Of all the races I’ve written about so far, I find this one the most baffling.
On the ballot:
Blong Yang (DFL incumbent)
Jeremiah Ellison (DFL endorsed)
Raeisha (RA) Williams (Democratic Party)
Cathy Spann (DFL)
When you’re running for office (and it’s not, you know, Soil & Water Board), there are certain things you should plan to do if you’re actively campaigning. Typically, if you get a questionnaire from a group, you fill it out and send it back for their voter guide. This is a good idea even if you don’t think this group is going to endorse you, because that voter guide goes online and will be read by people from all over the political spectrum. If you get invited to a forum where you’re going to get questions about your positions, you go and participate. You hold events where voters can meet you, and organize events for your volunteers to doorknock and drop lit.
My usual bare-bones test for “is this person even running for the office, or are they just hanging out on the ballot?”) is, “Do they have a website with information about them, a donations link, and a way to volunteer?” All four of these candidates pass this test.
But only two of them are filling out questionnaires, going to forums, and holding events. And neither one of them is the incumbent.
Blong Yang is the incumbent. He was first elected four years ago, when Don Samuels opted not to run again. He’s made a number of questionable and/or unpopular decisions.
During the protests around the 4th Precinct after Jamar Clark was shot and killed by MPD, Yang — you know what, I’m just going to quote the Wedge Live! article about what happened:
Yesterday, the Minneapolis City Council’s Public Safety Committee took up the seemingly routine procedural matter of amending their meeting agenda. Council Member Palmisano–with a wink and a nod from committee chair Blong Yang who represents the area that includes the 4th Precinct–proposed they allow public testimony regarding the ongoing protests occurring in front of the 4th Precinct over the shooting of an unarmed man named Jamar Clark. This last minute addition to the agenda made it practically impossible to give testimony on the topic unless you were already present for the meeting.
Fortunately for opponents of the 4th Precinct protest, committee chair Blong Yang (and presumably others on the committee) made sure to invite a specially selected group to give testimony painting a uniformly negative picture of the protest (complaints of traffic, parking, crime, smoke, drugs, drinking, etc). The committee’s lone voice of dissent was CM Cam Gordon, who worried “if we take up this topic now, what about people who would have come if they knew they had an opportunity to give public comment and may not actually be here now?”
And surely those folks would have come, because on November 19th a group was turned away by the City Council and prevented from giving testimony on the very same topic.
One of the people who was present to speak at this “hearing” was (police union head and notorious flaming asshole) Bob Kroll, who informed this committee that they needed to “pull your mayor back and quit mis-micro-managing the police department and let people with experience on how to remove unlawful protesters in.”
(I was sufficiently aghast about this back in 2015 that I left myself a link to this article on the post I wrote in 2013 about the Ward 5 race, because I figured I’d be back to look at them when it was time to write about Blong Yang in 2017.)
Not long after this, Yang was one of the Council Members who brought the proposal to spend a large amount of money to fortify that precinct’s station. And more recently, he voted against the $15/hour minimum wage (he was the only person on the City Council who did).
It’s clear that there’s a divide on the North Side between those who are more worried about crime, and those who are more worried about the police, and Blong Yang sees his constituents as more worried about crime. I think this is a defensible position. (Deliberately organizing and stacking a secret public hearing on whether to allow a protest to continue, on the other hand: not so much.)
Back when Yang was campaigning, he emphasized that the North Side deserved both sufficient police and policing to deter crime, and respectful treatment of residents from the police force, but somewhere along the line he seems to have kind of switched over to “we just need more police, period.”
He didn’t get endorsed at the DFL Ward Convention and has been campaigning in what I can only describe as a completely halfhearted way. He has not shown up for many (any?) of the debate/forum type events. He hasn’t filled out any questionnaires. His events (which you can find on his campaign Facebook page) are few in number and the campaign Facebook page is mostly just announcements of these events. On that grounds alone, I would not vote for him. If someone doesn’t want to be accountable to their constituents during the campaign they certainly aren’t going to be accountable to you after they take office.
