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In first year as Minneapolis mayor, Hodges shows her skill

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Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

In her first year in office, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has proven to be a powerful force.

The city's political structure places little actual authority in the mayor. But Hodges pushed her agenda through a sometimes skeptical City Council, won a public relations battle with the police union and helped craft a compromise that kept a major transit project on track. 

Things have been going her way ever since election night in 2013, when she trounced the better-funded perceived frontrunner, Mark Andrew, by more than 17 percentage points. In the year that followed, she has repeatedly proven herself a savvy politician.

Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden says Hodges has also become an effective mayor.

"I would say if I was her, I'd feel like I had a pretty good year," Glidden said.

The mayor's first major test came in the summer. Minneapolis had been on a collision course with the Metropolitan Council over the Southwest Light Rail project. 

The line would connect the city to Eden Prairie, but it would also pass near a popular bike path and an existing freight rail line in Minneapolis. Nearby residents strongly opposed that plan, and the city came close to scuttling the entire project because of their objections. Along with Glidden and Council Member Kevin Reich, Hodges helped negotiate a compromise that kept the Southwest line on track.

Mayor Hodges
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges at a community meeting Wednesday night, Oct. 8, 2014 at Macedonia Baptist Church in south Minneapolis.
Peter Cox / MPR News

But she knew the compromise wouldn't be popular with residents. So she didn't spin it as a victory.

"I understand why people are disappointed, and I understand why people object," she said. "But we were called upon to move forward."

Council President Barbara Johnson said the episode showed the mayor's mettle.

"It was a hugely important project for our region," Johnson said. "And she had to look at that larger picture. And probably — I don't want to say abandon — but disappoint some constituents. And I'm sure she heard it loud and clear from the people who were unhappy about it. But she's the mayor, and you've got to take those big steps sometimes, and she did."

Johnson has worked with three different mayors during her 17 years on the City Council. She said Hodges takes an approach to the job that is distinctly different from that of former Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"You know, he was an idea-a-minute guy," Johnson said. "He would throw out something at a meeting when you're trying to figure out solutions, and I'd think to myself, 'Oh that's crazy.' And she is very focused. She knew the direction she wanted to take from her early days here as a council member, and I feel like she works her plan."

But the mayor's plan couldn't have anticipated #pointergate.

Mayor Betsy Hodges
Mayor Betsy Hodges poses for a photo in a screengrab from a KSTP news report. The report claims that she is flashing a gang sign in this photo.
KSTP

"This is a photo of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges arm-in-arm with a man flashing what law enforcement agencies tell us is known gang sign for a north side gang," said a television news report. What the picture actually showed was Hodges and a young black man pointing at each other during a get-out-the-vote event. But the city's police union, which had been feuding with the mayor over her efforts to improve police/community relations, insisted the image cast doubt on her judgment.

The story backfired. Criticism and outright ridicule of KSTP-TV and the union erupted nationwide on social media. It even made "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

"That's a gang sign?" Stewart asked. "All this time I've been the lead-in for a notorious gang member." Up popped a picture of comedian Stephen Colbert, pointing.

For an entire week, as the backlash raged, Hodges said nothing. She realized she didn't need to.

"It is peculiar to watch yourself go viral," she recalled. "But it also allowed me to go about my business, because other people were saying what needed to be said."

The mayor has been adroit at knowing when to fight and when to let others fight for her.

When the City Council tried to strip some of Hodges' new spending proposals out of the budget for next year, her supporters flooded the public hearing. Council members relented and restored many of the cuts.

It wasn't a perfect victory for Hodges. The council approved a tax increase smaller than she had advocated. But the vast majority of her agenda remained intact.

The budget was the mayor's first concrete step toward fulfilling the promises she made on the campaign trail. Her goals are to increase the city's population, streamline its government and — most daunting of all — to erase the persistent gaps between white and minority residents in areas ranging from income to health.

She acknowledges that achieving all that will take more than a year.

"The first year was a foundational year, and a building year," she said. "I have an eye toward the long game, and I know that this is going to take a while to get this work done — and that none of this is quick and easy work."

The mayor's focus on racial equity still faces skepticism from many council members. But she's proven it would be a mistake to underestimate her political prowess.