Q&A: Minneapolis mayoral candidate AJ Awed

a man poses for a photo
Minneapolis mayoral candidate AJ Awed
Courtesy photo

Big issues are at stake for voters in Minneapolis — from the power structure at City Hall to the future of policing in the city. There are 17 candidates in the race for Minneapolis mayor, including incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey. 

This week on Minnesota Now, host Cathy Wurzer speaks with some of the leading candidates about their views and their plans.

AJ Awed is a 30-year-old lawyer, co-executive director of the Cedar Riverside Community Council Minneapolis and the son of war refugees. He was born in Somalia and immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was five years old.

How would you approach the job differently from the current mayor, Jacob Frey?

I think I have a whole host of life experiences that are different. But most importantly, I come from a mediation perspective. I think the city is indeed in a crisis, as he well-articulated in 2017. And what we really need is a mediator to really mediate these crises and really bring people together. I loved the ending of the Gov. Tim Walz campaign ad, and he said it perfectly: We do need to come together. And I think that's the job that I'm running for. 

The City Council has been described as dysfunctional. So how, with your mediation skills, would you plan on working with the Council? 

Hopefully we would usher in a new era in the city of Minneapolis. I'm a big proponent of question no. 1 on that charter amendment, which is going to hopefully restructure where we have executive and legislative function within the city. After that, I think, hopefully, there's a lot of synergy. I think I have the natural tendencies to be collaborative. And for me, I have really good community networks in every single ward. As a neighborhood association director, I pride myself in really getting to know neighborhoods, and I had the great experience of really touring the whole city of Minneapolis. And to me, those networks are going to hopefully lead me as a city-wide elected official to better build relationships and hopefully get compromises from City Council members throughout the city. 

A top issue in the campaign is gun violence in the city. What do you think is behind the spike in violence? And how as mayor would you deal with it, short term? 

I would say the complete failure in leadership for the city of Minneapolis … the burning of the 3rd Precinct was an unfortunate event that should have not happened. I think right now, we see the levels of attrition that has to do directly with the leadership of the city of Minneapolis. I had the fortunate ability to go on a ride-along in the 5th Precinct, and officers are not fans or confident in the current mayor. So that's the first thing we need to do as a city is we need to get rid of this administration and hold them accountable for their failures.

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After that, if I'm fortunate enough to earn the support of this community, and really break that mold of leadership in the city of Minneapolis, I think I have, again, going back to those credible community relationships, to really bring confidence to our hopefully new Department of Public Safety, or the MPD, and really ranking up recruitment, because with this distraction right now, as mayors running for re-election, it's going to be really hard for us to even get to a place where we can bring confidence to the law enforcement apparatus of the city of Minneapolis. 

Let me focus in a little bit here on the police department. When you were running for City Council in a special election last year, you described yourself at the time as an abolitionist who wanted to defund, disarm and abolish the police. Now you're calling for what you've described as an appropriate and proportioned police force. It's quite a change of view. Explain why. 

I think the nuance often gets … and especially when you're someone of color … Black leadership usually has nuance, and in this nuance, what I am saying is very, very clear. I am still an abolitionist. What we were talking about in 2021, what triggered the global racial reckoning, was a need to abolish white supremacy and systematic racism. And for me, abolishing that is really what I'm looking to do, and changing the culture of the MPD. But in terms of disarmament and disbandment, I think culturally, every elected official in the city at large is buying into this concept of having social work professionals, mental health professionals and obviously disarming officers in places that violent acts are not needed, right? And for me, that was leverage. We need to all be really serious with ourselves when we talk about the movement, and if people go back to 2020, last year, that horrendous murder of George Floyd, especially as a Black man, I think people should not conflate what the intentions of our community is. And if people also look at the record as well, my proposal on how we're going to always solve this was always to lean into community. And that is still the proposal right now. 

I think the miscalculation for many elected officials and many political operatives in the city of Minneapolis is they do not want to empower the voiceless communities of color right now in the city of Minneapolis that are outright condemning question no. 2 and saying we do not want to pursue reforming and transforming the MPD in this fashion. Yet, we have progressive leaders and progressive machines and everyone else actually putting in the narrative. I witnessed busloads of people coming in, right. Currently, if you go to the Minneapolis Voting Center, you'll see tables for Yes 4 Minneapolis. Those individuals are being bused in from the south, and they are all Black. They are, and when most of our white neighbors see these individuals, they're going to think that the Black community is supportive of this. And to me, I'm trying to be a true representative for that community, which is what we are all looking to reconcile in terms of how we deliver policing, and they have to lead on this issue. 

