Six candidates meet in first mayoral forum

Candidates talk wages, housing and public safety

Six candidates shared their visions for Minneapolis at the 2017 campaign season’s first mayoral forum, held March 8 at Calvary Church in the Whittier neighborhood.

Organized by Ward 10 City Council Member Lisa Bender and moderated by Tane Danger of the Theater of Public Policy improv troupe, the 90-minute forum probed the candidate’s positions on a citywide minimum wage, affordable housing and police-community relations, among other issues. Mayor Betsy Hodges, who is seeking a second term, was joined at the forum by state Rep. Raymond Dehn, Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey, former Hennepin Theatre Trust CEO Tom Hoch, civil rights attorney and activist Nekima Levy-Pounds and filmmaker Aswar Rahman.

For his first question, Danger noted that Minneapolis operates under what he described as a “pseudo-weak mayor system,” and asked why the candidates wanted to be mayor when they could possibly affect more change in a different role.

Hoch, linking Minneapolis’ cultural relevance to economic growth, argued the city was falling behind places like Boulder, Colo., Austin, Tex., and Indianapolis — “all cities that are thinking big and acting big and making a big mark” — and said, as mayor, he would work to regain the city’s lost momentum.

Hodges said she ran on a platform of equity, growth and good governance in 2013, adding: “I’ve spent the last three-and-a-half, almost four years, now, making good on those promises.” She cited a landmark deal with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to fund street repairs and park improvements and said she was “moving the center of gravity” on police-community relations, a top concern during her term.

But Rahman, the youngest candidate in the race, was critical of Hodges’ record, calling the city’s budget “a mess” that was “wasting” tax revenues.

“The mayor in the City of Minneapolis has two main responsibilities, police and the budget, and those are exactly the two places where we have underperformed — severely underperformed — in the past three years,” he said.

Quoting well-remembered line from a 1999 speech by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — “We all do better when we all do better” — Levy-Pounds said she was running to shake-up the status quo and make real progress on reducing Minneapolis’ racial disparities. She pledged to raise the city to a “national leader” on equity and justice.

Frey said his plan for making Minneapolis a “world-class city” included ending homelessness in five years, improving access to affordable housing, pushing for greater environmental sustainability and adapting the economy to the 21st century. He said he would be the kind of “very visible and present mayor” needed to lead those changes.

Like Levy-Pounds, Dehn, who emphasized his experience as a fourth-generation North Side resident, focused on shrinking disparities in his response, but also said he’d set a long-term vision for a city he described as “running from crisis to crisis lately.”

An audience question about rising rents and “predatory, criminal landlords” offered the candidates an opportunity to talk about housing policy, development and renter protections.

Dehn agreed Minneapolis was experiencing “a serious affordable housing crisis,” and emphasized a two-pronged response, one that focused increased housing density in “the right places” and protected “naturally occurring affordable housing.” When Danger asked him to describe the right places for density, Dehn said Minneapolis should shield “traditional neighborhoods” of single-family homes and duplexes from the density drive while considering a way to transform the city’s remaining pockets of light industry into future residential areas.

Frey, who represents parts of downtown and Northeast Minneapolis, described himself as an “unabashed proponent of density,” adding that the city needed a “very consistent pot of funding” for affordable housing that doesn’t compete with other city priorities, like public safety and street maintenance.

Hoch, noting his experience as former deputy executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said the city could look into tax incentives for landlords to preserve affordable housing units. He advocated a collaborative, metro-wide approach to affordable housing, one that also makes certain Minneapolis’ neighbors “take their fair share” of lower-rent units.

Hodges said she was already working with other local leaders and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on a regional strategy, and she also noted the investments proposed in her city budgets, including $14.5 million for affordable housing strategies in this year’s budget.

Rahman said rising property taxes were at the core of the affordable housing problem. Levy-Pounds, too, cited taxes as a factor, but added that the city should also be more “aggressive” in dealing with empty or abandoned homes and also noted the role a higher minimum wage could play in making housing more affordable.

Prompted by a Ward 10 residents’ question to clarify their positions on the minimum wage, Levy-Pounds and Dehn were clearest in their support for a $15 citywide minimum with no exception for tipped employees (a concept often described as a tip “credit” or tip “penalty”).

Hodges also opposes a tip penalty and, while supportive of raising the minimum wage, emphasized that the city was still engaging with business owners and workers on a potential policy change, which is expected to reach the City Council by May. Both Frey and Hoch said they wanted to let that process play out. Rahman, meanwhile, predicted the city’s go-it-alone approach would force businesses to close or move.

A question from a Southwest High School senior who lives in Uptown moved the candidates’ conversation onto the topic of police reform and police-community relations.

Dehn said people of color should not be afraid to interact with officers, but added that would require a culture change for the department — most importantly, the “demilitarization” of the police force.

“In many ways, we should have been down the road a lot farther before Jamar Clark,” he said, referring to the African-American man whose 2015 death during an encounter with police prompted weeks of protests, a significant challenge for Hodges during her first term.

“Everybody in Minneapolis needs to be safe and feel safe in every neighborhood that they find themselves in,” agreed Hodges, who noted that the department had introduced body cameras and changed its escalation and sanctity of life policies since she entered office. She said there was “no city in the country … doing all that we are doing to build trust,” but added that process takes time.

Levy-Pounds said there had been some progress since Clark’s death, “but definitely not enough,” adding that it shouldn’t have taken the killing of the 24-year-old “to wake up our leaders.”
“They have known about these issues for decades,” Levy-Pounds said, noting the millions paid by the city to settle excessive force lawsuits.

Hoch and Frey agreed with Levy-Pounds that police should focus on major crimes instead of nuisance issues. Rahman said he would launch a “massive recruitment drive” after taking office, with a focus on bringing women and people of color into the force.