Lisa Bender exit interview: ‘We have to come together as a community’

Lisa Bender
Lisa Bender

After a busy eight-year run in office that has included passage of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, new policies aimed at protecting renters and controversies over policing, City Council President Lisa Bender announced in mid-November that she would not be running for a third term in 2021.

Bender represents Ward 10 on the 13-member council. The ward includes the Lowry Hill East, Whittier, ECCO, South Uptown and East Harriet neighborhoods.

An urban planner by trade, Bender said she has yet to decide what she would do once she leaves office. She spoke with the Southwest Journal about her decision, her political future and efforts to reform the police department after George Floyd’s killing. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide that you weren’t going to seek a third term?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I decided for sure not to run, but just over time I’ve gone from, “I probably won’t run,” to “I’m not going to run,” kind of over the years of this term.

Can you describe the factors in how you came to that decision?

There are a lot of different ways to serve the community and make change. Being in office is one very intense way, especially the way I’ve been doing the job as council member. I have really jumped into a lot of the big issues facing Ward 10 in housing, in transportation. I’ve led a lot of very controversial policy and budget changes. So for me, it’s just a matter of: What’s the next step in taking all that I’ve learned from my time as an advocate, as a planner, as a policymaker to continue this work?

Do you have an idea of what you want to do next?

I’m not sure, no. For me, the question is always, “Is the status quo working?” The answer is often, “No, it’s not working well for a lot of people, often the majority of people.” So it’s always been about: “How can we make our systems, our policies, our laws, our budgets improve to better serve everyone in our community?” I also really love working with other elected officials. I’ve gotten the chance to recruit and mentor some elected officials, and that really brings me a lot of joy. I’m really excited about the diversity of experience — the emerging leaders that we see in elected office, so I think a lot about how I can see support and mentor folks who are new to office as well.

Did the vandalization of your home and threats you received play a role in decision not to run for office?

[Sighs.] I had already decided not to run when the pandemic began. But the impact of this job on my family is absolutely part of my consideration for whether or not to continue in elected office. I’m concerned that as we seek to support more diversity in office — more women, more people of color, people at different stages of life, including folks who have young children — there is an increased level of rhetoric that I have not seen for most of my time in office — more personal attacks, more focus on our home, where our families and children live. So while it didn’t affect my personal decision, it does weigh on me when I think about who I want to have representing me in office and how I want them to be treated as public servants. 

I saw a very big shift in public dialogue after Donald Trump was elected president, and I also think that the rise of social media as a mechanism of communication has created more distance for people from their elected officials. We’re city council members. We live in the neighborhoods we represent. We walk to the grocery store. We see folks at the school or the park with our kids. We bump into our neighbors, and those personal connections have really been the foundation of local government for a long time

And now I see Nextdoor and Facebook attacks that are very de-personalized and are really aimed at de-personalizing us as leaders so that we become this enemy, and I think it’s harmful to local democracy in particular, where we have a real chance to work together to innovate, to hear from each other, to pass policies and budgets when other parts of our government system are gridlocked at the state or federal level. It’s the cities that have been picking up the pieces and leading and continuing to bring people together to make change.

Do you feel you wouldn’t be able to win reelection if you ran again?

I won both of my elections with more than 60% of the vote in Ward 10. So it’s hard to say what would happen this next time, but I know that I’ve had a lot of support in the past and that my policy positions haven’t changed in that time.

What don’t people understand about the role of City Council president?

It’s been so interesting serving as council president this term, because I certainly put together a different kind of coalition to seek that role, one that was really founded in advocating for change, and I think there’s a lot of things that folks maybe don’t know about how our system works. 

There’s a real back and forth between City Council as policymakers and the mayor and city staff in any policy change, and so it’s not enough to have political will. We need political will; we need seven votes — or nine votes — to override a veto, to pass a policy. But sometimes even to get the momentum to tackle an issue or to develop an ordinance or a policy proposal, things get stuck in the city system, and so it is absolutely essential that policymakers support a vision for change or a specific policy, but it isn’t enough. 

So folks who are organizing for change, whether it be affordable housing or climate change or race equity, need a strategy that includes the realities of how our government system works to deliver change, and that is very driven by city staff, so we need department heads who are willing to innovate and support their staff. We need to be champions of innovation within our city enterprise. 

We need to find ways to hold elected officials accountable when there isn’t a policy proposal yet in front of us. Often it’s hard to tell exactly why a policy is taking a long time to develop. That’s hard to explain to the public or to advocates.

You’ve talked about the importance of a proposed charter amendment that would have removed the minimum police staffing level, and you’ve expressed frustration at the Charter Commission for running out the clock on that. Why did the council wait until George Floyd was killed to try and push forward the amendment? What are the political barriers to change on public safety?

The council has been working for many years to develop alternative systems of safety in Minneapolis. We’ve invested in community-based safety strategies and youth violence prevention even going back to [2008] when the youth blueprint was adopted. 

For a number of years, the city has pursued developing a broader system of safety in Minneapolis. We’ve invested in community-based safety strategies, youth violence prevention, hospital-based violence prevention, group violence prevention. A couple of years ago, we directed staff to look at ways we could better serve the community by matching the right response to a call for help, looking through all the reasons why people call 911. Most of them are for non-violence-related incidents. 

