Minneapolis mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad poses inside Caspian Bistro, a Persian restaurant and market located near the University of Minnesota campus in September 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

It was a cool September afternoon on the patio at Caspian Bistro. Sheila Nezhad was placing her order to the owner when she told him: “I’m running for mayor, you know.”

They had known each other since Nezhad was a baby. She’s the daughter of an Iranian immigrant father and an Anishinaabe-Scandinavian mother and would make the trip from their home in Fargo for authentic Persian ingredients. The owner had been running the mainstay on University Avenue Southeast for 35 years. He said he knew she was running, then asked how she felt about the police.

She offered a diplomatic response, “I believe in having many options for public safety.”

The man, an Iranian immigrant who said living in America is a privilege, then spent nearly half an hour telling her about rising crime, the need for police and what he felt was an unresponsiveness from the mayor and city council.

The focus of the 33-year-old Nezhad’s mayoral bid is a progressive vision for transforming public safety. Her roots are in her work as a community activist and a data buff, including serving as a policy analyst with Reclaim the Block, one of the organizations that has led the push for transforming policing and public safety in Minneapolis. She received the most votes in the Minneapolis DFL convention, nabbing 53 percent of delegate votes, but could not secure the party’s endorsement. Still, she has been endorsed by an array of progressive organizations, raised more than $100,000 in campaign contributions and received national media attention, making her one of the strongest contenders on the ballot.

Andy Aoki, a political science professor at Augsburg University, said that Nezhad, Kate Knuth, and current Mayor Jacob Frey “seem to be the ones looming largest in the public mind.” Naomi Kritzer, who has been writing a local election guide for about 14 years, also named these candidates as the standouts in the race while noting that candidate AJ Awed could make a viable run in a future election.

Nezhad smiled and listened as the restaurant owner shared his experiences in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood. After laughing off some of his own complaints, the owner took orders. Nezhad got the kabob koobideh and a tea.

“She has a nice mix, or balance, of being able to engage with very serious kinds of realities and still have a light touch,” said Ricardo Levins Morales, an artist and political activist who is friends with Nezhad and supports her bid.

The mayor’s job is to be an organizer, she told Sahan Journal. The role is about bringing people together and making sure voices are heard. Much of her campaign focuses on promises of more democratic processes in city functions.

“Everyone else is trying to get back to, quote unquote, normal,” said Alfred Walking Bull, an activist and friend of Nezhad. “When she takes office, it’s not that there’s going to be this radical shake up, it’s that the people are actually going to have an advocate in the mayor’s office.”

Before announcing her run, Nezhad was tapping the people around her to challenge incumbent Jacob Frey. But nobody wanted to do it — it’s a difficult and expensive process. So she decided to make the bid herself. She held community listening sessions and asked the people around her what kind of campaign would inspire them.

But the launch of her campaign was repeatedly eclipsed by tragedy. “It’s just been a year of continual police violence,” Nezhad said.

Minneapolis police officers killed Dolal Idd in south Minneapolis the day before she announced her candidacy on New Year’s Eve. Then the U.S. Capitol Insurrection on Jan. 6 overshadowed the official kickoff party that came three days later. In April, Brooklyn Center police killed Daunte Wright. As the days neared the DFL convention, federal marshals killed Winston Smith in Uptown.

As her campaign lifted off the ground, Nezhad garnered major attention – even featured in national publications like Teen Vogue and Politico. She’s been endorsed by progressive organizations like Take Action MN, Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America, various local LGBTQ organizations, and Minnesota Young DFL. Her campaign reported contributions amounting to nearly $120,000 between the beginning of this year and July 27.

She doesn’t support the strong mayor charter amendment, and does support the public safety and rent control amendments.

Nezhad believes in creating a Black-led reparations commission, similar to work happening in St. Paul; pushing for more pathways for BIPOC wealth-building, like tenant opportunity to purchase; and implementing housing-first policies and harm-reduction models for addressing the needs of people who are unhoused.

‘From the streets to the spreadsheets’

Nezhad was a street medic during the summer’s uprising after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd.

Within five minutes of arriving at MPD’s Third Precinct Building, the epicenter of protesters after police murdered George Floyd, she was shot by a less-lethal round. She said another whizzed past her and shattered the nearby bus shelter.

Walking Bull said it was an emotional experience for him to see Nezhad put herself on the line to take care of other people who were out protesting, like helping them after they were tear gassed.

