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A remade Minneapolis City Council could mean new leadership at the top

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Stadium vote
Minneapolis City Council member Elizabeth Glidden, second from left, leads a discussion before the Vikings stadium vote at City Hall in Minneapolis, Thursday, May 24, 2012. President Barbara Johnson is on the far right.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News File

The political change that swept over Minneapolis City Hall in this year's election could sweep a new City Council president into office. 

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden is challenging Barbara Johnson for the council presidency, a position Johnson has held for the last eight years.

Glidden's bid is being fueled by a group of newly elected council members. If she succeeds, it could pull the state's most liberal city council even further to the left.

The City Council will have seven new members next year, a majority of the 13 seats. Among the newcomers is a Lisa Bender, who challenged an incumbent and won in a landslide.

Bender said voters wanted change in city government, and that begins with the council's leadership.

"I think electing Elizabeth Glidden as president of the council would send a message that this past campaign season really mattered," Bender said. "And that those of us who campaigned on a progressive agenda are really standing by that and are really making the changes that we said we wanted to make."

Both Glidden and Johnson are Democrats, as are all of the council members, except one Green Party member.

The political differences between Glidden and Johnson are subtle. But the two have diverged from time to time on issues including the Vikings stadium. Johnson supported using city money to subsidize it. Glidden didn't.

In general, Glidden is perceived as more liberal than Johnson. Council member-elect Alondra Cano also sees Glidden as more committed to helping the city's disadvantaged minority populations.

"And in a city where we have some of the deepest challenges around racial equity that have to do with jobs, education, the economy, foreclosures, I think we need a new leader, who's going to be bold, who's going to be resourceful, who's going to be a strong mentor for the rest of us," Cano said.

Glidden, a civil rights lawyer by training, chairs the city's Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee. She was just re-elected to a third term on the council.

Johnson, who is entering her fifth term, is a registered nurse who grew up in a politically active family. Her mother, Alice Rainville, was Minneapolis City council President for most of the 1980s.

Neither Johnson nor Glidden responded to interview requests for this story. Johnson was traveling out of the country last week. 

MPR News also attempted to reach council members supporting Johnson's bid to retain the council presidency. They either declined or didn't call back.

The job of the council president isn't to steer policy but to keep peace on the council, said former council member Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council, a business group.

"It's a really intense personal relationship down there," said Cramer, who said he and his organization haven't chosen sides. "It's 13 people who see each other every day and whose offices are right next to each other. And you want to have people with different opinions, and you want to have a vital debate. But you want that done in a way that is constructive and positive."

But several of the incoming council members want to see a more activist approach. They include Andrew Johnson, no relation to Barbara Johnson.

"Barb generally has been described as very laissez-faire, very open, much more administrative," he said. "I see the potential of Elizabeth to set a shared vision and agenda that council members can buy into and that we can work together towards."

The president of the City Council typically has a much lower-profile than the mayor. But Minneapolis has a "weak mayor" system of government in which the council holds most of the power.

It's unusual for council members to talk publicly about the selection of the council president. But this year, the campaign is especially intense, and the undecided members are being heavily lobbied. Council member-elect Blong Yang said the choice leaves him torn.

"This is probably one of the tougher votes we'll make," he said. "And it's really strange, because it's the first vote that we'll make."

The council appears closely divided over who its next president should be. That means whichever way the vote goes Jan. 6, a large number of council members could be unhappy with the result.