Roslyn Harmon (left) and Gillian Rosenquist (right) are vying to be the next mayor of Golden Valley. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Golden Valley voters will elect a new mayor next week. And for the first time in history, the predominantly white suburb may elect a Black mayor.

The current mayor, Shep Harris, is not seeking reelection. Two women are vying to replace him: nonprofit executive director Roslyn Harmon and city council member Gillian Rosenquist.

“I want to be mayor because a lot of residents feel like their voice hasn’t been heard in quite some time,” Harmon said. Those residents include members of the police department and fire department, she said. “You’ve got to be able to listen to people, and give them the opportunity for their voice to be heard. And I think we’ve lost sight of that as a community.”

Harmon, 47, currently serves as executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, a St. Paul–based mediation center that provides restorative justice diversion programs for the Ramsey County court system and the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office. If elected, she would be Golden Valley’s first Black mayor.

Gillian Rosenquist, 53, has served on the Golden Valley City Council for six years. She’s an attorney who got involved in community organizing at the neighborhood level before joining the city council.

“I’m looking to provide steady and strategic leadership that is very community-based,” she said.  “I have a background in working with folks that have ideas, and then using what I know about laws and systems to make those ideas a reality. I think that experience really translates well to local government.”

Golden Valley, a first-ring suburb of 22,000 people just west of Minneapolis, was largely a farming community until General Mills moved its operations there in the 1950s. The town developed residential housing quickly as its population more than quadrupled between 1950 and 1970. Today, Golden Valley’s population is 85 percent white—in part due to the legacy of restrictive racial covenants, which prohibited homeowners from selling their houses to people of color.

Grappling with that legacy hasn’t always been easy for the progressive-leaning suburb. After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Golden Valley conducted an internal investigation of its own police department. It found a culture of racism. One officer was fired and many others left. At its nadir, the department, which is funded for 31 officers, only had eight on staff. Now, the department is staffing up under the helm of its first Black police chief, Virgil Green: The city now employs 19 officers, Harris said, and also contracts with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office to help fill the gap.

Golden Valley has a “council-manager” system of government. That means the mayor and city council hire a city manager, who is in charge of running most city operations. The mayor and city council “provide high-level vision and direction” to the city manager, said Harris, the current mayor. The mayor’s role, as Harris described it, is “about running the meetings, but more importantly, setting the tone and being the spokesperson for the community.”

Though Golden Valley has had several Black city council members, the suburb has never had a Black mayor, said Don Anderson, a board member of the Golden Valley Historical Society.

Golden Valley voters will also choose two new city council members, and decide whether to approve a 1.25 percent sales tax to construct new public works and public safety buildings.

Roslyn Harmon: ‘She listens, and she brings people together’

If elected, Roslyn Harmon, the executive director of the St. Paul–based Dispute Resolution Center, would be Golden Valley’s first Black mayor. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Roslyn Harmon wants to bring a restorative approach to strengthen Golden Valley’s sense of community. She also wants to make the community more welcoming. That means expanding affordable housing options, supporting the new police chief in his reform efforts, and creating a vibrant downtown.

Harris, who endorsed Harmon to replace him as mayor, said in an interview that Golden Valley is at a “crossroads” and needs a mayor who has experience not only in City Hall, but in the community and at the executive level. “I’ve seen that in Roz in all three ways,” he said.

Harmon now works as a nonprofit leader, but she has also been an educator, a mental health practitioner, and a pastor. She’s served as the vice chair of Golden Valley’s Police Employment, Accountability, and Community Engagement Commission, which collects research and makes recommendations about policing practices.

Golden Valley’s police officers were “like family” to residents, Harmon said. So it hit the community hard when the police department experienced 75 percent turnover following the internal investigation. Harmon attributes the turnover to reform efforts being “pushed a little too hard.”

“It really caused a rift with the department, which is really unfortunate because our police department was very engaged in the Golden Valley community,” she said.

