Editor’s note: The Journals will be profiling the self-declared candidates for mayor for the next several issues leading up to the DFL City Convention on June 15. This is the third profile in our series. We have profiled Mark Andrew and Jackie Cherryhomes and will be publishing stories in coming weeks on Gary Schiff, Betsy Hodges, Jim Thomas and Cam Winton, an Independent candidate not seeking the DFL endorsement.
Fifth Ward City Council Member Don Samuels doesn’t scare easily.
When he arrived in North Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood in 1998, he said his street included two prostitution houses, three drug-sellers, and lots of “slum” properties.
To deal with one chaotic party house on the street, Samuels and 15 other neighbors knocked on the front door. To deal with a West Broadway business allegedly allowing drug activity, Samuels picketed the owner’s home in MedicineLake, leaving fliers at neighboring doorsteps and picket signs on the lawn.
In an October Star Tribune editorial, Samuels said he stopped his car to scold a young man urinating on West Broadway, only to be threatened and have his iPhone stolen. In response, Samuels worked with police to immediately track down the suspect, giving him a lecture and a hug.
“My wife and I moved into North Minneapolis to make a difference. We could live in Linden Hills. It was a deliberate move, with an intent to be very deliberately intrusive,” Samuels said. “One thing that I’ve learned over the course of my life, if you’re willing to walk into the most dangerous, most unacceptable situation, that you automatically become a powerful person. You can take the prerogative of your nation’s expectations and your expectations as a human being with you, and that is power. You have the right on your side.”
If Samuels became mayor, he said his biggest priority would involve closing regional gaps in academics, income and employment.
“Being the council member I am from the area that I am, I would No. 1 be carrying those burdens in my heart,” Samuels said. “We have already made a lot of promises. One of the challenges is how we stay the course on them.”
The theme of balancing inequality crops up in many of Samuels’ positions on city issues. On potential streetcar and light rail projects, he wants equitable hiring and equal access to new infrastructure. On bike infrastructure, he said he wants every neighborhood to have a share in city amenities and receive extra eyes on the street. On the Vikings stadium, he wanted the city to take an early seat at the table and dictate terms that the project should reach 32 percent minority participation.
Large, dense development projects should be concentrated in the city’s transit corridors, Samuels said, but the details should always be negotiated with the neighborhood.
As for property taxes, Samuels said increases should naturally end as the economy improves. Property values will rise, he said, and a more city-friendly state government will end cuts to local government aid.
“I don’t foresee any increase in taxes at all,” Samuels said. “And frankly, anybody that becomes mayor is going to benefit from R.T.’s making very tough decisions and allowing us to have a free ride on that one.”
A mayoral priority for Samuels would involve tracking “Results Minneapolis,” which features data-driven progress reports and five-year business plans designed to meet city goals. He said he advocated for that kind of analysis during his first City Hall speech in 2003, endorsing Baltimore’s CitiStat program.
“I was in business for myself for 15 years and I worked with corporate America for another 15,” Samuels said. “You have to get the job done, otherwise you don’t have a job. I want to take that kind of approach to government.”
From small business owner to City Council member
Samuels immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1970 to study industrial design. He worked at Playskool as senior director of research & development, and left the company to start his own small business designing toys for major toy manufacturers. He said his creative work experience aids him today at City Hall. He described a standard example:
“There are 30 million Barbies in America, and you’ve got to come up with a new doll that’s different. Every Barbie has been done. But they want a new one,” he said. “You sit there with your blank paper, and suddenly you have to go the bathroom. And then you come back from the bathroom, and suddenly, you’ve got the munchies. … There is this healthy panic that strikes you, that’s also stimulating your creative juices. You have to double down and do it, because they gave you a week to get back some rough drawings.”
Samuels said he carries the same attitude to City Hall.
“A blank page is not acceptable,” he said. “We can’t say there is nothing to do; we tried everything. And we have to say that what is going on now is totally unacceptable, that it has to stop now. … When you have that attitude, life gets pretty simple.”
