Election 2021: Minneapolis Ward 2

This is the sort of “only in Minneapolis” race where the two Democrats are the conservatives and the long-time progressive Green has a Democratic Socialist running to his left. (Also there’s a Republican but I keep forgetting he exists because he doesn’t have a website.)

It’s also one of those “I like multiple people in this race and worry about hurting people’s feelings” races.

On the ballot:

Cameron Gordon (Green, incumbent)
Robin Wonsley Worlobah (Democratic Socialist)
Yusra Arab (DFL)
Tom Anderson (DFL)
Guy T. Gaskin (Republican)

Guy T. Gaskin (Republican)

Guy listed a URL on his affidavit but hasn’t actually set up a website. I did find his LinkedIn and his Facebook page, where I found some gross misogyny, anti-vax bullshit, and also him referring to universities as “communazi indoctrination centers,” despite the fact that according to his LinkedIn he works at the U of M. Fun times. Don’t vote for this person.

Tom Anderson (DFL)

Tom Anderson has a solidly generic DFLer site with an endorsement from the Senior DFL caucus and not much else to distinguish him. His website repeats the phrase “As the Director of Government Relations for Students United…” four separate places. (Students United is here.)

During caucus season, he caught my attention when his campaign manager contacted a number of Somali immigrants who’d registered for the virtual caucus in a way I thought was deceptive and intimidating. Thread is here. Tom’s letter to Sahan Journal defending his action is here. Another thread about the conversation between campaign managers is here. Note that the person on Yusra Arab’s side here is Leili Fatehi, now in charge of running the All of Minneapolis campaign against the public safety charter amendment.

Tom’s website talks a lot about “a comprehensive system of public safety” but in his Star Tribune candidate profile he says, “At this juncture it does not make sense to replace one of the most vital city services with an unformed and untested new department of Public Safety” so I’m going to say that (a) he’s against the public safety charter amendment and (b) he would rather obfuscate on his website than just say that straight out, probably because he knows that does not reflect the will of Ward 2.

Yusra Arab (DFL)

So yeah, it’s not clear to me what Leili Fatehi’s position was in Yusra’s campaign other than “in the room for sensitive phone calls.” In addition to her work for All of Minneapolis, Leili previously worked for (maybe still works for?) Jacob Frey, and per her priorities page, Yusra is in favor of the strong mayor charter amendment and opposed to the public safety charter amendment.

Neither Yusra nor Tom is not endorsed by Operation Safety Now but in a footnote on the OSN site it notes they declined to interview, and they clearly label Cam and Robin as “defunders,” so presumably OSN types know who to vote for even if Yusra and Tom are both savvy enough to recognize that an OSN endorsement in Ward 2 would be a hindrance and not a help. They’re both endorsed by the DFL Senior Caucus. Yusra, incidentally, is also endorsed by former 2nd Ward City Council rep Joan Campbell. Now there is a name I haven’t heard in years. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of circa-2000 Minneapolis politics, so I’ll just say: my recollection of Joan is that she made Lisa Goodman look progressive.

Anyway, IMO Yusra nor Tom is a good fit for Ward 2.

Cameron Gordon (Green, incumbent)

Cam Gordon is currently the second-longest serving City Council member (second to Lisa Goodman) and probably the most prominent Green Party elected official in the US. He’s been a solid progressive voice — there are people who get elected as a progressive and promptly ally with a bunch of conservatives (see: Park Board Commissioner Kale Severson, Green party member and golf course defender. Kale isn’t running again but good grief.) Cam is a progressive who’s done an amazing job of keeping his ideological compass pointed in the same direction it was when he started.

In his early years on the Council, Cam’s goals were necessarily more modest because it was a much more conservative council. He worked for ordinances requiring landlords to provide adequate heat; required university-area businesses to recycle; publicly sided with CeCe McDonald; built protected bike lanes; wrote a resolution (the first of its kind) requiring Minneapolis to address hiring disparities.

As the council shifted to the left, Cam’s work got more ambitious. In 2016, he coauthored an ordinance lifting the limit on the number of non-related people living together (so allowing cohousing and also making things easier for polyamorous families). He worked on Stable Homes Stable Schools and Minneapolis 2040. In 2021, he helped fund the indoor village and passed an ordinance to legalize SROs.

He lists a lot of stuff he’s worked for on his website, but here’s the item that really struck me: he worked with the Sex Workers Outreach Project to improve worker protections for strippers. This is particularly impressive if you look at the article: the push for this started in 2017 “when city inspectors found bodily fluids in 11 of the city’s 17 adult businesses, according to city records.” This work started with “ew, these businesses are icky” and finished with the City Council unanimously supporting the following:

Adult businesses will be required to give workers copies of their contracts, post rules for costumer conduct and workers’ rights, and prohibit retaliation against workers who report violations. Managers and owners will be prohibited from taking tips from entertainers, and entertainers will be provided security escorts when leaving after a shift.