Now, though, the police department is moving forward with positive change, she said. “We’ve been able to really hit the reset button and reimagine a better department moving forward.”

Another priority for Harmon: affordable homes. That means more subsidized vouchers, apartments that are affordable for people with lower incomes, keeping property taxes at a manageable rate for seniors, and better conditions for renters. She visited a high-rise apartment building where conditions were “horrible,” she said. The city has not been holding landlords accountable, she said.

Roxanne Gould, an Indigenous elder who supports Harmon’s campaign, said she was excited when she learned a woman of color was running for mayor. She was impressed with Harmon from their first meeting.

“She listens,” Gould said. “And she brings people together.”

The first time they met, Harmon spent an hour and a half with Gould and her husband. Gould said she knew Harmon had been listening to understand when the candidate repeated some of Gould’s ideas on her podcast.

Gould hopes Harmon will bring a more holistic view to Golden Valley governance, rather than focusing just on economic development. In Gould’s view, the rush to economic development in Golden Valley has been destructive for the community’s wetlands and green spaces. She hopes Harmon will give voice to environmental issues. 

“We can restore our green spaces back to health, and inevitably that’s going to provide better health to the people who live in Golden Valley,” Gould said.

For Harmon, listening to community members like Gould is at the heart of her campaign.

“I think people are just really looking forward to change, and they’re really looking forward to starting over and coming back together and working together,” she said.

Gillian Rosenquist: ‘There’s no substitute for experience’

Gillian Rosenquist cites her City Hall experience and collaborative approach to governance as assets she would bring to the mayor’s office. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Gillian Rosenquist first got involved in municipal government in 2012, and has served as a Golden Valley city council member for the past six years. Now, she hopes to bring steady and collaborative leadership to the mayor’s office.

Rosenquist hopes her leadership style can “bring out the best in all of the talents” that other council members and staff bring to the table, she said.

Larry Fonnest, a former Golden Valley City Council member who served alongside Rosenquist for four years, praised her government service. 

“I personally feel very strongly that there’s no substitute for experience,” he said. On the city council, Rosenquist was “leading the charge” on important issues like police department reform, infrastructure redesign, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, he said.

Rosenquist expressed support for the new police chief and his work to recruit officers who want to build a better department. “I think it’s really important for the next mayor to be someone who is very steady and centered on the rebuilding of this department,” she said. That means both making sure the department is staffed, and continuing conversations about transforming public safety, she said.

Rosenquist’s priorities as mayor would include addressing Golden Valley’s aging mid-century infrastructure. She also hopes to help the city become more nimble in addressing day-to-day issues like problem intersections.

It’s not just Golden Valley’s infrastructure and housing that are aging—its residents are, too. “We are a disproportionately older community, and so we have a lot of folks who would like to stay here in Golden Valley, but we don’t have the senior housing to accommodate them,” Rosenquist said. “Figuring out how we can do that is really important.”

Creating affordable homeownership opportunities is also important to Rosenquist. She sees these opportunities as part of the work “to remedy the past harm that was done through those covenants, by very intentionally inviting people from BIPOC populations to live here.”

Lindsay Thompson, a Golden Valley resident and DFL volunteer who is supporting Rosenquist, said she had always found Rosenquist to be a responsive and accessible city council member. On one occasion, Thompson brought Rosenquist a concern about dying trees. Rosenquist responded by telling her about relevant programs the city already had, and recommending other people in city government Thompson could talk to about the trees.

“It made me feel good as a resident and constituent that I could go to her with an issue that, even though it might seem small, it impacts the city,” Thompson said. “She took me seriously and gave me recommendations on how I can move forward.”

For Rosenquist, the accessibility that Thompson described is part of her collaborative approach to government.

“I really work hard to know what I’m talking about and invite people to the table,” she said.

Election Day in Minnesota is Tuesday, November 7. Golden Valley voters can find information about how to vote early or on Election Day here.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...