Minneapolis elections highlight divide between progressive, moderate Democrats

·7 min read

The high stakes Minneapolis elections are revealing a deep division among Democrats over contentious issues such as the charter amendment that would replace the Police Department with a public safety agency.

The split between moderate and progressive Democratic candidates ahead of the Nov. 2 election reflects a broader gap across Minnesota and nationwide as the Democratic establishment faces intense competition from a newly energized and insurgent progressive wing of the party.

In a city with a famously liberal lean, one that hasn't elected a Republican mayor since P. Kenneth Peterson in 1957, the battle over policing is being closely watched across the country, especially as other cities are grappling with similar challenges and political dynamics.

"There's pretty much unanimous consensus that something has to change and we can't decide on what," said Jia Mikuls, 26, who is part of a young Democrats group and lives in northeast Minneapolis.

The election could be transformative moment for City Hall, the first since the police killing of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning that is upending political dynamics in many U.S. cities.

A near record of more than 100 people filed for city races on the ballot this year, including for the mayor's office, all 13 City Council seats and spots on the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Park and Recreation Board. In the partisan races for mayor and City Council, most are DFLers, but the field also has candidates from other left-leaning parties, including a few registered socialists and two Green Party candidates. On the other side, six Republicans have joined the field.

The ballot question over policing is emerging as the most divisive, but there are two other charter amendment proposals related to government-regulated rent control and the structure of City Hall, a measure that would give the mayor more power running the city.

Early voting in the election, which will be conducted with ranked-choice voting — first used by the city in 2009 — starts Friday. Turnout is expected to be high and the results in the largely Democratic city could be a predictor for the Democratic Party in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

The rift between Democrats spilled out into the open recently when a number of Minnesota Democratic leaders staked out early positions on a policing measure that hasn't even been finalized yet, including elected officials who don't live in Minneapolis. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Gov. Tim Walz oppose the ballot question replacing the Police Department, while Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar support the amendment.

"Minneapolis is kind of the forefront of national attention right now," said Jim Graves, a developer and hotelier. "This could be a very important election for everybody."

Graves ran as a Democrat in an unsuccessful congressional bid against Michele Bachmann in 2012 and now sees parallel polarization in both parties.

"There might be a little bit of the possibility of what happened to the Republican Party if we're not careful. The Tea Party pulled the Republicans so far to the right that they basically imploded, in my book, their core values," said Graves, who now lives in Minneapolis. "I think that whole defund the police [movement] is a real downdraft on the Democratic Party nationwide."

But progressives are critical that not enough has been done, especially after police killed Floyd last year in Minneapolis.

Mikuls, a member of the Minnesota Young DFL, said she will only support candidates who support the Yes 4 Minneapolis amendment, the lead organization backing the change. She's lived in "over-policed" neighborhoods, she said, and seen police officers harm neighbors.

In the 2017 municipal election, residents voted in five new council members, pushing the council further to the left. The council is comprised of 12 Democrats and a Green Party member. That election was also dominated by issues over police accountability, racial gaps, affordable housing and downtown safety.

"The issues are the same but the urgency is greater," Mikuls said. "At least to me and a lot of people I know, we don't feel like we're being listened to … if you're not wealthy and you don't donate to super PACs."

The Minnesota Young DFL, which is geared for Democrats under 36, is supporting the Yes 4 Minneapolis amendment and has endorsed one of Mayor Jacob Frey's challengers, Sheila Nezhad.

Raina Meyer, 20, the group's political director, said they focused on backing candidates who are younger and more diverse as well as those who support issues young Minnesotans are concerned about, such as the environment, policing and raising the minimum wage.

"I think moderates and progressives really agree on virtually all of the important issues but the disagreements mostly center on how we want to get there and how much time it should take to get to the end result we all want to see," said Meyer, a college student.

Joelle Stangler, who lives in Minneapolis and previously worked on campaigns for Omar and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, said the division between Democrats is more pronounced this year but it isn't new. Stangler said the feud within the party is tied to differences in not only ages, but also race and class.

"I believe we are in the middle of backlash to a social movement," Stangler said. "If the [Yes 4 Minneapolis] ballot initiative loses, that will be used as an example of why we can't run on bold things. Should it win, it will be treated as an anomaly." The Minneapolis DFL Senior Caucus, which is open to people 50 or older, has endorsed Frey and is against the Yes 4 Minneapolis amendment.

The Minneapolis DFL did not take a stance on the charter amendments and failed to endorse a candidate for mayor at its convention, where Nezhad won about 53% of delegate votes and Frey came in second with 40%. Brian Melendez, a former state and Minneapolis DFL chairman and longtime resident, said he think this year's election will draw more voters who would normally sit out a municipal election.

"What you see now is non-activist voters paying more attention to a municipal election," he said. "I think this year older voters are not happy with the status quo and that makes them more likely to vote this year than in other years."

Barb Johnson, a moderate who was the longest-serving council president in city history before she lost re-election in 2017, said the electorate is becoming younger, with voters who tend to be more progressive.

"What we saw in the last four years was kind of trying out some changing of the guard … and we'll see if people are satisfied with that change," said Johnson, who lost to Phillipe Cunningham. "It's going to be a referendum on how people think that the city has been run the last four years."

The average age of registered voters in Minneapolis is 45 compared to 51 statewide, according to voter data from the Minnesota secretary of state, with about a quarter of registered Minneapolis voters falling under the age of 30 vs. 17% statewide. People of color make up about 40% of all Minneapolis residents compared to about 20% of the state, according to census data. About half of Minneapolis residents own a home.

Municipal elections historically draw a lower turnout than statewide or presidential elections. A record 81% of Minneapolis registered voters voted in 2020 compared to more than 42% of registered voters in 2017.

"I would love for us to have the highest turnout municipal election ever," said Devin Hogan, who leads the Minneapolis DFL. Hogan said Democrats' differences may seem more amplified with the debate on social media instead of in person due to the pandemic. People normally active in city politics are more engaged this year, Hogan said, but there are still many voters who aren't tuned in to the election. No matter the results, Hogan added, the party will still unite, citing past support for Walz and President Joe Biden.

"We're all part of the same coalition and we can have disagreements in the coalition," Hogan said. "When it counts, we come together and vote to support our candidate."

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this story.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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