Q&A: Minneapolis mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad

a woman poses for a photo
Sheila Nezhad is running for mayor of Minneapolis.
Courtesy photo

Election Day is just a couple of weeks away. There are elections happening all across the state from school boards to city councils.

This week on Minnesota Now, host Cathy Wurzer speaks with five of the leading candidates in Minneapolis’ mayoral race about their views and their plans.

On Wednesday, she spoke with Sheila Nezhad. Nezhad has a master's degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, worked as a research fellow for an LGBTQ think tank and currently works as a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block, one of the organizations that’s leading the effort to reimagine policing in Minneapolis.

Let's start with the news Wednesday that you and your fellow candidate Kate Knuth have pledged to rank each other second on your ballots, and you're urging supporters to do the same. That's a pretty strategic use of the ranked choice voting system in the city. Why take that tack? 

Well, I think that there is a lot on the line this election, and Kate and I share the value that we need new leadership in the mayor's office. And we know that our supporters are excited to use the ranked choice voting system and were looking for guidance, and we believe that each other would be strong candidates for the mayor's office. And so, we're encouraging our supporters to rank ... I'm asking my supporters to rank me number one and rank Kate number two. 

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This is the only way to beat Mayor Frey? 

I think it helps send a message and also helps folks understand ranked choice voting and that you don't have to put everyone on your ballot, but in fact, it does help to put more than one person on your ballot. 

Mayor Frey issued a statement earlier today saying “Our city has seen the limitations of cheap slogans and the reactionary politics of the defund push. But that's exactly the path my opponents have continued to embrace.” Cheap slogans and reactionary politics... want to have a reaction to that? 

No, I'd love to hear him expand on that. I don't think I can speak for him on that one. 

Let's talk a little bit about an issue that has many people talking in Minneapolis. Violence has increased in the city. Tuesday night there was another young person, a 15-year-old, shot. He's currently in critical condition. If elected mayor, what would you do, short-term, to quell the gun violence? 

I think we need to invest in the solutions we know work. And one of those is the gun violence intervention program that's currently run out of the Office of Violence Prevention. So that's one of the programs that my organization, Reclaim the Block, and I have been asking for more funding for years. 

It's proven to be deeply effective. In the year before it started, there were 93 gang-related shootings. The next year after it started, that dropped to 42. The year after that, it dropped to 25. So, an effective program is only funded at $100,000 a year. And we really need to lift those solutions to scale to make sure that we are following up with folks who are involved in gun violence and able to stop that cycle as soon as possible, and also control the flow of those guns that are flooding our city right now. 

That's a short-term look at it, as you say, how about long term? You're a supporter of a new public safety agency. But there are some other longtime anti-police-brutality activists who are skeptical that that move would bring about any sort of real change. Why are you such a strong supporter of reimagining policing in the city? 

I'm not only a strong supporter of that charter amendment; I actually helped write it, so I have been thinking deeply about it since its inception. And it's a first step, right. So just like our rent control charter amendment that will be on the ballot this year. It's a first step. We have to create a container for the change to happen within, and that's what this new Department of Public Safety is. It’s a container for us to fund more violence prevention strategies, more alternatives like mobile mental health responders that I have fought for funding at the city, more domestic and sexual violence advocates and services, more of these wraparound approaches to solving violence. While we also need to invest a lot more in addressing the underlying conditions that lead to violence and harm, which are poverty and a lack of youth programming. And that's one of my top priorities as mayor is putting more programming for youth and more youth jobs, because across the city, I've met— my team and I have knocked more doors than any other candidate. And the number one thing we hear is there's not enough for our youth right now. 

If you were elected mayor, what should happen to the police chief Arradondo? 

We need to figure out what the best leadership is going to be for the new department and also crafting our systems. When he chooses to retire, whenever that is — he makes that choice — that we have a system that is going to be able to keep pushing forward racial justice and change. And for me, that's really what it's about. It's not about just one mayor or one president, it's about looking at our systems and crafting systems that are going to lead to justice, lead to safety for everyone across the city. 

You've prepared what you're calling “the people's budget.” And as you know, a lot of things that mayors want to accomplish, they're not free. In order to do something about your priorities that are important to you, what are some of the current city functions or expenditures that you think could be done away with? Because you can't have everything, right? 

You can't have everything, and I think we need to talk about doing some things better. When we say do away with, I think people get afraid that nothing will come in its place. It's not just about ‘OK, we're going to get rid of the million dollars that we spend on the mounted patrol every year.’ We're gonna say, ‘Oh, no, that would actually allow us to scale up our group violence intervention program, gun violence intervention program, 10 times.’

So, reallocating some of that money that's going into militarization. I also would like us to explore doing a levy for youth, a tax levy for youth. Four years ago, members of the Park Board, including commissioner French, came to the mayor with a proposal of a levy that would have been about $6 a household that would have helped provide STEAM, so science and math and arts programming, in parks across the city. And it didn't happen. The mayor and the Board of Estimate didn’t support it. It’s things like that that are small impact per household but could really help lift up our youth that I would love to champion as mayor. 

Do you think the City Council-mayor relationship should be changed? That’s ballot question no. 1.

I am voting no on question no. 1. And running for mayor actually solidified my decision on that. And that's because there are great disparities in voter turnout in different parts of the city. In 2017, when Mayor Frey was elected, 9,000 people voted in Wards 4 and 5, which is the north side. And in Wards 11 and 13, so southwest Minneapolis, 20,000. 

That means that there wouldn't be necessarily equitable representation in a strong mayor system. But under our current system, every part of the city has an equal voice. So that's why I'm voting no one question one.

A note from Cathy Wurzer about these interviews:

Some people wanted to know how we selected the mayoral candidates we’re talking to. We looked at fundraising numbers from the official reports submitted to Hennepin County on July 27. The next fundraising reports aren't due until Oct. 26, which we thought would be too late to be used before voting is over on Nov. 2.

It's possible those fundraising levels have changed over the past three months. And we know new candidates have entered the race, but there's no way to verify if they are leading in fundraising levels without the official reports. So, we know this is imperfect. But this is where we landed. 

The top four fundraisers are all DFL candidates, but there are a number of candidates not linked to the DFL. We wanted to highlight someone from that pool of candidates, so on Friday, Oct. 22, we'll have Jerrell Perry from the For the People party.