Stephanie Woodruff has been walking around the city with her iPhone in hand asking people if Minneapolis is a city that works.
She’s videotaping responses for a documentary she’s planning to put together as part of her mayoral campaign.
For her first video she interviewed a 32-year-old man holding a cardboard sign asking for money on the side of Hennepin Avenue near the Basilica of St. Mary. When Woodruff asked if Minneapolis is working for him, he didn’t directly answer the question, but said his life hasn’t been working out and he’s looking for work. He’s a father of three and said he’s been homeless for two months.
Woodruff told him she was running for mayor and said she would try to tackle the city’s poverty problem.
Woodruff, a 48-year-old business executive and vice chair of the city’s Audit Committee, said she was motivated to run for mayor to draw attention to the hardships faced by the man with the cardboard sign and so many others in the city.
She said she empathizes with people in financial trouble because she’s gone through hard economic times as well. She went through a foreclosure two years ago on a home in southwest Minneapolis, sold everything and relied on public transportation for nearly a year. Now she lives in the Whittier neighborhood.
At her mayoral campaign kickoff event June 21 at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, she challenged the idea that Minneapolis is a progressive “city that works.”
“We have the worst achievement gap in America, which is a result of our extreme poverty across a number of neighborhoods,” she said. “Over 90 percent of the residents on the North Side fall within 275 percent of the federal poverty line — over 90 percent. Folks, that’s not a city that works.”
Woodruff said she was shocked to learn about some of the challenges facing the city when she began her post on the city’s new Audit Committee three years ago.
“The challenges are amazing. It kind of blew me away,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s like we’re on this ship that is slowly sinking. If you don’t think the collapse of the 35W bridge was a fluke, you’re not paying attention.”
Woodruff referenced a statistic indicating a quarter of Minneapolis residents are in poverty. According to information on the city’s website, 23.7 percent of city residents were in poverty in 2011. The poverty rate for whites was 13.2 percent compared to 48.1 percent for black residents, 34.5 percent for Asians, 40.9 percent for Latinos, and 53.2 percent for American Indians.
She’s also troubled by the graduation rate for Minneapolis Public Schools, which is less than 50 percent.
While she stresses she doesn’t have all the answers to address the poverty crisis, she said she would surround herself with experts to help guide her.
She would appoint an education guru to work with the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent to come up with a plan to increase graduation rates and improve the educational experience. She’d like to see learning labs established in North Minneapolis. They would be hubs for students interested in technology and she’d like to create a partnership with a company like Best Buy to get them up and running.
Woodruff also wants to see more done to expand affordable housing options for people in the city and hold the line on property taxes — pledges made by the other mayoral candidates in the race as well.
While she’s not against streetcars or solar panel installations per se — projects touted by other mayoral candidates — she doesn’t want to invest millions on those initiatives when more resources, in her opinion, should be directed to deal with poverty and improve the schools.
“We need to get back to the basics,” she said.
The message sounds similar to the platform independent mayoral candidate Cam Winton is promoting as well. Woodruff, however, said she differs from Winton on some key points. For one, she’s not in favor of hiring more cops. Instead, she said the department needs to focus on smart policing strategies. She’s also against Winton’s proposal to ask the Legislature to give the mayor authority to appoint members to serve on the city’s School Board.
As for her strategic vision for the city outlined on her campaign website, she said city leaders need to do a better job being strategic about using assets to ensure everyone is better off in the city, and programs deemed ineffective need to be cut.
She’s also critical of the city’s lack of transparency in sharing financial information with residents. She pointed to a recent study done by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group that gave Minneapolis a D- grade for its lack of transparency on how it spends taxpayer dollars.
Many of the cities with better grades on transparency, such as New York City, have checkbook-level spending databases available to residents online, allowing access to information about contracts with private businesses and payroll information, among other things.
Minneapolis officials have said creating a similar database would be costly and labor intensive.
Both an insider and outsider
Woodruff said she embraces the values of the DFL party, but she decided to launch her campaign after the party’s convention because she said it caters to a small group of people with special interests.
She hasn’t participated in any mayoral candidate forums to date, but is scheduled to participate in a debate Sept. 19 organized by a number of neighborhood groups in South Minneapolis.
In campaign promotional materials she describes her approach as “not left, not right … forward.”
She’s a lesbian who’s long championed equal rights and a woman’s right to an abortion.
She bills herself as a no-nonsense leader with a strong work ethic. “I’m going to be the mayor that gets stuff done,” she said during her speech at her campaign kickoff. “Getting stuff done, while collaborating with all parties, to create a ‘win-win.’”
Her work on the Audit Committee — a volunteer position — gives her an insider’s perspective with a “pulse on City Hall,” she said, while her 25 years of business experience gives her the ability to consider fresh solutions to the city’s problems.
Mark Oyaas, the Park Board appointee to the Audit Committee and a principal with the public affairs consulting firm Neerland & Oyaas, said Woodruff has done a “terrific job” supporting the city’s Internal Audit Department and promoting the importance of oversight of city financials to the general public. While Oyaas is supporting mayoral candidate Mark Andrew, he said Woodruff has many good qualities that make her a strong candidate. She has an ability to look at the city’s budget with the lens of someone who has had a long career in auditing and an imagination to think outside the box, which can be a rare quality from someone from her line of work, Oyaas said.
Woodruff is the director of the accounting and finance practice at Search Leaders, a recruiting firm. She is also part owner and chief revenue officer of California-based AverQ, which develops auditing software for companies. She started her career working for Cargill and held various management positions, including a three-year post in Singapore where she managed the company’s Asia Pacific Audit function and the Worldwide Fraud and Forensics Audit Group.
Jim Larsen, a longtime friend of Woodruff who worked with her at Cargill, said she has a “tenacious work ethic” and is good at bringing people together to come up with the best solution to tackle a problem.
“She makes an outstanding candidate, and given the current anti-incumbent mood, she stands a very good chance of winning,” Larsen said.
Gina Palandri of the Longfellow neighborhood is also supporting Woodruff’s campaign. She was a delegate for mayoral candidate Gary Schiff at the City DFL Convention and left when he dropped out of the endorsing process after trailing Mark Andrew and Betsy Hodges in delegate votes.
Palandri said she appreciates Woodruff’s call to reinvest in essential city services, such as the police and fire departments. She said she also believes the candidate is just as progressive as other DFLers in the race.
“After such a long-term mayor, it’s good to have someone with fresh new ideas,” she said.
At a glance: Stephanie Woodruff
Profession: corporate governance software owner/executive and finance/accounting recruiter
Community involvement: mayoral appointee and vice chair for the city’s Audit Committee
Education: accounting degree from Drake University
Fun fact: In the third grade Stephanie was the only girl to play on an organized Little League Boys baseball team in her community. There were no organized teams for girls at that point. The team won the championship.
Editor’s note: This is our eighth profile in our series on the mayoral candidates. We have previously profiled Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Don Samuels, Betsy Hodges, Jim Thomas, Gary Schiff, who dropped out of the race June 19, and Cam Winton. We will be publishing stories on other new candidates in coming weeks.