The ordinance also seeks to improve sanitary and safety conditions by following standard cleaning procedures, clearing tripping hazards and having security cameras everywhere entertainers interact with customers.

The council also directed the city to create a work group of entertainers and other industry representatives to continue making recommendations for necessary materials and notices regarding their work conditions.

(Cam co-authored the ordinance.) I mean — yes, every single accomplishment was a group project, but that’s inherent to City Council work, and if you look at his Housing page, you’ll see a bunch of specific projects in his ward like this one where “do we want affordable housing there or something more lucrative?” was probably a question that could have been answered differently with another person in that seat.

Anyway: I really like Cam, and I think he does good work.

Robin Wonsley Worlobah (Democratic Socialist)

So — it’s pretty safe to assume that Robin would bring a similar set of goals and ideals to the Minneapolis City Council. She’s also a lot younger than Cam, and she’s a Black woman, and some of my friends are really excited about her. You can also read a long interview with Robin about her evolution as an activist here. There’s also a good interview with Robin from the Minnesota Daily where she says she appreciates Cam’s progressive views but that it’s time for a leader to “organize around people and not just the council” and says, “I don’t just show up to vote; I put in work ahead of time. He’ll show up, and he’ll most likely vote the right way when it comes to it, but he does not lead or champion proactively.”

I did not e-mail her to ask about specific examples because then I’d have had to e-mail Cam for a response and the prospect of that back-and-forth was just exhausting (if I wanted to play phone tag with rival politicians I would be a journalist or something) but there was a city issue that crossed my radar in the last week that might, in fact, be an example of what she’s talking about: the East Phillips Urban Farm, or EPNI (East Phillips Neighborhood Institute) project.

There’s this site called the former Roof Depot site that’s a badly contaminated former industrial mess. The city has actually wanted it since the 90s, and they bought it with the plan to tear it down, clean it up (at least some), and turn it into the central site for public works to manage metro-area water (not a water treatment center — they’d send out crews to fix water main breaks and so on). EPNI pushed for a plan where they would take over the whole site, reuse the building as an indoor hydroponic farm, build housing, and a bunch of other things..

Sahan Journal in April 2021 gave some background on the project: at that point, it looked maybe-kinda possible but a lot more funding was needed (they’d found $6.8 million but needed $11.5 million).

The Star Trib in August covered some further developments. After a city committee failed to produce a recommendation, Alondra Cano proposed that they suspend all work on the new water yard (the city’s planned project), find a different location for it, and give EPNI a two-year exclusive development rights agreement, during which time the Neighborhood Institute would need to raise $12.3 million to reimburse the city water fund, buy, and redevelop the land. Part of this passed and part of it didn’t, leaving the whole thing kind of up in the air.

The Star Trib in September covered the latest development. Kevin Reich proposed that EPNI be given 3 acres to develop into an urban farm, with the rest of the site being turned into the public works site as planned. This passed 7-6, with Bender, Reich, Fletcher, Cunningham, Osman, Goodman and Ellison voting for it, and Cano, Jenkins, Gordon, Schroeder, Johnson and Palmisano voting against it. (“Against” is what the EPNI advocates would have pushed for here, since they don’t want the city to go forward with the public works site plan.)

In the wake of this vote, Jamal Osman wrote a long e-mail (collected via screenshots in this Twitter thread) defending his position. Jeremiah Ellison wrote about it here and gave an interview (video here). (The statement that the original idea was for 3 acres appears to be correct but I think they also always wanted the building, and I don’t think that’s part of what was approved by the City Council.)

So — despite spending a lot of time reading, I am honestly not sure what I think of the whole proposal. (Leaving the arsenic in place and building a farm over it sounds like a really questionable idea, but what do I know? it’s totally an option with asbestos in houses.) Robin is solidly in favor: she has been advocating and rallying people to contact their Council Reps and speaking in favor of it.

With this project, from what I could find digging around on Twitter and through news articles, Cam Gordon has mostly just showed up and voted the right way. (I did find him giving a speech at the same rally as Robin, and I’m sure he’s been talking to people — but he was not using Twitter to advocate for it or rally people around the idea. He does do that with some projects, like this one.)

I think what Cam would say (and I think what Jeremiah was saying) is that advocating for a project like this, shepherding it, helping the community group to find funds, leading on it, that’s the job of the person who represents that ward — it was Alondra Cano’s job, and she didn’t do it. (There are legitimate reasons for treating “your ward” as “your lane” and sticking with the projects that would happen on your turf, when it comes to advocacy, speaking to the journalists, etc.) I think Robin would say that’s bogus, and that if she’d been in his place, she’d have worked just as hard on the East Phillips Farm as on any Ward 2 project. (n.b.: I have not asked either one and possibly they’ll both chime in to yell at me and I’ll have to add updates.)

