Mpls City Council: Ward 4

The incumbent City Council rep in Ward 4 is Barb Johnson. She was one of the folks who voted for the Vikings stadium, but held onto her seat, in part because she managed to hold onto the DFL Endorsement. This year, there’s no endorsement, and she has two DFL challengers plus a Libertarian.

On the ballot:

Barb Johnson (DFL, incumbent)
Phillipe Cunningham (DFL)
Stephanie Gasca (DFL)
Dana Hansen (Libertarian)

One of the things that’s frustrating as hell about politics when you’re not an insider is that lines of responsibility do not always run the way you might assume. Schools are in a city, and the city has a city council and a mayor, but they generally don’t do a whole lot with the schools; there’s a school board that makes the school-related decisions. Twin Cities transit is overseen by the Met Council, which is appointed. Who’s in charge of paving (and possibly even clearing) a particular road depends on who owns the road — Snelling Avenue in St. Paul is technically a state highway. (Part of why road construction in the Twin Cities is such a chronic mess is that as far as I can tell, the city, county, state, and federal departments for this stuff make absolutely no effort to coordinate with one another in any way. So you’ll have situations where half the bridges across the river are under construction at the same goddamn time.)

When you’re a politician, you will get asked, pretty regularly, to deal with stuff that’s flat-out not in your arena of responsibility. Usually by people who are already super frustrated. There are a couple of ways to respond. You can just say this isn’t your job and leave it at that. Or you can say, “the best person to contact about this problem is your representative on the following committee,” and point them.

If you’re a candidate, you also have the option of saying, “If you elect me, I will use the powers of my office to get this done for you,” whether the powers of that office will work for this purpose or not, and you see that a lot.

Finally, you can also give an answer that boils down to, “this isn’t technically in my wheelhouse, but I hear what you’re saying and I see that this is a big problem for you. As your representative, I work for you. I know this stuff is confusing and it shouldn’t be your job to figure out precisely which agency is in charge of managing traffic at the Hiawatha/46th crossing or who writes the regulations on childcare licensing or how you get the bus line extended so your mother will be able to get a bus to the grocery store when she stops driving. I will solve problems for my community where I can; and for the rest, I will use my powers as your representative and advocate to work for solutions.” That requires a certain amount of nuance, but you’ll score more points with all the people who know that you’re full of it when you say “I’m going to do this thing that’s 100% under the purview of the School Board / the Park Board / the U.S. Senate / some other entity that I am not currently running for.

You see a lot of this split in this candidate questionnaire from NOC (P.S., Dear NOC, you did an amazing job with this, although next time around it would be awesome if you sent it to the later-entering candidates and added their answers — is that a possibility?) For example:

Public transportation in Minneapolis is unaffordable for many low income residents. Poor and working families pay a disproportionate percentage of their monthly income for public transportation. Meanwhile, billion dollar light rail lines are being developed and low-income residents are at risk of displacement and gentrification. How would you ensure that any new light rail development in North Minneapolis will ensure sustainable housing and job creation for local residents? Would you support subsidized or free fare options for low income riders on bus and light rail?

Cunningham: I would absolutely support free fare options for low-income riders. There are already legislators who support this and options developed by Metro Transit staff. But we need advocacy from Council Members who represent communities most in need in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.

The 4th Ward will not be directly served by LRT, but I will work with the 5th Ward Councilmember in demanding policies that require affordability in any development that uses public land or funds (this would certainly include any development near Minneapolis’s two Bottineau stations) and prevent displacement generally.

For LRT projects to deliver on the benefits promised to most Northside residents, we MUST demand improvements to bus service (especially C-Line and D-Line aBRT on Penn and Emerson/Fremont) which would connect people to Southwest and Bottineau. Without improved connecting bus service, 4th Ward constituents will receive far less benefit than was promised.

Gasca: I support fare options that are responsive to the reality that many residents depend on public transport. Often the most ambitious and expansive transit investments are designed for suburban white commuters and overlook workers of color.

Similar to housing, new development around light rail is a tangible opportunity to build local wealth. As it relates to development we need to make sure that there are assistance programs for local residents and business owners to get first access to new retail opportunities along a light rail corridor. Regarding construction, we know that these projects often take decades from inception to the first ride. This expansive timeline offers an opportunity to position aspiring North Minneapolis contractors to be ready to take advantage of lucrative construction contracts through programs designed to advantage minority and women owned businesses. Construction is often a chaotic period for existing businesses and they will need support.

