“What I’ve said from the start of this campaign is that the reason that people took to the streets last year was because their voices aren’t heard,” said Sheila Nezhad, a 33-year-old community organizer running to be the next mayor of Minneapolis in the city’s first municipal elections since the murder of George Floyd.
The election on November 2 is poised to be the most consequential in a generation. The mayor’s office and all thirteen city council seats are open, and Nezhad leads a ticket that includes fellow Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed city council candidates Robin Wonsley-Worlobah, Aisha Chughtai, and Jason Chavez. They’re running to connect the nationwide movement against police violence with a broad agenda of economic justice: rent control and tenants protections, fair wages and labor rights, taxing the rich, and public housing investment.
“We’ve seen the failures of the political establishment, so we know that not only do we need progressives; we need progressives who have the analysis that capitalism will never meet our needs,” said Wonsley-Worlobah, a labor organizer with the statewide teacher’s union Education Minnesota and PhD student at the University of Minnesota, running in Ward 2.
Nezhad’s campaign slogan, “From the Streets to the Spreadsheets,” is a neat encapsulation of the inside-outside approach of the four candidates. It also reflects the challenge of trying to channel the city’s righteous discontent into a winning electoral agenda. Municipal elections have a historically low turnout, and the Minneapolis electorate typically skews older, whiter, and wealthier than the masses who filled the streets in 2020. In the homestretch of the campaign, they’ve racked up some high-profile endorsements: Wonsley-Worlobah recently held an online rally with socialist candidate for Buffalo mayor India Walton, while Nezhad and Chughtai both campaigned alongside Ilhan Omar.
Along with the candidates on this year’s ballot are three initiatives that could significantly realign power in the city. The first would consolidate governing power in the mayor’s office; the second would remake the Minneapolis Police Department into a Department of Public of Safety; and the third would authorize the council to enact Rent Control. The campaign season has been defined by the debate around question two, remaking policing in the city. It removes the minimum requirement for staffing and funding of a police department from the city charter, replacing it with a department wherein police would be joined by other unarmed emergency responders. Direction over the department would shift from the sole purview of the mayor to joint control with the council.
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On Wednesday October 27, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrondondo held a press conference to warn voters that the public safety amendment wouldn’t address any of the underlying issues with the department, and would only make the city more dangerous. State Represenative Aisha Gomez, who represents portions of south Minneapolis, accused Arrondondo of violating a city law that prohibits officials from taking part in political activity. Others drew comparisons to an incident earlier in the year when the city’s ethics officer warned council members of the legal ramifications of advocating for the public safety charter amendment.
The year and a half since incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest for not acquiescing to the demand to abolish the MPD have been defined by a backlash from institutions of authority. The police, downtown business interests, and the political old guard have united against the public safety charter amendment and behind Frey’s reelection. At a recent mayoral debate, Frey maintained that there is a silent majority in the city who aren’t moved by radical politics. “It’s not even going to be close,” he said. Lately, though, Minneapolis politics have turned out to be anything but predictable.
To grasp just how much political space was created by the city’s response to George Floyd’s murder, it’s helpful to return to the last municipal election in 2017. Then–council member Frey defeated the incumbent Mayor Besty Hodges, who was reeling from the fallout of the high-profile police killings of residents Jamar Clark and Justine Damond. During the campaign, the left-wing mayoral candidate, then–state Representative Ray Dehn, proposed the idea that police officers needn’t be armed in every civilian interaction.
“People lost their minds,” said Chughtai, who worked on Dehn’s campaign and went on to serve as Omar’s campaign manager in her 2018 congressional race. “The backlash was so intense that we never got control of the race again.” Now, as a labor organizer with SEIU, Chughtai is vying for an open council seat in Ward 10. One of the ways to measure how much things have changed, Chughtai told me, is that the top challenger to the incumbent this year is Nezhad, an organizer who has never held elected office and who comes out of the abolitionist groups Reclaim the Block and MPD-150.
Reclaim the Block is a key organization behind Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition formed in support of the public safety charter amendment. It was the framework offered by Reclaim the Block, along with Black Visions, that nine members of the city council were following as they announced their plan in a now infamous public ceremony to “end policing as we know it,” two weeks after Floyd’s death. The political fallout of the event was seismic, and while the majority of the council members retreated, that hasn’t stopped a formidable and coordinated pro-MPD opposition from mischaracterizing the public safety charter amendment as immediately abolishing the police, or from blaming the city’s alarming uptick in homicides on the city council and the activist community.
Powderhorn Park is where the nine members of the city council held that notorious ceremony. Later in the summer, it was the site of the largest homeless encampment in city history, before it was evicted in August 2020. It’s also where I met Jason Chavez and his volunteer team before a door-knocking session on a Sunday afternoon in October. Chavez is a legislative assistant at the Minnesota State House and is running for the city council seat in Ward 9, the section of south Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered, where the 3rd Precinct was set ablaze, and where much of the property destruction in the uprising occurred in the Lake Street business corridor.
Chavez was born and raised in the ward and told me he often runs into family members and childhood friends when he’s out knocking on doors. It’s a sharp contrast to his most viable opponent, Mickey Moore, a retired small business owner recently exposed for fraudulently representing himself as a resident of Ward 9, and whose last foray into politics was running against Omar in 2020 as a Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate, a Republican lark to siphon votes from Democrats during that election cycle. Moore’s story is a window into how the polarization on policing has allowed candidates who are abnormally right-leaning for Minneapolis politics to become contenders this cycle. He was endorsed by the Star Tribune before an eventual retraction after the questions arose about his residence and a Twitter account linked to Moore was discovered to be full of bigoted statements. (Moore claimed through a spokesperson that it was a fake account created to discredit him.)
