Transgender candidates win Mpls. City Council seats, make history

Andrea Jenkins hugs a supporter.
"We're going to celebrate, but we're not going to rest on our laurels," said Andrea Jenkins, who won the Minneapolis Ward 8 City Council race Tuesday.
Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 6:10 p.m. | Posted: 3:22 p.m.

Voters on Tuesday elected two out transgender candidates to the Minneapolis City Council, marking the first such victories for transgender people in a major American city council race.

Andrea Jenkins will serve Ward 8, which covers neighborhoods in south Minneapolis.

Phillipe Cunningham won in Ward 4 in north Minneapolis after a stunning victory over longtime incumbent and City Council president Barb Johnson.

"It's a long game and we're taking the long view," said Jenkins, who won a four-way race with 73 percent of the vote. "This victory today, we're going to celebrate, but we're not going to rest on our laurels, we're going to work as hard as we did getting elected when we're in office."

Jenkins is an artist, poet, longtime council policy aide and oral historian.

Although she acknowledged that her election is a first for the city, she said she campaigned on affordable housing, police accountability, public safety and other bread-and-butter issues.

"We didn't shy away from my identity as a black woman, as a trans woman," Jenkins said. "I have lived firsthand the oppressions that others only talk about, only think about. But that is not what we led with. That's not what won us this race."

Jenkins will take over the seat held by outgoing council member Elizabeth Glidden, who first met Jenkins when she was working for an opponent's campaign in 2005. Glidden, who chose not to run for the seat again, said she was impressed enough that she offered Jenkins a job.

Deebaa Sirdar and Sara Lopez take a selfie with Andrea Jenkins
Deebaa Sirdar, left, and Sara Lopez, right, take a selfie with Andrea Jenkins as she won the Minneapolis Ward 8: Council Member race in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune via AP

"What's unique about Andrea is she brings such a confidence to what she does, but also an ability to continue to question," Glidden said.

Others in the ward and at City Hall who have worked with Jenkins over more than a decade share the same enthusiasm.

"When she announced that she was running, I think every incumbent council member to a T said, 'We are so excited,'" Glidden said. "That just shows how respected she is from her lifetime, decades of work, but also how she is someone who brings a glue, who brings a sense of connectedness, and, frankly, I think that's something the city needs right now."

Glidden said Jenkins' time at City Hall made her the most experienced city council candidate she's ever seen.

"I think there's a lot of agreement on issues we feel are so important, the need for public safety, and police accountability, affordable housing and down the line," Glidden said. "Andrea really understands how to translate that into what city government can do."

Phillipe Cunningham, who served as a policy aide in the mayor's office and on the city's Youth Violence Prevention Executive committee, campaigned on a platform that stressed economic and environmental justice. He felt comfortable living in north Minneapolis as a trans man of color.

Cunningham said he's experienced being "the first" before, such as the first African American to be elected student body president.

"There were lots of spaces that I have gone before in which I was the first person like me to do that and so this feels like a familiar feeling but on an overwhelmingly larger scale," Cunningham laughed.

Observers, though, say the election of Cunningham and Jenkins was part of a wave of transgender candidates across the country.

Those candidacies are partly a reaction to a wave of legislation hostile to transgender people in recent years from city halls to Congress, said Elliot Imse, communications director for the Washington D.C.-based Victory Fund, which supported LGBTQ candidates, including Jenkins and Cunningham.

"This is really about trans people fighting back for themselves, an unprecedented amount of trans people running for office and getting the votes of tens of thousands of Americans who thought they were most qualified for office," Imse said. "It's a historic night. And it really is a milestone for the LGBTQ community."

Imse said the number of transgender elected officials doubled this year across the country to nearly a dozen, including Danica Roem, the first out transgender state legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates.

"Across the country right now, we're seeing politicians focusing on divisiveness and anti-equality rhetoric, when voters just want ways to improve their lives," Imse said. "Our trans candidates were going door-to-door talking about themselves as trans people, but more importantly about the issues that actually affect the lives of their constituents."

One of Jenkins' new constituents is Camille Gage, a painter and longtime resident of the Kingfield neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Jenkins has helped her with neighborhood issues at the council.

"When she first told me she was running, I was thrilled, and I didn't even at first think of the historic nature of it, I was just like, 'Oh my God, she's going to be great at this,'" Gage said. "Later, of course, it dawned on me — this is a big deal."