Teqen Zéa-Aida (left) and Nick Kor (right) are both seeking the DFL endorsement for the Minneapolis City Council Ward 7 Seat against the incumbent, Lisa Goodman. Credit: Teqen Zéa-Aida and Nick Kor

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A last-minute effort to cancel virtual caucuses for endorsing DFL candidates for Minneapolis city offices failed, but led to fraught discussions in which several candidates from immigrant communities raised concerns about how best to involve them in the process. 

The Minneapolis DFL Party voted Tuesday night to hold the virtual caucuses despite concerns expressed by Mayor Jacob Frey and about 20 City Council candidates, who said the process could be “viewed as illegitimate” in a letter leaked late in the day. Other DFL members said the virtual format would be more accessible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters with disabilities, work conflicts, or young children now have the opportunity to participate under a more flexible online format. 

Immigrant voters who face the same conflicts would also have an opportunity to participate, and one candidate said the maneuver appeared to be an effort to protect incumbents. But Ward 6 City Council member Jamal Osman countered that it would be hard for many of his constituents to participate in an online political meeting.  

Candidates knew that planning for a virtual process was underway for the past few months and had multiple opportunities to provide input if they had concerns, said Ward 7 candidate Nick Kor.

“If folks had real concerns about the process, they would have been involved in crafting the process to begin with,” Kor said. “What’s the purpose of delegitimizing a process that many volunteers in the DFL, many representatives from different campaigns, have put into crafting?”

Kor is the son of immigrants from Hong Kong. He currently works as the senior manager of movement building at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a national effort to combat racism and xenophobia.

Teqen Zéa-Aida, who is also running for the Ward 7 seat, called the letter signed by Frey and others a “botched political maneuver,” to challenge what Zéa-Aida called an otherwise open and inclusive effort. 

“People are scared,” Zéa-Aida said of some party members. “I’m running against a 24-year incumbent who many consider to be one of the most powerful political figures in the state. Maybe I’m wrong, but I perceived it to be a maneuver to protect her, and other establishment characters.”

Zéa-Aida, a naturalized American who was adopted from Colombia at birth, lost against 24-year incumbent Lisa Goodman for the same seat in 2017. Both Zéa-Aida and Kor are now seeking the DFL endorsement against Goodman, who also signed the letter against a virtual caucus.

The mayor’s office and all 13 City Council seats are up for election in November, as well as seats on the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Parks and Recreation Board.

The DFL caucuses are typically in-person meetings where people discuss which candidates to support. They select delegates who go on to ward and city conventions to vote on whom the party should endorse. Those candidates get access to campaign resources from the party. The process typically takes weeks and meetings can go on all day. This year, the meetings will happen online in a shorter span of time.

The letter claimed that party endorsements received through a virtual format ahead of the November election would divide the DFL. It added that a virtual caucus could not adequately replace discussions among neighbors who “are young and old, homeowners and renters, long-time residents and new immigrants to our country.”

Jamal, who was elected to the City Council during a special election in August, signed the letter and helped circulate it to other elected city officials. Jamal is especially concerned about Ward 6 residents who lack internet access or the technical literacy needed to participate in a virtual caucus.

“The concern is very clear, especially in Ward 6,” Jamal said. “Virtual is not their world. And we don’t expect any number of our residents to really log in and try to participate in the caucus this way.”

Jamal, Frey, and other candidates who signed the letter propose not holding a caucus at all. That way, residents can vote for a candidate based on merit rather than an endorsement, Jamal said. But now, he’s struggling to come up with a plan to get Ward 6 residents involved.

Kor said that the DFL endorsement has meaning to people in Minneapolis and the state at large. Getting rid of a caucus would also deny people the chance to help shape the party platform.

“When people see, on the ballot, that someone has been DFL-endorsed, that matters,” Kor said. “People should have the opportunity to participate and to make an impact in that decision.” 

An online caucus would allow more people to participate while eliminating the need for an in-person event during the pandemic, Kor said.

When Kor mentioned the caucus to community members, he recalled some people saying they wouldn’t participate because they didn’t feel comfortable showing up in person. When he assured them the process was online, they suddenly became more inclined to get involved. People who have to work, take care of their kids, or have health concerns now have an opportunity to participate, Kor said.

There are some barriers though, Kor noted. For example, people who don’t have a cell phone or internet access might not be able to participate. But he added that there have been discussions about a potential mail-in option.

“This is by no means a perfect process,” Kor said. “But we are in unprecedented times.” 

Zéa-Aida said that the traditional caucus format didn’t always work for everyone, but that it’s essential for community members to gather and discuss issues. 

“Neighborhood caucuses still function as the grassroots entrance to democracy,” Zéa-Aida said. His job now is to make sure his supporter base in Ward 7 knows how this new process will work.

DFL members who have been formulating the virtual caucus have considered ways to make it more accessible, Zéa-Aida added. He said he was appalled that other DFL members came “swooping in” at the last minute to disrupt that effort.

Circulating the letter at the last minute wasn’t deliberate, Jamal said, but he added that it would have been beneficial to have more time to collect signatures. In any case, Jamal said that he was not given enough opportunity to provide input on how a virtual caucus would play out for Ward 6 residents. He said he had concerns from the beginning, but did not receive adequate communication from DFL leaders about the logistics of a virtual format. 

“The residents here are longtime DFL voters,” Jamal said of Ward 6. “For them to not be considered when they have a concern—it’s very disappointing.”

Zéa-Aida said he received a leaked version of the letter submitted by the mayor and other candidates at 4:58 p.m. Tuesday. He equated the letter to a last-minute invite to a party—that he didn’t want to go to, anyway. 

“Coming from the very disenfranchised communities that the letter wanted to make sure were included, I found great fault with that,” Zéa-Aida said. 

He added that all of the candidates should have been consulted earlier, especially candidates of color, newcomers, and challengers to incumbents.

“We’re in uncharted territory. The process was already flawed,” Zéa-Aida said. “Democracy is messy—and it’s beautiful. We cannot chip away at it, no matter what.”

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