Jeremiah Ellison is the sort of elected official that gives Minneapolis its reputation as a progressive city.
As the current city council member representing Minneapolis’ North Side, Ellison is running for reelection on a platform that promises lofty plans for the city. In a slate of six candidates, he’s also the only candidate running for the Minneapolis Ward 5 seat who supports defunding the police.
But unlike the first time he ran for city council, in 2017, Ellison didn’t win official Democratic party support for the upcoming November election.
“A lot of my supporters maybe thought, Jeremiah’s going to be the only real contender in this race,” Ellison told Sahan Journal after the endorsement results were tallied in June. “But it was a wake-up call for me, and it was a wake-up call for them as well.
Ellison remains in the race and continues to ramp up support before the general election. At present, he faces Victor Martinez, Kristel Porter, Cathy Spann, Suleiman Isse, and Elijah Norris-Holliday in the race. None of Ellison’s opponents support defunding the police. Victor Martinez, a pro-police candidate, came within four votes of winning the endorsement.
Ellison’s surprising non-endorsement reveals just one way this year’s Minneapolis City Council elections have been unusual. The stakes feel especially high in this election, which comes on the heels of COVID-19 lockdowns and last summer’s uprising after the murder of George Floyd.
“Everyday people are more involved than I’ve ever seen them,” Ellison said. “But I think especially for a lot of folks who typically find themselves believing that change is possible, they’re just frustrated with every level of government.”
Crime rates and policing stand at the center of the race in Ellison’s ward, as Minneapolis has become a global focus for the movement to defund police departments. And the decision to defund or reform the police hinges on the outcome of the city council elections.
But as crime has spiked—a claim that itself has proved contentious—some candidates have struggled to sell bold new visions for public safety.
Candidates across the city have found at least one point of agreement: Something needs to change—but they differ on what that looks like. For communities of color, the pandemic has exacerbated economic issues, such as housing affordability. Most candidates that Sahan Journal spoke to said these issues are intertwined: A prosperous, equitable city leads to a safer city.
Looking at the election on the horizon, we’ve broken down some of the difficult conversations playing out in politics: Is Minneapolis truly a progressive city? And if not, is the city still ready to take on deep economic and public safety changes?
Breaking down the results, ward by ward
The DFL party dominates city elections, with almost every Minneapolis City Council member identifying with the party—except Green Party incumbent Cam Gordon, who’s been in an office for almost 15 years.
Candidates endorsed by the DFL get access to campaign resources from the party. The endorsement can set a city council candidate apart. Some 56 candidates, in 13 different wards, sought DFL support in June: Simple name recognition is a challenge.
At the same time, most DFL candidates pledged to remain in the race with or without the DFL endorsement.
A mix of incumbents and challengers won the Minneapolis DFL endorsements this year in June. To win the endorsement, a candidate must receive at least 60 percent of endorsement votes from delegates.
Elliott Payne, a civic designer and consultant for the city of Minneapolis and a self-labeled progressive, won the DFL endorsement in Ward 1 with 78.2 percent of the votes against incumbent Kevin Reich. In an interview with Sahan Journal, Payne noted that support for progressive policies varies from ward to ward. Residents in his ward—which contains most of Northeast Minneapolis—perceive violent crime very differently than voters do in Ward 5, for example.
Still, Payne said he’s optimistic that whoever makes up the next Minneapolis City Council will create new pathways to ensuring safety.
“We’re facing life and death challenges in the city. This is not the time for ego or grandstanding,” Payne said. “Once the reality of governing happens, even your biggest pro-police person would recognize some of the fundamental failures of how policing is done.”
Ward 9 candidate Jason Chavez received the Minneapolis DFL endorsement, with 69 percent of delegate votes. The legislative aide in the Minnesota House also claimed some of the most notable local progressive endorsements, including a nod from the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America. He’s aiming for the seat of Alondra Cano, who announced last year that she would not run for reelection.
Chavez said the endorsements are important for activating his base. The Ninth Ward, the south Minneapolis region that includes sites like the Little Earth housing project and much of East Lake Street, often sees lower voter turnout than other parts of the city.
“We just want to make sure that we can reach out to as many people as possible to get that turnout,” Chavez said.
Only five incumbents claimed endorsements from the Minneapolis DFL.