Violent crime makes up a very small percent of the total number of 911 calls. So that work has been ongoing. The difference is how much people in the public are paying attention to issues around safety and policing. And, of course, when the police kill someone, there is a very large increase in public awareness and demand for change around policing in particular. And sometimes [that demand] wanes over time. 

So I think one thing that’s important for people to know is that your voice really matters in these conversations over time. And we need sustained support for transforming public safety in our city. And there have been lots of folks — individuals and organizations who have organized for change over time, who have contacted their council members and the mayor — and that’s really what it takes to make that kind of change.

The police department has been in place for 150 years, so as we really shift a lot of emphasis to public safety for the rest of my time in office, we’re partnering with our civil rights department and the Police Conduct Oversight Commission and our legislative delegation to look at ways we can increase accountability and oversight. We are continuing to invest in alternatives to policing like mental health response, shifting community-based services and administrative calls out of MPD and into other administrative departments and community supports. We’re investing in violence prevention that we know is effective to interrupt cycles of violence. 

The patterns of violence in Minneapolis really haven’t shifted. Unfortunately, 80% of gun-violence victims in Minneapolis are Black. Seventy percent of gun-violence victims are very young — ages 12 through 31. And there are proven strategies to interrupt these cycles of violence that are often group involved, that are relationship based. 

A lot of the other incidents like car thefts and armed robberies are also related to groups that are known to the city, that are known to law enforcement. So for me the package looks like increasing accountability for law enforcement, investing in community-based safety strategies that we know work to prevent violence, investing in alternatives to policing so that we’re not relying on police to answer every single kind of call that’s coming into 911, so that we have a more holistic system of safety that’s working to keep people safe.

You’ve expressed regret for appearing in front of the “defund the police” sign in Powderhorn Park. What caused that regret? 

I’ve reflected a lot on what happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, when we had thousands of protesters in the streets. Of course, we have literally thousands of complaints about police behavior from during that time and a number of lawsuits related to the police department that happened after George Floyd was killed by the police department. 

We’re in a pandemic, in an economic crisis. We have a crisis of homelessness, which is creating encampments all over the city, and so it is a time of significant stress in our community. To me, the pledge that we took was consistent with my position on policing and public safety. 

I’ve been working on building out alternatives to policing — investing in community-based violence prevention, investing in alternatives to 911 — in close conversation with my constituents in Ward 10. I also wanted to be clear and maintain that we need very significant change to feel confident that our police department will not continue to cause harm, so I take to heart when my constituents tell me that there was confusion about what we meant. 

I also know that we made a very specific proposal shortly after our pledge that was very clear about creating a new department of community safety and violence prevention that included law enforcement. So I think there is also an effort to cause confusion, to stop the change that we’re trying to create, to stifle support for innovation when it is so desperately needed in our city. 

So when I look forward, I know that we have to come together as a community to build a better system of safety and it’s just a matter of how long it will take, and that’s honestly where I hear the biggest difference these days from my constituents. Every single person I talk to says we clearly need change. It’s just a matter of how quickly or slowly and comfort level with, particularly, police as a response to safety.

How have you felt watching President Trump try to use the “defund the police” slogan to paint Democrats across the country as belonging to a far-left radical party?

I’m an elected official. I don’t write slogans that grassroots organizations use to advocate for change. It is my job to respond to what I hear from constituents and community and translate it into legislative action, systems change, budget investments that get the results they expect from their city. I think the state of our national politics is cause for concern for all of us, and I think to the extent that we can stop mimicking that kind of divisiveness that’s happening at the national level when we have conversations locally, the better off we’ll be. 

I saw on Facebook someone wrote, “Lock her up” in reference to me, and that’s really disappointing, because that’s not who we are as a Minneapolis community. That’s not how we make sure there is compromise and that neighbors are listening to each other, that we’re working together to solve the problems facing our city. The beauty of local government is that these are your neighbors. These are the people who have a shared experience living together in a place that are invested in working together to solve problems, and we can’t lose that. That is the foundation of our democracy.

What are you most proud of during your time in office?

We got so much done together. By we, I mean myself with constituents, with folks organizing for renters and workers, for racial justice and climate justice. The centerpiece of that policy work is the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which takes a policy approach to housing, to race equity, to infrastructure, to climate change goals, and will make it hard to take a project-by-project approach that tends to benefit the status quo. So from now on, folks will have to take a policy approach to housing and infrastructure in the city of Minneapolis, and those policies that are in place now are centered in race equity and fighting climate change. They’re values-based policy approaches to make sure that our neighborhoods are affordable, that every single neighborhood has housing options, that it is safe to walk and bike and take transit, that we coordinated the planning of our infrastructure system and growth in housing and other destinations. 

And then from there, the policy work I’ve helped lead has always been driven by community: workers organizing for paid sick time or minimum wage, renters organizing for renter protections, folks organizing for affordable housing supports, people who are organizing for safer streets, for sustainability goals. So it’s really been a joy for me to work together in partnership with the community in that way.