I want to be really clear here: You mentioned busloads of individuals coming to vote? Please explain that. 

No, no, not come to vote … come to support Yes 4 Minneapolis and convince people to actually vote for, and these are particularly individuals that are BIPOC, specifically Black folks.

And you've seen this happening?

I'll tell you it's right outside in front of the voter station on 980 East Hennepin. So I mean, they came in, and my office is actually right on East Hennepin, as you go down. And I was interested, so I will engage and talk to them. It was surprising, but that, to me, again, is why we really need to have deep conversations about how we're going to move forward as a city. Movements of social change cannot be co-opted, right? They cannot be stripped of its initial challenges. And these are wise words from a great scholar Robin DiAngelo, that really fights anti-racism.

And I think in this moment where we're really actually at a place where we can continue the legacy of Martin Luther King and all the civil rights leaders to actually invest in the words of John Lewis and saying, we can redeem the soul of this city. The messenger matters, Minneapolis, so we need to understand that the next person has to be able to bridge gaps and bridge differences in the city and really be able to inspire young Black communities, right? To be able to participate and take their future into their own hands and not let individuals just tell them how they should be doing things or what is in their best interest. 

Editor’s note: Campaigning is not allowed at or within 100 feet of polling places in Minneapolis. MPR News was unable to verify Awed's claim about tabling outside a voting center.

We reached out to Yes 4 Minneapolis to comment. An email response from communications director JaNaé Bates is below:

“Yes 4 Minneapolis has spent this entire year in Minneapolis, in every part of the city, with intentionality in the Black and brown communities that many of the Black and brown leaders in this organization live and work in. We've had tens of thousands of conversations with folks in Minneapolis about the necessity of this change and those conversations led to this policy. The rest of the country is watching to see if the people of Minneapolis are going to rise to the level of action needed to finally expand public safety in the city. There are folks nationwide who are excited about the residents of Minneapolis leading in this endeavor and some have come to see the organizing work that residents are doing for themselves. But make no mistake, Minneapolis folks are doing the work and leading the way to keep them and their neighbors safe.”

Are you voting yes or no on that police ballot question? 

I have been consistently saying to everybody to vote no. That is not community-led. And that's where I think, for most elected officials, that they're just not getting it. This has to be a moment of transformation. We're dealing with systematic racism and white supremacy. If these are the issues of the day, [a] global racial reckoning was triggered, then why are the communities of color not leading this effort? And why is it being whitewashed?

That is why AJ Awed is hopefully trying to deliver this message of unity, of coming together, but also highlighting that the need in this moment, in this civil rights moment, is for communities of color — yes to be standing next to — but ultimately leading on this issue. Because whichever way you cut the pie, we will be ultimately receiving the effects of what question no. 2 comes out to be. 

A lot of things that mayors want to accomplish don't come free. You can't have everything. So in order to do something about your priorities, what are some of the current city functions or expenditures that could be done away with? How are you going to pay for it? 

In the short term, I'm going to have to, unlike Sheila [Nezhad] … I mean, I'm not an expert in the current budget. I think that's going to be the work for the next mayor, and I'm excited to do. But that's the other philosophy in the city where we have built this scarcity mentality where we're just operating from the limited funds that we have or budgets that we have. I’m actually championing to expand our taxing authority. One of those things is to really start taxing luxury rentals — places that are getting gentrified. Well, we have a majority renter city now, and there's going to be less tax base from homeowners. We need to dramatically shift our whole taxing approach.

I think when we start actually advocating for more on the state level for the city of Minneapolis, I think we will be able to get more authority to do creative things like that. And then that, to me, is going to hopefully lead us to a budgetary practice where we're going to be self-sufficient as a city, because currently the current mayor is promoting a policy that's based on federal funding and state funding. That's not sustainable. And I don't want to be that mayor. I want to champion and really tell the city of Minneapolis that we need to have these creative ways and start actually chipping in more. 

The above interview transcript was edited lightly for readability.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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