Minneapolis City Council president faces strong challenge in 'bellwether' contest

side by side of two people
Soren Stevenson (left) and Minneapolis City Council Andrea Jenkins (right) are running for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 8.
Courtesy photo and Evan Frost | MPR News

Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins and challenger Soren Stevenson share similar views on major issues like affordable housing, police reform and racial equity. However, Jenkins, a self-titled “pragmatic progressive,” isn’t progressive enough for some who want to see a majority on the council that will stand up to a “strong mayor.”

This is 29-year-old Stevenson’s first political campaign. His run is motivated partly by his experience of losing his left eye after being shot by a Minneapolis police projectile during a peaceful protest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.

“I’m not in this for any other reason aside from wanting to see public safety that works for everyone, police being accountable to us, the housing we need, people being able to stay in their homes, people being able to stay in the city,” Stevenson said. “I’m in it to see done what needs to be done.” 

Stevenson grew up mostly in Oregon and moved to Minneapolis in 2018. He has a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and has worked for nonprofits that advocate for more affordable housing. 

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“The city is not in alignment with our values, and it’s also not effective in meeting our basic needs,” Stevenson said. “I want to be part of a city council and I’m well positioned to be a part of a city council that is ready to get to work on these issues and make meaningful change in our lives.” 

Man with eye patch speaks
Soren Stevenson, who recently settled with the city of Minneapolis for $2.4 million over being shot in the eye during 2020 protests, condemns the decision not to press charges against police officer Mark Hanneman over the February killing of Amir Locke on April 6.
Tim Evans for MPR News | 2022

Jenkins, 62, is a longtime fixture at City Hall, having served as an aide for both former Council members Robert Lilligren and Elizabeth Glidden before being elected the council in 2017. She was the first Black openly transgender woman elected to office in the United States. 

Jenkins grew up in Chicago in a working-class family and said she came to Minnesota in 1979 to attend college at the University of Minnesota. She’s worked as an advocate for people struggling with addiction and in county social services. 

“I certainly have many years of experience in city hall, but I have many, many years of lived experience as a Black, transgender, disabled person,” Jenkins said. “That’s what really influences how I govern more than the time I’ve spent at city hall.” 

Jenkins has served as council president for the last two years, leading what’s considered to be the moderate majority, which often sides with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. She points to achievements during her time in office including the passage of the Minneapolis 2040 rezoning plan, the city’s paid parental leave policy and the city’s declaration that racism is a public health crisis. 

Jenkins said equity is one of her primary concerns and focuses on the council, especially regarding the gaps between white and Black residents. 

“I am trying to do the right thing, given the information that I have, given the lived experience that I have and given the reality of the movement,” Jenkins said. “I try not to operate from an ideological or theoretical standpoint because these issues are too important.”

Jenkins has endorsements from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, Attorney General Keith Ellison and a number of unions and groups like Outfront Minnesota, among others. 

A woman listens at a meeting
Council President Andrea Jenkins listens during a presentation about the results of a survey regarding the proposed future location of the Third Precinct police station at Minneapolis City Hall on Tuesday, July 18.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Stevenson has been endorsed by state Rep. Aisha Gomez, three sitting council members and progressive groups like Take Action Minnesota, among others. In May, he snagged the DFL Party endorsement from Jenkins and he’s also endorsed by the Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Two other candidates, Bob Sullentrop and Terry White are also on the ballot in Ward 8. Neither lists any endorsements on their websites and show little to no fundraising on campaign finance filings. 

Watching the debate around issues like affordable housing, police accountability and safety at Minneapolis City Hall convinced Stevenson the city could do better. He said Jenkins’ 2017 election was historic, but that she didn't turn out to be the progressive champion residents of Ward 8 wanted.  

“She has not led a council over the last few years that has been effective at dealing with our basic needs — our basic needs around public safety, around police accountability, around housing and climate change,” Stevenson said.

Jenkins, whose campaign lawn signs describe her as a “pragmatic progressive," said she believes the city is heading in the right direction on public safety, confirming a new commissioner of public safety, installing a new police chief and agreeing to a state court-enforced consent decree. 

“I’m optimistic that we are on a really, you might say, historic path,” Jenkins said. “We created this continuum of public safety that includes alternatives to policing, the behavioral crisis response team, the violence interrupters.” 

Jenkins said Stevenson doesn’t have enough experience for the council and wondered how someone could really get to know the community in the time he’s lived in Minneapolis.  

“I’ve been working in this community for 30-plus years. I have deep relationships with business owners, with educators, with neighbors, residents, neighborhood organization leaders,” Jenkins said. “This is my home.” 

Stevenson said he ran at the behest of his neighbors. 

“I have the personal and professional experience, as well as a strong commitment to my neighbors,” Stevenson said. “They’ve seen how I’ve been, what I bring to the table, and they want to see me in city hall.” 

Vying for a majority on the council

Even though the candidates are both Democrats, stakes are high for this election in Minneapolis, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz. Factions within the party have vied for control of the council in recent years. 

The so-called “moderates” on the Minneapolis council, led by Jenkins, would be considered liberals almost anywhere else, Schultz said. But they’re facing mostly younger self-identified progressive candidates who are seeking to push the council and the city further to the left.

The question of who controls the council has become even more important as the city shifted over to what’s called a strong mayor system, where the mayor retains more executive control over city departments. 

At stake in this year’s election is not only who controls the council, but whether the majority has enough power to override Mayor Jacob Frey’s veto, which has come into play on issues like rent control and work protections for ride-share drivers.  

“One way that it could adjust to that role in some ways is for a faction to become a veto proof faction,” Schultz said. “Which would maybe not completely undo the voter initiative from a couple years ago, but it would certainly take some power from Mayor Frey’s office and shift back at least at the policy level, back to the city council.”

Person speaks at podium in front of a crowd02
Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins speaks along with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, climate activists, union leaders and other city leaders at Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis on July 19.
Regina Medina | MPR News

Another factor has also been the emergence of political action committees backing their choice of candidates at the municipal level, although candidates aren’t allowed to coordinate with the groups. All of Minneapolis is backing Jenkins and some of her allies on the council and has raised more than $450,000, according to campaign finance disclosures. While the new group Minneapolis for the Many backing Stevenson and others on the more progressive end of the spectrum reported raising more than $100,000 by the end of September.

It’s not clear how much the outside groups have contributed to Jenkins’ and Stevenson’s campaigns. The organizations are not required to break down spending by candidate.

That sort of spending on mailers and ads is unusual in municipal races, Schultz said, but it makes sense because Minneapolis has become a bellwether on issues that other cities around the country are grappling with.   

“It’s being put under the microscope in very important ways, ranging from housing to homelessness to police reform,” Schultz said. “Other cities are looking to see what’s happening and what’s going to grow out of Minneapolis, and looking at these elections to see if there are opportunities for new solutions to problems.” 

An off-year election typically has a lower voter turnout, Schultz said. So the winner may be decided by whichever candidate is better at old-fashioned grassroots campaign techniques like door knocking and phone banking: “I think the potential for surprises is really there.”