Minneapolis demographics change; younger candidates shape new City Council

An election in which three candidates in their 30s won Minneapolis City Council races made it clear that the city's demographics are changing, and voters want younger, newer and more diverse representation.

On Tuesday, Jacob Frey, 32, defeated two-term incumbent Diane Hofstede in Ward 3, and Lisa Bender, 35, defeated first-term City Council Member Meg Tuthill in Ward 10.

But the biggest sign of change likely was in Ward 6, where Abdi Warsame, 35, became the first Somali-American to serve on the council. He defeated Robert Lilligren, who was the first and only Native American city council member.

"I think there's somewhat of a sea change for generations," said City Council Member Barbara Johnson, re-elected with 55 percent of first-choice votes in Ward 4. "If you look at who are the council members that lost, they're replaced by people who are really very different from them. In a couple cases in age, and in one case: ethnicity."

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Johnson said the city hasn't seen many candidates under age 40 run until now.

"I think Minneapolis is a younger city," she said. "And we've been blessed to be able to keep a lot of the young people that are educated in our community. They like to stay here. They like living in our city… so it's not surprising that they were influential in this election."

The shift is not only in age, but also in what Hamline University law professor David Schultz calls a change from the "Old DFL" to the "New DFL."

Schultz said established DFL leaders focused on downtown development, the Minnesota Vikings stadium, and public subsidies to businesses. Meanwhile, he said, the new DFL's priorities include transportation and rental housing -- issues younger voters support.

"[Those who lost] were the candidates of the baby boom generation, whereas the people who won represent the new picture -- the new demographic of the city of Minneapolis," Schultz said. "It's the new more racially diverse city. It's the candidates who really represent the transition from the baby boomers to the Gen Xers and the millennial generation."

One defining issue was the Vikings stadium deal: those who won opposed the project, as did many younger voters, he said.

"Some of the candidates who lost were just demographically out of touch with their new constituencies, and it was just a matter of time when the demographics tripped over or reached a tipping point," Schultz said. "The Somalis, for example, or the Hmongs, developed enough support, cultural support, political support, and enough political skills to run successful campaigns."

In Ward 5, Blong Yang, 37, is trying to become the first Hmong American on the council.

The newcomers' campaign strategies also differed from those of traditional Democratic candidates, he said.

Frey said that's how his campaign succeeded -- by "no longer just getting a whole bunch of endorsements from top, and throwing up a billboard or lawn signs."

"Our phrase all along has been, 'It's a new Minneapolis,'" Frey said, adding that the campaign focused on having personal conversations with constituents.

"I mean, we knew every person in the ward. We knew what their dog's name was; we knew if they had a birthday recently," Frey said. "And when you really get to know people at that very grassroots level and create relationships with them I think that's how politics is done best."

Bender, who used a similar strategy, said she won support from people of all ages. She also aimed to connect with younger voters by focusing on the issues that they face.

"[What] our younger voters are thinking about is, it's getting harder and harder to find an affordable place to rent in Minneapolis," she said. "We have the second-lowest rental vacancy rate in the country, after New York City. It's not sustainable."

Bender said her effort to make increasing transportation options a priority and her concerns about the Vikings stadium funding also helped her win.

Another factor that changed the face of the council is that the city's young immigrant population is starting to mobilize and realize the significance of public office, Johnson said.

"We're a city that has a lot of immigrants, and they naturally are getting into this public process," she said. "So I think it's very normal and to be expected that political office would be one of the things that they’d like to do."

But not only are the younger voters and immigrant voters turning out more, they also are becoming more engaged in the city, Johnson said.

"It's just a lot of new ideas and fresh thinking," she said.

Looking ahead to the next term, Johnson said the new council members will help the city succeed.

"We're going to have a nice balance of experience, and new folks and the council. And it'll take everybody a while to get used to each other," she said. "But we are a city that's in good shape, and we want to continue in that. ...And I have no doubt that our new mayor wants us to continue down the road that we're on right now."

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this story.