Johnson: I do believe the Met Council (who runs the bus and light rail system) is looking at using a tiered fare system and I support that concept to make transportation more affordable for those who need it.

From Barb Johnson: “This isn’t my job. I mean, sure, if the Met Council wants to do the thing, that would be great.”

From Stephanie Gasca: “This thing is currently being done badly or not at all, and you should elect me, because I will do the thing because I have personal experience of its importance.”

From Phillipe Cunningham: “The Met Council needs to do the thing and I will do the work of advocating for the thing, which I see as a real problem, and I will also advocate for these other, related things, which are a big deal to our district.”

If you’re thinking I liked Phillipe better than the other candidates, you are correct.

I mean, I am distinctly not thrilled with Barb, who made a creepy dogwhistle-y comment about the people in her own damn ward when talking about public safety, while being the only person on the entire City Council voting against removing laws against “lurking” and public spitting (!) even though these are used to arrest people of color to a hugely disproportionate extent. Also, four years ago, I commented that as City Council President when the Mayor’s office and also a bunch of Council seats were changing hands, she’d be pretty powerful and that it would probably be to your advantage to be represented by a power broker. It does not appear that she’s done a whole lot with that power, though. (She’s not totally without accomplishments. But I’m not going to say, “oh, you folks in the 4th are definitely reaping noticeable benefits from having this lady in office, even if she’s annoying.”)

My main question was not so much “Barb vs. her challengers” as “Phillipe vs. Stephanie.” Both Phillipe Cunningham and Stephanie Gasca are progressives with some interesting credentials and endorsements. Stephanie Gasca is endorsed by Take Action MN (which I did not find on her site, but found on theirs); Phillipe is endorsed by various DFL subgroups and Ilhan Omar. Stephanie Gasca is a former Wellstone Fellow; Phillipe has worked in the Mayor’s office.

Overall, however: Phillipe Cunningham seems to have a lot more relevant experience, and it shows. I found a debate from a couple of nights ago and watched (well, listened) to a chunk of it. FYI, if you don’t want to sit through the whole thing, there are a bunch of questions about affordable housing at 41 minutes in, and a bunch of questions about police-community relations 1 hour 10 minutes in. The thing that struck me about this was that while Stephanie and Phillipe were mostly pointing at the same problems, Phillipe had a lot more ideas for solutions.

One of the really interesting bits in that debate was in the police-community relations section (1:22). The candidates were told that Janeé Harteau had complained that she had on many occasions fired problem officers, only to be forced to hire them back; how would they deal with this?

Phillipe was the first to tackle this question and talked about the problems created by the police union contract, noting that negotiations on this contract were shrouded in complete secrecy, and the provisions of the contract tended to be pretty complicated and hard to understand; he said he wanted to fight for transparency in this negotiation process, because it was so important to being able to hold bad cops accountable.

Barb then said that she wanted to correct some misinformation, and that the arbitration process was part of state law, PELRA (the Public Employees Labor Relations Act), and also it was not true that the contract negotiations were secret: during the last set of negotiations, they were open to the public: “The public could have attended any time that they cared to. It was an open process.”

I was typing notes as I listened, and at that point I wrote, “When was this? why did no one go? I sure as hell think people would have gone if they’d known about it.”

She got a followup question about how, then, she would deal with this issue. (Like, okay, if it’s state law, are you … talking with our legislators about this?)

Her response managed to be both meandering, and maddening. She told this confusing anecdote about an officer who was fired twice, and then said, “We certainly can address state law change if we felt PELRA was putting us into a position of having to take back officers that we didn’t want to keep…it isn’t on our agenda right now.” Really? Why is it not on your (collective your) agenda, if it’s state law that’s preventing us from firing officers who need to be fired?

Gasca spoke next, and asked why no one she knew had heard about these negotiations being open to the public, if they were? And Cunningham got a followup (for the “so, is the issue here the union contract, or state law?”) issue and he also raised this: “I had no idea the negotiations were open. Did any of you?” (I heard a couple of “no” responses from the audience.) He maintained an upbeat, even tone through the whole forum but I think this set of responses really put him to the test. He pointed out that Barb Johnson had helped to get a state law changed in order to install a natural-water pool at Webber Park, and added, “People are not happy with how the police are interacting with our community. We’re met with a brick wall.”