Phillipe Cunningham is this incumbent in Ward 4, Minneapolis’ northernmost area. He received the endorsement this year with 63 percent of delegates, while being part of the group of representatives leading the charge to restructure the police.
In Wards 8, 12, and 13, Andrea Jenkins, Andrew Johnson, and Linea Palmisano respectively won DFL backing in both election cycles, 2017 and 2021.
Lisa Goodman, the incumbent in Ward 7, received an endorsement with 61.6 percent of votes this time around, but not in 2017. Ward 7 makes up the city’s west side, which includes neighborhoods like Loring Park and Bryn–Mawr.
Some wards produced no endorsement
In wards that didn’t receive a DFL endorsement, the races feel tense.
In Ward 2, candidate Tom Anderson’s campaign alleged that his opponent Yusra Arab fraudulently registered delegates for the online endorsement ballot. Ward 2 includes the University of Minnesota and East Lake Street. As evidence, Anderson and his campaign manager presented a confusing recorded phone call with an East African voter and a series of registration times that the campaign deemed suspicious.
A DFL credentials hearing declined to accept Anderson’s delegate challenges.
“I would like to say I was surprised, but to be honest, I wasn’t,” Yusra said. “This was sort of the norm for the past couple of years now when it comes to, especially, East African candidates: the questioning of legitimacy.”
Yusra was close to winning the endorsement in Ward 2 with 57 percent of the votes compared to Anderson’s 18 percent.
Council members Jeremiah Ellison and Steve Fletcher, in Wards 5 and 3, received the Minneapolis DFL endorsement in the last election. But neither managed to secure party support this time around. Both have been at the forefront of conversations to overhaul the police department.
Despite not winning the endorsement, Ellison is confident that the city will elect a progressive majority in the city council come November. “You did see some wards remaining more or less the same,” Ellison said. “But you didn’t see a single ward in the city take a big swing to the right.”
In Ward 5, a north Minneapolis area that includes Theodore Wirth Regional Park and a portion of North Loop, the DFL endorsement stalemate may hint at more support for conservative-leaning candidates. This includes Victor Martinez, a pastor at the New Generation Church in north Minneapolis, who nearly won the endorsement, , as well as Cathy Spann and Kristel Porter, who were eliminated by the final round of delegate voting.
In a previous interview with Sahan Journal, Martinez called for an increased police presence in the area to address violent crime on the city’s North Side.
In case you missed it: Looking back at a disputed endorsement process
This year’s DFL endorsement process marked a rocky start for municipal elections.
The Minneapolis DFL voted in February 2021 to host the caucus virtually. But in a last-ditch effort to challenge the vote, Mayor Jacob Frey and 20 city council candidates submitted a letter expressing concerns that an online process could be “viewed as illegitimate.” Other DFL members said a virtual caucus would actually be more accessible.
The caucuses are typically in-person meetings where delegates in each ward decide which candidates the party should back. This year’s caucus happened online in the first week of June.
Despite the last-minute challenge from Frey and city council candidates, the DFL honored the vote and planned for a virtual caucus. But the party continued to face criticism throughout the endorsement process.
Ahead of the convention, attendees voted for delegates to represent them in the caucus. Three establishment DFL operatives slammed the virtual caucus in a letter sent to the DFL on June 2, labeling it discriminatory and “fatally flawed.”
Former Minneapolis City Council members Tony Scallon and Lisa McDonald, and DFL party activist Ken Vreeland wrote in the letter that thousands of registrants got shut out of the process, while “fraudulent registrations” came through.
Minneapolis DFL chair Devin Hogan explained to Sahan Journal at the time that the allegations were not true. The eliminated registrations came out of a process to get rid of duplicate online forms. In fact, Hogan said participation was higher than ever.
“People want to participate,” Hogan told Sahan Journal in June. “And they’re constantly met with this barrage of lies about how their votes are fraud, or invalid—or, somehow, that their participation is bad.”
New approaches to public safety
The murder of George Floyd reenergized a longtime conversation about policing and public safety in Minneapolis. To many people in the city, the stakes have only risen since then, amid fatal high-profile gun incidents and a spike in crime.
Homicides have climbed steeply, according to Minneapolis Police Department crime data. In 2019, 48 homicides occured. That increased to 83 in 2020. As of July this year, 48 homicides have already been reported (that is, in roughly 200 days).
About 1,300 robberies were reported in 2019 and about 1,000 were already reported this year.
