Brian Herron, former Minneapolis council member, re-enters city politics

Pastor and political consultant
Zion Baptist Church pastor Brian Herron, center, prays with other members of his clergy before a service at the church in Minneapolis on Sunday, April 14, 2013. More than a decade after Herron pleaded guilty to extortion and resigned from the Minneapolis City Council, he is preaching at his late father's church, organizing mayoral debates, and consulting with political candidates and the public.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

It was the end of a recent two-hour long Sunday afternoon debate at a church in north Minneapolis, and the six candidates running for mayor bowed their heads for the closing prayer.

The preacher who delivered it once had a promising political career himself, before he pleaded guilty to extortion and resigned from the Minneapolis City Council.

More than decade later, Brian Herron is stepping back into city politics -- not as a candidate, but as an organizer in the African-American community.

"We will no longer sit silent," he told the candidates at this month's forum. "We will hold you accountable for the things that you say. We will go to the polls and vote, but we're going to be informed voters, now."

He spoke with the confidence of a man who believes he's achieved redemption.

In the summer of 2001, Herron was preparing to run for a third term on the Minneapolis City Council, when he got a call from the FBI. Investigators had caught him on tape, soliciting $10,000 from a local grocery store owner who was in trouble with the city for failing health inspections. Within weeks, Herron announced his guilty plea and his resignation.

Moderates a debate
From left: Brian Herron addresses Minneapolis mayoral candidates Gary Schiff, Jackie Cherryhomes, Mark Andrew, Don Samuels, Betsy Hodges and Cam Winton at a debate he organized on April 7, 2013, at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"I speak to young people all the time about being responsible for your actions and that everyone makes mistakes," he said at a tearful press conference in July 2001. "The only thing wrong with making mistakes is not acknowledging it, not learning the lesson from it, and not getting up and trying again."

Herron would be the first of three Minneapolis City Council members charged with corruption over the next five years. The others were Joe Biernat and Dean Zimmermann. All three went to prison.

Joe Biernat was released in 2004, and contributed essays to a book about dealing with adversity, titled "The Edge of Greatness." Dean Zimmermann was released in 2008. He works as a handyman.

Herron could have been jailed for up to 20 years, but because he cooperated with the FBI in another investigation, he received a relatively light one-year sentence.

Herron calls Federal Prison Camp in Duluth his "seminary."

"I spent a year with God," he said in an interview.

Greeting members
Pastor Brian Herron greets parishioners during a service at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis on Sunday, April 14, 2013. More than a decade after Herron pleaded guilty to extortion and resigned from the Minneapolis City Council, he is preaching at his late father's church, organizing mayoral debates, and consulting with political candidates and the public.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Herron was released in 2003, and three years later, when his father retired as pastor of Zion Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, he took over the job. Today, Herron's sermons often mention his fall from grace.

"I have touched the things of this world," he told worshippers on a recent Sunday. "I have been places that you'd never want to see and never want to experience."

His message: God believes in second chances.

"I want people to understand that people don't have the final verdict over your life," Herron said afterward. "God has the final say-so. And so you can make mistakes, but if you give your life over to God and if you trust him, he can take your mistake and make it work to your good and to his glory."

Herron's own path to redemption is now leading him back to politics. The mayoral forum was only the beginning.

He wants to educate black voters about the city's ranked choice voting system, and he's planning more debates throughout the year both with the candidates for mayor and City Council. His goal is to put the issues facing the African-American community at the top of the city's agenda.

One topic that came up at the recent mayor's debate was something called "Ban the Box." It's a policy under consideration at the state Legislature that would prevent employers from asking about a job applicant's criminal record before inviting them to an interview.

Several participants spoke in favor of the bill, which has since passed the state Senate and is already in effect for city hiring decisions.

One of the candidates, Cam Winton, said, "We should never judge someone by the worst thing they ever did."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.