Anyway, I’ve linked to the video of the debate for those who’d like more information but I would SOLIDLY rate Philippe Cunningham #1, Stephanie Gasca #2 in Ward 4 of Minneapolis.

Oh, forgot to talk about the Libertarian. She was at the debate and clearly out of her depth on pretty much every topic. Her website is a Facebook page. I linked to it.




13 thoughts on “Mpls City Council: Ward 4

  1. Your viewpoint as a complete outsider tells me that you know nothing about what it is like to live in the 4th ward in Minneapolis or the numerous ways in which Barb Johnson has served the neighborhood she has called home for years. The reason Barb gets re-elected each time she runs is that she is good at serving her constituents and is a faithful servant. She chooses to be in the line of fire of people who don’t even live here, or in Mr. Cunningham’s case, can’t even bother to purchase a home in the ward before thinking he deserves a right to govern it. You’ve been hoodwinked by someone with an eloquent vocabulary and no experience governing or even serving locally in his McKinley community.

      • I was at the convention. Barb’s support at the Convention was steady and true. Cunningham managed to block the vote based on ranked choice voting. He could not overtake Barb on her own. Also – as far as this blog piece goes – you have quoted the candidates verbatim, but then offered your own translation in a way that looks like they said it – pretty unfair. You’ve added your commentary to slant the piece to your favorite candidate. You’ve done a disservice to both Stephanie and Barb Johnson, to push your candidate forward.

    • Woah… you think Phillipe shouldn’t be elected because he rents instead of owns his home? That is really classist. There are a lot of renters in North Minneapolis, and I’m sure they would benefit from having a fellow renter on the city council. Also, as a 4th ward resident, I think Naomi’s analysis is spot on. I’ve also knocked on doors and spoken to several long-time residents in the community who feel that Barb hasn’t done much for them at all, so no, this isn’t just an “outsider” opinion.

      • Yes, I believe someone who doesn’t own a home in the ward is not as invested in the outcomes of the ward. You can throw all the “ists” at me about that. I’m fully behind our rental population and constantly push our leaders for tougher regulations against the city’s landlords, which I believe contributes to many of the problems in North Minneapolis. But at the end of the day, I do believe committing oneself to a neighborhood means home ownership. If Mr. Cunningham loses in November, he can move out that day and run somewhere else. My biggest concern is the fact Mr. Cunningham has not even sought out opportunities to serve in his own neighborhood. I hear many fancy words but no firm plan on enacting these big plans and frankly this area cannot be the answer to every single problem that we face in society.

      • Lovechoir,

        You are clearly out of touch with many in your community if you think home ownership is a gate of loyalty.

        My family has rented our home for 15 years because we couldn’t afford to purchase it and were getting by month by month. Many in the ward live the same way.

        What I see in North is many new home owners who care a lot about their property values. Fair, but no more committed to the community than those who tent and choose to stay.

      • I hold leaders to a higher standard. I understand the need of people to rent as I’ve been there. Lest this point become the only one that gets picked apart, I want to clarify that I am more concerned with Mr. Cunningham’s plans. It is very clear that he is very eloquent and has several good ideas that sound great on paper. I have yet to be convinced that he can accomplish any of these things with his limited time here and his lack of experience working for the betterment of the ward. I think it is naive to expect a politician to solve all the problems of a community and someone who thinks they have plans to do that very thing shows a great deal of naivete as well.

  2. Wow,
    Just fucking wow.
    This blog is amazing.

    OK, I admit the only reason I didn’t know about it was because I was too enamored with my own musings about North Minneapolis.

    Great…now I have to spend the entire night reading all of your old blog posts.
    Do you have ANY idea how that’s going to cut into my video game time?

