Leading in a ‘new era’ for cities

Bender. File photo

City Council President Lisa Bender said cities like Minneapolis are entering a “new era,” one in which legislative gridlock in state houses and in Washington, D.C. has given municipal elected officials an opportunity to take the lead.

“Cities like Minneapolis are taking on issues that city councils didn’t deal with: minimum wage and paid sick time, housing pressures. Things that legislators or the federal government typically dealt with on a much larger scale,” she said.

With the stakes so much higher, Bender said, it “makes sense” that the disagreement and debate between council members is amplified. In comments delivered shortly after their January inauguration, Bender encouraged her colleagues to embrace the debate while also remembering that the Council’s 12 Democrats and one Green Party member share many of the same values and priorities.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to deliver things that will make people feel like local government is making their lives better,” she said. “And then, more and more people, hopefully, will get excited about staying involved.”

Bender, who represents Ward 10, and Vice President Andrea Jenkins of Ward 8 spoke about the four-year Council term ahead in separate interviews in January. After a 2017 election that put new members into five of the Council’s 13 seats, both expressed a desire to leave campaign season behind and get to work.

One of the new Council’s first tasks was to choose new leadership, and both Bender and Jenkins were elected to their new roles on unanimous votes. The negotiations between council members took place out of public view; Jenkins, who also sought the council presidency, described it as “a tough process, but it was a respectful and collegial process.”

Bender, who as president assigned members to Council committees, placed Jenkins at the head of a new Race Equity Subcommittee that will operate within the Committee of the Whole. Jenkins said addressing the city’s stark racial disparities was her “No. 1 goal” and described her role “as being a voice for addressing and lifting up the structural inequalities that have been inherent in Minneapolis.”

“I believe that addressing those inequities actually benefits all people,” she said.

Jenkins. File photo
Jenkins. File photo

The subcommittee’s mandate is potentially very broad, given that racial and socio-economic disparities are evident across a variety of measures, including homeownership rates, educational attainment, employment and income. But Jenkins said much of the subcommittee’s focus would be on how well the city enterprise is living up to its own stated equity goals.

“You’ve got to get your own house in order first,” she said.

Mayor Jacob Frey made “economic inclusion” one of three policy priorities for his new administration, along with improving police-community relations and expanding access to affordable housing. Bender said the council shares those priorities, but she expected her colleagues on the council to “talk about race equity more explicitly” in their work.

“In a city with the worst racial disparities in the country, that means centering race equity in growth,” she said. “I’m very excited that the City of Minneapolis has an opportunity right now to create an alignment between people who support and welcome change and people who are demanding race equity.”

Bender said housing affordability and stability were her top priorities for the current term, adding that she’s specifically interested in adding new protections for renters.

“My ward is 80 percent renter, and with really low rental vacancy rates and a growing population, it’s putting a lot of stress on my constituents,” she said.

Bender selected Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon to chair a new Housing Policy and Development Committee. Following the election, Gordon is now the second longest serving council member, and Bender said his experience and skill at moving policy made him a good choice to lead a committee that is poised to take on some of the city’s most pressing challenges.

Bender said her goal with committee assignments was to put council members in position to lead in the policy areas they care most about, and she expected the upcoming term to be “very active.”

“I think there’s a narrative about this Council that it’s more like an activist Council, but when I talk to my colleagues, they’re really talking about what they heard from voters … in their wards. They’re very focused on those priorities that they heard from their constituents,” she said. “That may translate into what seems like a progressive policy shift. But they didn’t run for office because they saw something happening in Seattle and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we need that in Minneapolis.’ They’re hearing it from the voters in their wards.”

Jenkins, who served as a policy aide to two council members before running for office, said part of the “balancing act” of the job was dealing with 11-inch snowfalls and the impacts of highway construction. But she said her colleagues seemed to share her desire to make broader change.

“What does progressive mean? It’s a relatively nebulous term, but it means in its simplest form ‘moving forward,’” Jenkins said. “To that end, I would say that’s a fair characterization of this Council.”