Youth leaders grill mayoral candidates about racial disparities

Mayoral candidates talk with One Minneapolis forum coordinator Henry Jimenez. Credit: By Michelle Bruch

The Minneapolis mayoral candidates faced an energetic, critical crowd at a forum Thursday night dedicated to issues of racial disparity.

“This is like Saturday night at the Apollo,” said moderator Nekima Levy-Pounds, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas and director of the Community Justice Project. “This is a tough crowd.”

Levy-Pounds said from the outset she would be “LA-nice,” not Minnesota-nice — she repeatedly asked candidates to start over and “answer the question.” Audience members called for specifics as well, yelling out: “How?” if a candidate provided a vague promise for the future.

A young and diverse audience filled the seats of the Sabathani Community Center auditorium in South Minneapolis for the One Minneapolis mayoral forum, and they asked pointed questions.

One young man told the candidates he was previously homeless and often had nowhere to go but Downtown to feel safe, where there was a good chance of being harassed or even arrested.

“How would you find opportunities for the people who have been shut out?” he asked. “How can we make Downtown work for the youth, businesses and homeless?”

Candidate Mark Andrew, an entrepreneur and former Hennepin County Commissioner, said the city needs more shelters and a better partnership with Hennepin County.

Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said she wants greater police accountability, more outreach workers, and Downtown business leaders to “put some skin in the game” to help with outreach at 7th & Nicollet.

Another questioner said the need for youth shelter in North Minneapolis and Downtown is growing.

“There are less than 100 youth shelter beds in Minneapolis,” said Alexandria, who asked to withhold her last name from print. “How do you plan on ending youth homelessness in Minneapolis?”

Jim Thomas, a Minneapolis special education teacher, answered that he has personally taken youth into his home on multiple occasions. He said the city could open more homeless shelters, and it could providemore vocational programs for youth.

Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said he would change the zoning code so social service organizations like YouthLink would be allowed to open a shelter.

“What is your vision and goal for investing in the Somali community?” asked Hashim Yonis, an administrative manager at South High School. “Please don’t tell us what you’re going to do, please tell us how you’re going to do it.”

Tony Lane of the Socialist Workers Party said he would launch a jobs campaign, and mentioned Cuba as an example of changing the system from top to bottom.

Council Member Don Samuels (5th Ward) said he would encourage more summer enrichment activities so students wouldn’t slide back in the fall, as students of color do today.

Clear differences between the candidates emerged in response to a question about police accountability.

Candidate Jackie Cherryhomes, a former City Council member and small business consultant, remembers standing on the North High School stage the night Tycel Nelson was killed in Minneapolis. Following a city search for the best civilian review methods in the country, Cherryhomes voted to create the first citizen review of police in Minneapolis.

“We absolutely have to have a civilian review authority that has subpoena power … and where the police chief is not the deciding vote,” she said.

Samuels supported the recent overhaul of the Civilian Review Authority. He said it was necessary in order to reengage citizens with police.

“Now police and citizens are sitting together to argue about cases before they send it to the Chief,” he said. “If there is a tie, the Chief can break that tie. The Chief is always going to break the tie because the Chief is the boss. We have to elect a Chief that we can trust.”

Samuels said he supports Janeé Harteau, the department’s first openly gay Police Chief, who has experienced firsthand how “things can go wrong” in the department. He said he would develop a method of identifying officers responsible for repeated acts of abuse.

Hodges noted that she did not support the final term of former Police Chief Tim Dolan because he had not met performance measures on community relationships.

“I have long maintained that if you asked folks in the city attorney’s office [separate from other departments] who are the 25-40 officers who should be invited to pursue different careers, they would all independently come up with the same names,” she said. “The chief is not the boss. The mayor is the boss, and the mayor responds to all of you.”

Green Party candidate Doug Mann said he would strengthen the city’s power to subpoena and discipline police officers. He said he supports a petition for officers to carry professional liability insurance.

Schiff said he wants to change the city charter so the police department reports directly to the City Council as well as the mayor, so Council decisions regarding the police can’t be thrown out later.

Andrew disagreed.

“If we can’t figure out who’s running the ship with the mayor having control, try to figure it out when 13 different people are trying to govern,” he said.

Instead, Andrew wants to provide subpoena powers for civilian review. Andrew also said he wants to hold the police financially accountable for misdeeds.

“We need to sanction financially the police department if police brutality cases exceed a certain dollar amount or exceed a certain number of cases,” he said. “Minneapolis has way too many of these.”

Thomas suggested that a mediator handle the deciding civilian review vote, and he suggested an affirmative action program to encourage minority hiring in the police department.

“We need to have a police force that looks like the rest of the city,” he said.

Many candidates mentioned their personal experiences with diversity. Virtually every candidate identified multiple people of color who volunteered, endorsed or staffed their campaigns, and most promised to hire a diverse staff if elected mayor. Schiff keeps a bilingual office, and both Cherryhomes and Hodges are married to African American men. Hodges said she now has two African American grandsons in the public schools, so issues of racial disparity are personal to her. Cherryhomes said her husband has been repeatedly stopped in his car by police. Jamaica-born Samuels said he entered the country on a vacation visa and later applied for a student visa.

“I know what it means to be working illegally in New York and going to school, and thinking every cop is going to come get you,” he said.

Cam Winton was unable to attend the forum.

Henry Jiménez, a youth worker with Project for Pride in Living who helped coordinate the forum, may have drawn the biggest applause of the night with his opening remarks.

“There is a problem to say we are the most progressive city in the nation, yet we have some of the biggest racial disparities in the nation,” he said. “More than 50 percent of our students that are Latino, African American, Native American or any other marginalized student is not graduating from high school. It’s not 50 percent of our colored folks that failed. We all failed.”

Audience member Willie Mae Demmings, who attended the forum with her nine-year-old great-grandson, said she thought the forum was “fantastic,” and said the “questions were great.” She thought the candidates did a good job, but she said the discussion needed more time, particularly on the question of police brutality. Demmings said she’s lived in Minneapolis since 1951, and she was one of the co-founders of Communities United Against Police Brutality.

“Things have changed, but they have basically stayed the same,” she said. 

(To see a video of the forum by the UpTake, click here.)