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.