Total violent crime increased by about 19 percent between 2019 and 2020.
Meanwhile, reported property crimes have stayed mostly the same—though this could be a result of MPD’s decreased capacity to respond to lesser crimes.
While many groups and representatives are seeking alternatives to policing, others say that Minneapolis needs police now more than ever.
Mayor Jacob Frey stands by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, calling for a “both-and” approach. By that, the mayor says that he would see Minneapolis pursue wide-ranging police reform while fundamentally maintaining the police department as it stands. However, a coalition of representatives, candidates, and residents are calling to cut down on the number of uniformed police officers and redirect funds into other services and non-police responses.
“We’re in the battle for our city,” Chavez said. “We’re either going to choose to go back to the old ways, which criminalizes our Black, brown, and Indigenous community, or we’re going to try something different that actually protects all of our community members. And that’s what the election is going to be about.”
Chavez is among more than 20,000 who signed on to the Yes 4 Minneapolis petition, which proposes a charter amendment to create a new Department of Public Safety. Leading this new department would be a commissioner appointed by elected officials.
Under the current system, the police chief reports exclusively to the mayor. The Yes 4 Minneapolis model would give the 13 City Council members more influence on the police department.
Brian Fullman, lead organizer for the Barbershop and Black Congregation Cooperative with the nonprofit ISAIAH, also signed the petition. He said many of the Black business owners he speaks with didn’t immediately embrace the idea of the reconstituted department. With time and conversations, though, some of these people are “very, very excited and refreshed” about the framework.
“They know if the community starts getting what they need, and if the City of Minneapolis starts to invest in what the community needs, and starts dismantling some of these inequities, then it makes the business thrive more. When people are able to live better, then they become better consumers of whatever it is that you have.”
An “unhappy” and “volatile” city does not benefit business owners, he added.
Still, Fullman doesn’t believe in getting rid of police in this election cycle. He said he can see a society without police—but “not now.”
Some within the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition envision a complete abolition of the Minneapolis Police Department, but many city residents express skepticism about that prospect.
“People want to be able to trust their cops,” said AJ Awed, mayoral candidate and executive director of Programs and Policy with the Cedar–Riverside Community Council. “And that doesn’t necessarily equate to getting rid of law enforcement.”
Abdirizak Bihi, a contender for the Ward 6 seat and a community organizer in Cedar–Riverside, echoed this argument.
“I’m hearing a mixed message,” Abdirizak said. “Everyone agrees that we need to be safe, but the pathways to public safety—there are diverse voices on that.”
Abdirizak said many people across his ward believe that mental health and domestic issues could be handled by specialized professionals, and traffic laws could be enforced by unarmed workers. But police are still needed.
“A lot of people believe that the police should be left to handle violent crimes,” he said. “I also understand that we cannot police our way out of all the issues happening right now.”
For Yusra, the right balance should start by hearing from communities that feel most affected.
“Most of our communities live in areas that are overpoliced, but at the same time lack public safety,” Yusra said. “These decisions that are being made are going to impact communities like mine first.”
The debate about public safety has widened the city’s most visible divide. Several candidates say that some representatives have been grandstanding without substantively adding to the conversation.
Ward 2 candidate Robin Wonsley Worlobah, a community organizer and Democratic Socialist, said a “retaliatory movement” has been set in place by the mayor and police chief. She said they are organizing around the narrative that “we need police more than ever” without funding preventative measures to improve safety.
Worlobah said that as the conversation continues to chug on, substantive changes haven’t been enacted. She said some of the longtime city officials have a track record of caring more about big business and police than community members. More than a year after George Floyd’s murder and promises for change, she said “we have nothing to show for it.”
Yusra said the current standstill isn’t helping—and crime continues to worsen.
“We have a new victim every week, unfortunately, most often young children,” Yusra said. “They’re not there to sit and bicker and grandstand on what makes them look popular, but rather compromising and actually working together to make sure they get things done for all their constituents.”
Housing and equity
For many residents and candidates, stable housing is a key piece of public safety and one of the city’s most pressing issues.
“Housing is the cure,” said Qannani Omar, housing organizer with Harrison Neighborhood Association. “If you don’t address where people can sleep every night in a safe way that is inclusive to people’s needs,” she continued, those people can’t engage in other city issues.