Jeremiah Ellison is one of the two candidates who’s really actively campaigning. He landed the DFL endorsement at the Ward Convention — there are other challengers who managed to deny endorsement to the incumbent but I think he’s the only one who got endorsed over the DFL incumbent. I’m not sure if that’s more a testament to Yang’s unpopularity, Ellison’s hard work, or the power of really good political connections.
Jeremiah Ellison is very well-connected: his father is Keith Ellison, his mother is Kim Ellison. And that’s not a bad thing; good connections make it easier to get your constituents what they need. I like Keith Ellison; he’s one of my favorite members of Congress. Discussing this race with a friend, I said that coming from a political family like this counts as a credential, or maybe half a credential. You’re certainly growing up immersed in the water of politics. (I was raised by academics, and I can tell you a whole lot about how academia works!) But it’s background, not accomplishment.
What kind of baffles me is on what other basis Ellison’s supporters consider him qualified, because I could find out so little about his qualifications. He’s a 27-year-old artist. I’m not sure if he’s held a job other than artist or activist, ever, which is weird in itself. I did find his actual artistic resume over on the Intermedia Arts site. (The key was searching “Jeremiah Bey” rather than “Jeremiah Ellison.”) But I didn’t find a “Jeremiah Bey, Artist” site, which is weird. Most artists, if you search their name, you’ll find their website with a gallery of their art, a cv, contact info, stuff that you would find useful if you were thinking to yourself, “I need some art; maybe I should pay this artist some money to make art for me?”
And OK: he is running for a political office, not an artistic position, but his political experience is sort of like his artistic experience, it’s hard to really figure out what exactly he’s done. According to his website: “As an artist and organizer I’ve dedicated myself to propping up the genius of the community. I’ve collaborated with young people as a teaching artist and as a homeless youth counselor — helping to equip them with tools to create new reflections of their community, envision bold futures for themselves, and tell stories no one else will tell about us. … I’ve been, and still am, invested in popular, political education for the people of the Northside. … I’ve been a fighter for workers’ rights.” This all sounds really awesome but, like, you can legitimately claim you’ve “been a fighter for workers’ rights” if you spent ten minutes on a picket line once, and I’m sure that’s not what he means here but I don’t know what he does mean and after hours and hours and hours of Googling, I haven’t found anything that would actually clue me in.
In terms of what he wants to accomplish, he’s at the extremely idealistic end of DFLers; asked “do you believe that we could ever have a city without police,” he answers “yes,” and his vision for public safety emphasizes reining in the police, not taking an enforcement-oriented approach to crime. (Given that the cops pointed a rifle at him as he stood with his hands raised during the 4th Precinct protests, I don’t fault him for the sense that the police are the problem and not the solution.)
His website advocates for emphasizing the needs of Northside residents in economic development (“[we will be] Deeply supporting and investing in cooperative ownership enterprises, especially targeted to cultural communities and communities of color”) and for inclusionary-zoning-oriented approaches to affordable housing as well as enforcing the nondiscrimination ordinance against landlords who refuse to take Section 8. He doesn’t advocate for rent control.
Williams is (or was) the Communications Director for the Minneapolis NAACP. She’s worked for some other unspecified nonprofits, she does PR/Marketing, and she was on (former mayor) Sharon Sayles-Belton’s Youth Council back when she was in high school. Weirdly, her get-to-know-me page has a graph at the bottom showing percentages for government relations, strategic planning, community organizing, and project development; I have no idea what the numbers on this graph relate to.
Over on her Facebook, she doesn’t have a ton of events, but she has been going to forums. She’s not on the NOC questionnaire (the only response they have is from Ellison) but she went to their forum (there’s video), she’s included in the Pollen Questionnaire (warning: site plays music), and she filled out the questionnaire for Our Streets Minneapolis. (Ellison didn’t. They had seriously mixed luck getting people to fill out their questionnaire.)
