when it comes to ensuring the safety of the community, ideals won’t be enough.

*Update: This story has been changed to more fully explain Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison’s stance on policing and public safety in Minneapolis.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.