A beleaguered Minneapolis prepares to pick its leader

Seven mayoral candidates, including incumbent Jacob Frey, are vying for this week’s DFL endorsement

A woman in a park smiles and speaks.
Minneapolis mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad hosts a meet-and-greet at North Commons park on Thursday. She's one of seven people vying this week for the endorsement of the Minneapolis DFL.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the past year, Minneapolis has seen the killings of three Black men by law enforcement, massive protests, a surge in gun violence and destructive rioting — all on top of the pandemic. 

Now its residents are getting ready to elect a new mayor in this Democratic-dominated city. The seven candidates vying this week for the endorsement of the Minneapolis DFL offer competing visions of the city’s future, and of public safety, after this tumultuous year. 

Kate Knuth is a former suburban state representative but said the events of 2020 convinced her that Minneapolis needed new leadership. 

Knuth said she’s frustrated that city leadership doesn’t appear to have learned anything from the past year. 

“People really love this city, and they're concerned about this city, and they want our city to be better,” Knuth said. “They want Minneapolis to do the big things that we've shown the capability to do in the past, and I think people are hungry to meet this moment with that kind of leadership.”

A woman smiles in front bushes.
Minneapolis mayoral candidate Kate Knuth in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The incumbent leader is Mayor Jacob Frey, who took office in 2018. 

Frey realizes he’ll take a lot of heat over what’s happened in the city since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, including the decision to abandon the 3rd Precinct, which was later burned, and his request to call in the National Guard after days of chaos last May. 

Frey said he's provided "steady leadership" and stayed true to his beliefs, even when hundreds of protesters rallying outside his home demanded that he vow to “defund” the police. 

“Through our most difficult moments, when easy answers were going at a premium, I'll tell you what, I stay true to what I believe in — I followed the data,” Frey said. “I listened to our Black community, I rejected calls to defund and abolish the police and, say what you want about me, I don't take the easy way out.”

First mayor’s race since Floyd’s murder

Political observers say voters may be looking for change this election. Avram Muñoz, who watched the unrest as a political science professor at St. Olaf College, said it’s possible that DFL delegates who experienced the racial reckoning following Floyd's killing could simply be ready for a mayor from a more diverse background. Frey and Knuth are white, while a third candidate, Sheila Nezhad, identifies as mixed-race.

“Race does matter for voters, whether it's in terms of just seeing somebody who looks like them running, or even in terms of just people having a better understanding of some of these issues that communities of color face,” said Muñoz, currently a visiting professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio.  

That tension is part of what led Nezhad to get into the race. She describes herself as a longtime organizer and said her experience as a queer woman of color and a renter are relevant to the mayoral race.

“All of those diverse experiences helped me understand the struggles of everyday people in Minneapolis, and I think will help me better represent the diversity of Minneapolis in city leadership that we haven't seen,” Nezhad said. 

As Minneapolis coped with the overlapping crises of Floyd’s murder and a global pandemic, Nezhad said Frey missed the opportunity to work with the community to help take care of the most vulnerable by, for instance, partnering with activists at the intersection of Floyd’s killing to create a vaccination site.  

“There's no solution that's going to make everyone happy, but there are solutions that prioritize human dignity and invest in long-term well-being of the community," Nezhad said.

A sculpture of a raised hand is placed in an intersection.
At 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, a giant sculpture of a raised, open hand sits in the middle of the intersection in December.
Courtesy of Ben Hovland 2020

Frey said he and local City Council members have had “countless” meetings with residents near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, which has been dubbed George Floyd Square. 

”One of the things about being mayor is you have got to make the tough decisions to say things like, ‘Look, we're not compromising on this notion of having an autonomous zone,’ ” Frey said of the decision to partly reopen the square, which has been occupied by activists since May 2020. “Residents in the surrounding area, businesses that are directly on that corridor, they have a right to receive those basic city services.”

Knuth said she sees part of the job of mayor as rebuilding trust between residents and city government. 

”I'm very clear that I don't have all the answers, but I think I can help us facilitate a conversation and a way of navigating this moment that brings us closer to racial justice in the city,” Knuth said. “A very successful administration would be people believing that their city government is worth investing in, and a partner in helping to make the kind of city they want to live in.”

Questions about policing

On the flip side of the discussion about police reform is the issue of crime. Minneapolis, like many large cities, is seeing an increase in fatal shootings, including of young children hit by stray bullets. 

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murdering George Floyd, but three other former officers are set to go on trial in Floyd’s killing next March. And other recent killings by police, including the shooting death of Winston Smith by sheriff’s deputies in the city in early June, have reignited protests. 

Muñoz said some delegates and voters may look at Chauvin’s conviction as evidence that progress has been made on policing, but others may want evidence that Frey actually made substantial changes. 

”It's not just about accountability after the fact, you need to have systems in place to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the first place,” Muñoz said.

Nezhad said any discussions of public safety also have to address the root causes of crime, which she said include inequality and a lack of resources. 

”When we talk about safety, we have to start talking about housing, about health care, about employment, about youth services — all of these things that help us feel safe as a community and really prevent violence before it happens,” Nezhad said. 

Knuth alleges that Frey is using nationwide spikes in violent crime to prop up his campaign. She said it's not about defunding versus investing in police, it's about taking what she called a "whole system approach to public safety." 

She and Nezhad both support a ballot question that would create a new Department of Public Safety in the city that would replace the Police Department. 

But Frey, who opposes that charter amendment, said it's undeniable that the loss of nearly 300 Minneapolis police officers from attrition and disability leave since Floyd's murder have had an impact on crime in the city. 

“We need to make sure that our streets are safe, we need to make sure that our kids are able to go out and play on a trampoline without the concern or risk of getting shot,” Frey said. “This is very real, and we need to be serious about the solutions.” 

How the endorsement process works

This year there are just seven looking for the DFL endorsement, which would be a big boost in a town that hasn’t elected a Republican since 1973. People watching the race say Nezhad, Knuth and Frey are the most active candidates, but Phillip Sturm, Lakeem Johnson, Jerrell Perry and Abdisaned Awed are also hoping for the DFL endorsement. Some of the candidates debated at a forum held in April. 

The endorsement process started last week and continues through midnight Tuesday. It’s being done remotely this year due to the pandemic. Frey joined some other local elected officials earlier this year in decrying the virtual endorsement process, arguing that it would be inaccessible to some because of the technical requirements. But others saw their opposition as an effort to protect incumbents.  

Frey and Nezhad said they will not abide by the endorsement; Knuth said she will.

This election year in Minneapolis is unlike any before, according to Hamline University professor David Schultz. That’s in part because not many high-profile candidates jumped in following this tumultuous year that included Floyd’s murder, the pandemic and civil unrest. 

All the crises the city has undergone in the last year should mean that Frey should be vulnerable to a challenge this year, Schultz said, but the lack of candidates doesn't offer voters many choices. 

"Normally you would think that this year, the mayor ought to be incredibly vulnerable, with that rising crime rate, how he handled the post-George Floyd demonstrations and so forth,” Schultz said, "but he could very well get reelected again.” 

It is possible that city residents are exhausted and may not pick up on the nuances between the candidates, Schultz said. 

Delegates will rank their candidates, with the lowest-earning candidates eliminated in each round of voting. A candidate will need 60 percent of support from delegates in the final round to win the endorsement.

The DFL will announce their endorsement, or lack of endorsement, on Saturday. The election in November will include not only the mayoral race, but also ballot questions about creating a new Department of Public Safety and giving the mayor in the city more power. 

The general election will be held Nov. 2.

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