“There’s something about it that just helps you to understand that this is the leader that not just that we want, but that we need,” he said. “Someone whose action is aligned with their words.”

The mayoral hopeful’s organizing experience began at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

She completed her undergrad studies at the U’s Morris campus with a degree in economics.

Nezhad was about to pursue a master’s degree in international development when she came out as queer to her co-workers at Sea Salt, the restaurant where she worked near Minnehaha Falls for about a decade.

She was welcomed comfortably by those colleagues, but her transition into Humphrey School in 2010 proved more difficult. Gay marriage was at the peak of social and political conversations, “but at the public policy school, they weren’t teaching any courses on LGBT rights,” she said.

So she started a club with fellow students and eventually started what she calls a “queer and trans 101 training for the faculty and staff,” which eventually sparked the school to begin teaching about LGBTQ+ issues.

“That was my first taste of how a small group of people can change a large institution,” Nezhad said. She continued advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, helping conduct a survey of about 2,000 queer and trans people that found major health disparities between straight and queer populations.

This convinced the Minnesota Department of Health to start collecting data about gender identity and sexual orientation, she said.

Her path eventually led her to a living room floor with a group that proved to be an early iteration of Reclaim the Block. Reclaim the Block was formed on the heels of the MPD150 report, a 150-year performance review of MPD that was first published in 2017, which Nezhad helped with.

Lex Horan, an organizer with Reclaim the Block, worked alongside Nezhad in those early days. Speaking personally and not on behalf of the organization, Horan said the group was just “trying to figure out how we could work together, as an all-volunteer crew, to impact the city budget.” 

What started as about a dozen volunteers grew to hundreds of people showing up to City Hall to testify about policing in the city. The group helped advocate for moving $1.1 million from the police budget to create the Office of Violence Prevention. It was a small amount, but it was a start.

“Part of our demands was a 5 percent general divestment from MPD to go into … housing, community safety, whatever,” Nezhad said, “and people just laughed at us.”

Police turned out dozens of people to testify, and the police department said that a 5 percent cut would mean it drops all community programs.

But Nezhad said the murder of George Floyd and subsequent mass protests changed her and opened her eyes to what is possible.

“Then you fast forward [to now] and a 5 percent cut would have been, you know, we have people across the country saying ‘Minneapolis, why aren’t you asking for 50 percent?’” she said.

For the people

Many of Nezhad’s proposals center on community involvement.

“Sheila has real faith in people and their capacity to solve their own problems,” Levins Morales said.

She first really learned how to read budgets as a member of Reclaim the Block.

“She’s deeply a budget nerd and a policy nerd, but in a way that never to me feels disconnected from real people’s lives,” Horan said.

Nezhad wants to invest $10 million in participatory budgeting. It can take on different forms, but essentially gives the community a chance to decide how a pot of money should be spent. She’s talked to Native organizers who said they have to fight over the same funds for their language immersion school with people from the East African and Latino communities, which creates tension.

Participatory budgeting was established in Brazil in 1989. Now, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, 7,000 cities around the world have taken up the initiative.

Nezhad also wants to offer stipends to people on the city’s community advisory committees. The city currently has about 700 positions for its community advisory committees, which includes groups that advise city leadership on things like bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure or public health issues. These positions are unpaid, which Nezhad said only makes them accessible to people with the time and resources. She would also hope to offer communication support for the groups to be more successful in conversations with the City Council.

Horan has known Nezhad outside Reclaim the Block, too, from Sea Salt to the uprising after the murder of George Floyd.

“She’s rinsed tear gas out of my eyes, I’ve watched her medic for people who got hit by rubber bullets from the police,” Horan said. “I’ve watched her lead really powerful community trainings about how city processes work and how people can get involved with them.”

Nezhad was a lead organizer for the People’s Budget, which urged city leaders to fund health and stability over policing during the 2021 budget cycle, saying the city needs to “start moving our money into life-affirming institutions.”

Levins Morales said Nezhad recognizes that power comes from organized communities, and she’s spent years honing her skills. He said she’s not subject to “the winds flowing through City Hall,” advancing the agenda of the poor and working class rather than that of the highest bidder.

“We’re living in a moment of tremendous instability and crisis,” Levins Morales said. “Visionary and new and radical approaches are the pragmatic way to be. And thinking that you can maintain a business-as-usual approach — that’s magical thinking.”

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,...