  3. If there was one theme for this election is that it is “visionary” and “aspirational” vs “reality” and “doable.” Take the point you have about police accountability. Anyone who knows anything about this knows that there is a huge problem with state law that brings folks that have broken the law back as cops even though they broke the law. We have some of the lowest bars to keeping folks that broke the law from holding jobs as cops. The Strib had a great series on this. We are not going to be able to change this until the Republicans don’t have control of the Legislature because they cops have a strong lobby there. And even if we were able to get all three branches back, we may not be able to get legislation changed because a lot of outstate folks are also in a strong relationship with cops. Barb’s answer makes exact sense if you know all this. It makes no sense if you don’t. So it would seem the right answer is to just “go change the legislation.” But it is much more complicated than that. But on the face of it, it isn’t.

    I write this because this kind of exchange is happening over and over in the City on all sorts of issues. We are a city divided between the “visionary” and the “reality.” There are a lot of folks who have a lot of ideas that sound good on the face of them but will never be implemented. They haven’t thought through what it means to do this stuff but it sounds good. Take climate change. Lots of folks are concerned about climate change. And they well should be. But what can the City of Minneapolis do about climate change. We are 64 square miles out of the 196 million square miles on the planet. We don’t control electrical generation (we have no municipal electrical generation), our transportation network has been in place some 70 years or so and we don’t control transit, we don’t regulate industry and our housing stock mostly was built 100 years ago. But candidates are still putting up ideas that would cost tens of millions of dollars and would have no impact on climate change because folks want to feel as if something is being done despite the reality that these promises will never happen. My favorite question this season is “So how are you going to pay for that?” I had one candidate almost in tears when I asked that and then accuse me of not wanting change. I had another tell me that they would just “Hire smart staff” when asked how she was going to pay for something. I had another one say it was specious to ask how something was going to be paid for. People call the division in the City generational but it really is not – it is this split.

    Now maybe you want someone who will say they will do something about things without meaning it. God knows that this was how Trump got elected. But is it right? I am solidly on being honest with voters. But I am increasingly attacked by those on the other side who want to put out stuff that sounds good but will never happen. I would ask – which side are folks on? Because I think if you are going to evaluate candidates, you have to answer this question for yourself first. Because when you do, these questions come into a different light.

    • Yeahhhhhhh, Barb’s response did not sound remotely to me like a “I would like to fix this, but the GOP is a roadblock” answer. She did not sound like she thought there was anything that needed addressing. Her statement on the police contract being negotiated openly was B.S. There are a ton of public-but-no-one-comes meetings that happen every day in Minneapolis, but there are also multiple people and organizations that are genuinely invested in watching what’s going on with the police: the fact that apparently NONE of them found out about these hearings suggests to me that it was publicized with a 3×5 card pinned up to a bulletin board in City Hall somewhere.

      I get what you’re saying about visionary & aspiration vs. reality & doable. It’s clear that the progressive favorites, if they get in, are going to be in for a shock when they have to figure out how to pay for some of their lovely ideas. What I’m seeing, though, is that a lot of these old guard just flat-out doesn’t see a problem.

      • I didn’t hear the debate you are talking about but I do get the problem. You have to change state law as your first big starting point for getting bad apples out of the PD but the Leg so far has been utterly uninterested. Maybe the Strib piece will help.

        As to negotiations being open to the public, I don’t know on that. I would have to look into it.

        And as to the shock that will happen if some of the progressives get in, it is the public that believed all of the pie in the sky stuff that will be shocked. Or maybe not. Trump’s people believed a bunch of stuff that has not happened and Bernie Sander’s platform was mostly stuff that would never happen. Voters seem to have short memories and a great appetite for promises that will never come to fruition. Makes me sort of crazy because I think if you tell the voters that you are going to do something, you should actually mean it. But not a lot of folks hold to that.

  4. I didn’t hear the debate you are talking about but I do get the problem. You have to change state law as your first big starting point for getting bad apples out of the PD but the Leg so far has been utterly uninterested. Maybe the Strib piece will help.

    As to negotiations being open to the public, I don’t know on that. I would have to look into it.

    And as to the shock that will happen if some of the progressives get in, it is the public that believed all of the pie in the sky stuff that will be shocked. Or maybe not. Trump’s people believed a bunch of stuff that has not happened and Bernie Sander’s platform was mostly stuff that would never happen. Voters seem to have short memories and a great appetite for promises that will never come to fruition. Makes me sort of crazy because I think if you tell the voters that you are going to do something, you should actually mean it. But not a lot of folks hold to that.

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