Data on HousingLink, a nonprofit source for information about affordable housing, capture the scope of the affordable housing crunch in Minneapolis. In May, no rental units in the private market were available in Minneapolis that would be affordable to an individual making about $22,000 a year, or 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). Only about one-fifth of vacancies were affordable to an individual making $37,000 a year, or 50 percent AMI.
Put plainly, nearly half the city’s renters live in housing that is not affordable to them.
Further, disparities in homeownership between Black and white residents in the Twin Cities are the worst in the country — and the gap is increasing, according to a report published last month by the Urban Institute, a research think tank.
This issue, like policing, has led many council candidates to push for far-reaching solutions. And, here again, some proposals have run into opposition from the Charter Commission.
A rent stabilization (or rent control) charter amendment would cap rent increases somewhere between 3–10 percent each year. The tenant opportunity to purchase (or TOPA) ordinance would give renters the first opportunity to buy a building should the property owner seek to sell.
In a preliminary vote, the Minneapolis City Council on July 21 approved two rent control amendments. The final vote is set for August 4. Ellison co-authored the amendment proposal and spoke at a Wednesday press conference at City Hall ahead of the vote. The event was hosted by the Home To Stay Coalition, a group of unions and organizations that support rent stabilization.
“Our original proposal gives us the most possible tools that we can use in order to see this policy through and to provide this essential need for our residents,” Ellison said at the press conference.
Laura Carpenter, a renter who works in food service at Minneapolis Public Schools, said at the press conference that she has had to move multiple times within the city because her family found lead paint peeling off the walls. She said that “without bold action,” families will be displaced due to skyrocketing rent costs.
“The rent has steadily increased over time, but so far we’ve been able to hang on. Rent stabilization would help families like mine get some breathing room,” Carpenter said.
Denise Herrera, a member of United Renters for Justice speaking through a translator, said at the press conference that tenants are treated differently depending on their race.
“The way that rent goes up and what the conditions of the home look like actually depends on race in this city and that’s not fair,” she said.
Abdirizak notes that the city’s inequalities in housing and other arenas have become more apparent than ever in the last year.
“The events of George Floyd’s murder actually put a lot of light on the division among us,” he said. “Whether it’s a division among public safety, whether it’s the division on equity … the inequity in housing and jobs and wealth-building and in quality of education.”
In Ward 6, with its preponderance of renters and a number of low-income households and public housing high-rises, conversations about wealth disparities are especially important. Abdirizak wants more resources to expand homeownership and to see rent control instated.
Is Minneapolis a progressive city—or a hypocritical one?
Minneapolis has long basked in the reputation as a home for progressives in the Midwest. But what does it mean if voters in a progressive city widely reject progressive candidates?
The prospects for a progressive majority in the city council seem solid to Payne, who won the DFL endorsement by a landslide. Still, he has his reservations.
“It’s an extremely progressive city—if you’re white,” Payne said. “Some of the things that are required of us to deliver on our progressive values requires us to engage in some really dark histories and conflict.”
Ward 7* candidate Nick Kor said that Minneapolis is relatively progressive, but the city council itself doesn’t reflect that. Kor is running against Lisa Goodman, who’s held the seat for the last 24 years.
“In order for us to actually pass progressive things, we have to have a progressive majority and we don’t have that right now,” Kor said.
The face of the city may ultimately reflect the outcome of one more contested race: Minneapolis will also vote for mayor in November. The DFL caucus did not result in a mayoral endorsement, and it hasn’t since 2009.
Sheila Nezhad is a policy analyst for Reclaim the Block, an organizing group that’s been pushing to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. Nezhad received 53 percent of votes in the final round against incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey, who ended the night with 40 percent.
The caucus results suggest that a progressive candidate like Nezhad, who’s advocated to defund the police, could become mayor of Minneapolis with a reform-minded city council. Or Frey could sit atop a newly formed council with more mainstream DFLers. One last charter amendment—granting the mayor stronger powers to oversee city budgets and departments—could bring about a change in the balance of city power, too.
“I will guarantee you if Jacob Frey comes back as mayor, the city will be more divided than it’s ever been,” AJ Awed said.
And maybe that’s what voters will choose in November.
Hana Ikramuddin contributed reporting to this story.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where Nick Kor is running for a Minneapolis City Council seat. Kor is running in Ward 7 (not Ward 4).