He supported city regulations that repeatedly doubled fines for violations by property owners. A fine that might start at $30 could rise over $1,000, he said, quickly bringing violators into compliance. He thinks the same sort of strategy works with behavior-related crimes.
“Twenty-five percent of the crime Downtown is committed by people from 55411. If you create an environment where crime is normalized, then people go somewhere else and act that way,” he said.
“It’s one city. We can’t have one kind of behavior in one part, and not in the other part. Otherwise Downtown is in danger, and once Downtown is in danger, then people start to look for residence all over the suburbs.”
Despite his conviction, Samuels’ strategies haven’t won uniform praise on the North side.
Pastor Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church said he thinks the state of North Minneapolis has grown worse during Samuels’ tenure at City Hall.
“He has failed at pulling everybody to the table for a solution in North Minneapolis,” McAfee said. “The only person he cares much about is the mayor.”
Samuels disagreed and pointed to his efforts to close the Wafana Food Market, which generated 1,200 911 calls in its final year and is located a block from McAfee’s church.
“To say the [North side] is no better off than it was back then is insulting to all of the hard work my neighbors and I have done,” Samuels said.
McAfee also criticized Samuels’ decision to “gut” the Civilian Review Authority, saying that police brutality incidents continue to be a problem.
In 2012, Samuels supported an overhaul that created a new agency with both civilian and sworn investigators to field allegations of police misconduct. He said the CRA had become dysfunctional and unproductive.
In a recent April debate hosted at New Salem, McAfee said he was encouraged by some of the responses of Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward), who spoke about lingering racism in the city.
“People are afraid to deal with the aspect of racism that still exists,” McAfee said. “You cannot deal with the level of poverty that we have and not hit the racism overt and covert in it.”
Samuels is no stranger to conversations about racism. He co-founded the Institute for Authentic Dialogue with Jon Odell, the author of books including “The View from Delphi,” which covers the struggle for equality in Odell’s home state of Mississippi.
Odell said he and Samuels stunned dinner parties with their candid conversations about race. They founded the Institute to teach others how to discuss race, providing seminars at companies like General Mills.
“You can stumble, make mistakes and forgive each other, and not fall into political correctness,” Odell said. “I still hear from people who said [the Institute] began their ability to talk across race. They didn’t have the language to do it.”
VJ Smith of MAD DADS said he and Samuels spent many conversations strategizing how to build community and improve outreach before Samuels cofounded the PEACE Foundation in 2003. Today, under the leadership of Samuels’ wife Sondra, the renamed Northside Achievement Zone works to end poverty in North Minneapolis by supporting children and preparing them for college.
Smith said he and Samuels went on to partner in response to homicides, planning vigils and working to bring peace to the impacted families.
“I think he sees a vision, and I think he knows the pain that we suffer in our community,” Smith said. “I think that he would give it his all.”
When Samuels and 15 neighbors approached the “scary people” on their block to improve safety, he felt security in numbers — the partiers would have needed to slash 15 tires, he said, or beat up 15 people. He thinks the city should take that mentality.
“We have a hugely dominant number of good-will people in our city. But we have subordinated ourselves to one slum lord who owns 18 properties, or a gang that has 50 kids,” Samuels said. “This is amazing to me. A gang with 50 teenagers? I have two in my house and they can’t even control the bathroom, let alone the whole neighborhood. This is what I’m talking about. I want to bring a new kind of understanding to the order of society. To sanity, to fairness, to justice. It’s very simple, once you think about it. We’re putting up with a lot of stuff and being intimidated by people who are much weaker than we are. We just have to walk into the situation and face it.”
At a glance: Don Samuels
Age: Turns 64 on May 13
Family: Wife Sondra, one adult son and three daughters
Resume shapshot: Former senior director of research and development at Playskool, former small business owner of toy design firm, Minneapolis City Council member since 2003
Education: BS in Industrial Design from the Pratt Institute, 1975; Masters of divinity from Luther Seminary, 2001
Fun fact: Samuels immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1970 to study industrial design.
Note: This story is changed from its initial version to include Samuels’ response to comments made by Rev. Jerry McAfee.