Chavez, on the other hand, told me he was spurred to run because the current Ward 9 council member Alondra Cano, who chose not to seek reelection, “continued to bloat the police budget,” he told me. “That’s not something I would do or plan on doing. Especially after George Floyd was murdered in our ward, you know?”
I joined Nezhad at a campaign meet and greet on a Saturday morning in early October on the banks of Lake Harriet in southwest Minneapolis. I listened as she fielded questions on the uptick in gun violence, how she’d approach homeless encampments in the city, and her specialty, the City budget. After speaking with a concerned supporter who spoke of near-nightly gunshots in their neighborhood on the city’s north side, Nezhad presented two figures from the budget: $2.2 million and $3.1 million. The former is what the City plans to spend on a program that supports the families of public school students experiencing homelessness in 2021. The latter is what the MPD, a department currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, spent on their canine unit in 2020. Those figures represent the City’s priorities in raw numbers, and it’s what Nezhad hopes voters will ponder in light of the question, what makes a safer city?
“I think we would be in a different world right now if there would’ve been genuine engagement after the city council declaration,” said Nezhad, who told me her first measure would be a citywide public safety “Census-style door-knock.” Nezhad plans to keep the same third of the City budget dedicated to public safety but to reallocate large portions of the money to diversify the responses away from the police department. She said voters are receptive to new models of public safety, but many tell her that they also want police presence. What every voter expresses, though, no matter their position on policing, is their belief in the need for youth investment. “It’s young kids who are getting involved in gang violence right now, and it’s young kids who the city has underinvested in forever,” she said. It was also primarily young kids, disproportionately Black and brown and unaffiliated with any formal political organization, that made up the base of the protests last summer that shook the city to its core. If Nezhad stands a chance, it will be through activating those who wouldn’t otherwise turn out, but who filled the streets en masse.
“We had thousands of folks in the streets for days at a time, and that suddenly and abruptly shifted power away from those who usually make decisions in our city,” said Wonsley-Worlobah, who was an organizer with the Fight For 15 movement in Minneapolis. “There was nothing that politicians or big business could do at that moment. We saw real meaningful demands that our communities have been spending years organizing around, like getting cops out of schools, were happening overnight,” she said.
But Wonsley-Worlobah also saw that momentum fade. “There was no organized structure to channel that energy and eagerness. That’s something movement folks have to really assess,” she said. “We know electoral politics is not the end-all-be-all, but it’s one of the ways that working class people can get a concession from these forces that make our lives miserable.” Wonsley-Worlobah sought to run because of her experience with the current council, which she said had dragged its feet on policies that could seriously address economic and racial disparities in the city. “It motivated me as an organizer to say we need folks in office directly from our movements.”
The December 2020 city budget hearings were a turning point leading up to the 2021 elections. Mayor Frey threatened to veto a budget that would have reduced the police department’s staffing levels in 2022—that’s when Nezhad decided that she needed to challenge him. The council approved Frey’s preferred staffing levels, and the decisive swing votes included current Ward 9 council member Alondra Cano, who had joined the Powderhorn ceremony. It was later revealed by reporter Logan Carroll that Cano did so as part of a pay-to-play agreement to secure funding for businesses in the Lake Street Corridor, many of which are immigrant-owned. “The East African and Latino folks of Lake Street have been abandoned in this entire conversation,” Cano said during the hearings, to justify her shifting position.
In spite of the political maneuvering, there was an underlying truth to the demographic analysis. “Like every community, there are divides between young and old,” said Chavez, whose parents are undocumented immigrants from Puebla, Mexico, and whose campaign chair is Somali. “Younger people are on board with changing the department, older folks are not. So I don’t think it’s a Latino thing, or an East African thing, it’s more about the age gap. My family has been impacted by immigration and customs enforcement in the past and so I try to educate them by saying things like, ‘for Black people, the police is like ICE is to us.’”
The most recent available polling on policing and the public safety charter amendment in Minneapolis supports Chavez’s point. As much or more than race, age was a compelling factor in determining where a potential voter stands on policing. It should come as no surprise, then, that this slate of candidates skews young—Nezhad is 33, Wonsley-Worlobah is 30, Chavez is 26, and Chughtai is 24—and that they’re portrayed by their opponents as clueless and irresponsible utopians. “I don’t have any illusions that I’ll be treated well by the conservative forces in our city,” said Chughtai. “But that’s actually not why I’m running, and that’s not what I’m running for. I’m running for my community and for the movements that I come out of,” she said.
In the scenario that one or more of them wins and the public safety charter amendment also passes, the fight over the future of the police in the city will have just begun. Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arrodondo recently requested a $27 million increase in funding for 2022 to shore up his department, which has had 300 officers leave since May 25. Many of those officers filed for workers’ compensation or sought disability retirement claims for post-traumatic stress disorder from policing during the unrest. Two officers who took disability retirement happened to be the same officers shown in recently released body-camera videos talking about “hunting” protesters last June. It raises the question of whether these claims are serving as means for police officers to skirt accountability, as the only officers to be disciplined since last summer were those involved in Floyd’s murder, and an anonymous officer who spoke to GQ. Collectively, the toll of these payouts has put the City budget outlook in dire straits.
Some are already declaring the death of defund the police, but as someone who was working on it before 2020, Nezhad is surprisingly sanguine. “Four years ago people would say, ‘I don’t know about reform. I think we need to support our police.’ Now when I call people they say, ‘I don’t know about abolishing the police but I think that we should have a new department of public safety,’” said Nezhad. “That would’ve been totally out of the realm of consideration four years ago. The needle has shifted, totally.’”