Her website says she doesn’t believe in platforms, but in “Commitments,” and she has a set of “commitments” that run the gamut from “you can definitely do this” through “this is a good goal” to “…I’m not sure you can really commit to making this happen.” On the “sure, yes, this is within your power” end: “I will hold office hours in Ward 5 open to the community once a week and commit to hosting monthly community coffees in Ward 5.” Less clearly achievable but a good goal: “I will work with the community to develop a comprehensive police reform that will 1.) hold police officers accountable for reckless and abusive behaviors toward community members. 2.) To create a non-police community response action team for mental health crisis and domestic violence calls.” In the “huh” basket: “Together, we will make North High School an education destination and bring it back online as a prominent high school in Minneapolis.” (North High is doing much, much better, but the City Council doesn’t run the schools. It would be useful to talk about ways in which she’s going to support and advocate for North High; she does also say, “I will work to increase arts and music education in Ward 5 community schools through community and corporate partnerships and funding.”)
Over in her Housing commitments, she’s for rent control and punishing slumlords. She’s wants to recruit new business and require that they hire 50% of their staff from the Northside. (Incentives seem like they’d work better than requirements, but in part this depends on how eager people are to open businesses on the Northside currently. Blong Yang talked somewhere about “begging” businesses to open there, though.)
Spann leads the Jordan Area Community Council. She’s clear about the issues with the police department, but is also not trying to say that crime isn’t an issue. (“Cathy’s gas meter was shot out in July and she could have died from the gas leak,” her website notes.)
One of the really fascinating things I found out about Spann from looking for more information about her was that she was drawn to public service after her experience with the North Minneapolis Tornado in 2011.
However, she is not answering questionnaires or coming to forums, which is kind of a dealbreaker. (It’s a dealbreaker with Blong Yang, too, IMO. This shows a complete lack of interest either in the job, or in accountability.)
Given that I’m still really dismayed by Blong Yang’s actions on that sham hearing in 2015, plus his refusal to come to any community forums (or fill out anyone’s questionnaire) I’m inclined to say that I would not vote for him. Cathy Spann is out for a similar reason. That leaves Ellison and Williams. Having decided I really should not watch more forums, since they’re so time-consuming, I watched most of the forum with Ellison and Williams; Ellison overall seemed a little more solutions-oriented. He also has almost all the endorsements: DFL but also Take Action MN and Our Revolution. (Williams is endorsed by WomenWinning but not any of the other groups; Our Revolution will actually endorse twice in wards that have multiple candidates they like, because of IRV.) Given this: I guess I’d probably cast a ballot saying (1) Ellison (2) Williams.
I would question your perspective that Yang is not campaigning. I would say that he is the best boots on the ground campaigner out in the City right now. He has been skipping forums and such because the tactics of a small number of folks on the North Side have been extremely bad for dialogue. He can’t show up to anything without being shouted down by a small number of folks. So he has stopped giving them the opportunity. But he has an extensive floor game and I expect he will win. His folks are tightly organized and he works very hard.
So why isn’t he filling out any of the questionnaires? There are loads. He’s responded to zero that I found. That’s a golden opportunity to respond to your critics in a scenario where they can’t shout you down.
What wins? People voting or questionnaires? Blong has a scary good ground game. His people are well organized and he is working person to person with his ground game. I expect he will have personally spoken to every voter in his district repeatedly and knows exactly how many votes he will get.
The campaign up there has gotten really ugly. People are very bad to him and honestly, very racist. They take peoples words and twist them to humiliate and hurt them. Activists up there feel that they can say anything pretty much anything and it is OK because they feel aggrieved. It is a lot easier to just not give them fodder and get out and shake hands and kiss babies.
I would also note that you said in your posting that you wouldn’t vote for him because he wasn’t going to these forums. If the forums just end up with people shouting at you (literally, not metaphorically) then they are not particularly useful. But that is what has happened. The list of events that Blong shows IS him being out with the community and it is anything but half-hearted. Go attend one and see what you see.