I honestly don’t know what I think about the feasibility of this project and the obstacles to getting it done. Jamal’s point here rings true to me just in terms of projects I’ve seen that were rolling disasters: “As the project has grown it has attracted a lot of folks for the way that it allows them to attach themselves to the parts that appeal to them the most, without having to talk about priorities, feasibility, and how [it] is all supposed to work together.” But on the other hand, when I first heard neighborhood advocates saying that instead of tearing down the Sears building at Lake & Chicago, it should be redeveloped with the ground floor turned into something like an open-air market but indoors, I thought this was a ridiculous idea and would never happen. And it totally (eventually) happened and the Midtown Exchange is amazing. I am clearly not the person to ask about whether an ambitious redevelopment project is feasible.

Anyway: I bring this up not because I have a clear opinion about that specific project, but because it’s an example of something Robin’s worked hard to lead on, and Cam has mostly not led on. When Robin says she wants to “organize around people” instead of around the council, this is kind of an illustration, I think, of both the strengths and the weaknesses of that approach.

Here’s where I come down on Robin vs. Cam: there is value to institutional memory, and there is particularly value to having a holder of institutional memory who’s not the most conservative person on the council. Lisa Goodman has held her seat since 1997. After Cam, the third-longest Council Rep is Kevin Reich, who has held his seat since 2009. The most progressive City Council reps are also by and large the newest — except for Cam. Having a strong progressive who’s been around long enough to know where the hidden levers of power are is worth a lot to me, and I think it makes it more likely that the other progressives on the council can accomplish the things I want to see. I like Robin a lot; I hope she runs again. But I would keep Cam.

#1 Cameron Gordon, #2 Robin Wonsley Worlobah. (As someone noted elsewhere, you don’t actually have to use all your votes, and I think it’s unlikely to matter here.)

Did you know that I had a book released this April? Chaos on CatNet is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and takes place in a future Minneapolis. Signed copies are usually available from Dreamhaven and from the current mail-order-only incarnation of Uncle Hugo’s. Books make great holiday gifts, but should be ordered early this year — Tubby & Coo’s bookstore explains why.

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded. My readers have now helped buy a refrigerator for the school nurse at Olson Middle School, outfitted 8th grade Algebra students at Olson Middle School with binders to stay organized, bought a 3-D printer for students at Humboldt high school in St. Paul, equipped a classroom at Whittier with an air purifier, bought a pug mill (a clay mixer that allows you to reuse dried-out clay) for art students at Andersen United, bought copies of We Are Not From Here for North High students to read in 9th grade English class, and funded snacks for kids at Lucy Laney. Here are some other worthwhile fundraisers for high-poverty Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools:

A teacher at Green Central Elementary would like a book/curriculum set that covers “themes such as racism, cultural identity, homelessness, immigration, gender and sexuality, and social activism.” (Your conservative aunt on Facebook who scaremongers about “critical race theory” would keel over in horror at this one.)

A first-year teacher at Bryn Mawr would like a variety of classroom supplies, including individual dry-erase boards, a big easel, a classroom rug, a selection of books, and some educational games.

Elementary teachers at Jefferson, and two at Folwell, would like help providing a mid-morning snack to their students.

A math teacher at Andersen would like to provide her students with scientific calculators.

Two science teachers at Washington Technology high school in St. Paul would like learning materials for their chemistry classes: glassware and microscopes, and equipment that will allow students to “see how adding nanoparticles to a conductive solution affects voltage.”

And a different kind of school fundraiser:

Kaytie Kamphoff is a special education resource teacher at Patrick Henry High School and the co-director/producer of Henry Drama Club. (Christopher Michael is her co-director and their full-time theater and dance teacher.) She initially asked for funds on Twitter just so the Henry Drama Club could stage a couple of plays this year. Ms. Kamphoff has now set her sights higher: she’s hoping to raise enough to run a summer theater program for Northside kids, free for participants, paid for the recent grads/Drama Club alums who work. You can donate to her by Venmo or Paypal: Venmo is Henry_DC and PayPal is Kaytie.Kamphoff@gmail.com. Note “Henry Drama Club” in the memo and if Paypal insists you need the last four digits of her phone number, it’s 5548.

Her Twitter thread is solidly worth reading if you’d like some heartwarming stories of the transformational power of theater in the lives of high school students.


6 thoughts on “Election 2021: Minneapolis Ward 2

  1. Not Ward 2 related, but when I emailed CM Fletcher about wanting him to support the project, this is what he wrote me personally (not his staff):

    “I’m in the uncommon and uncomfortable position of disagreeing with you on this one. I’d be happy to talk more, but I’m not able to support the urban farm project as proposed for a few important reasons.

    First: The proposed water yard development would clean up the arsenic plume underneath the site. Far from being the “toxic” project it’s been portrayed as by the EPNI campaign, the environmental assessment worksheet documents the city’s plan to remove the toxic plume from the previous pesticide manufacturing operation in the neighborhood. The urban farm proposes to leave the existing structures, which means leaving the polluted site polluted and farming on top of the arsenic plume. I can’t justify that as environmental justice.

    Second: The proposed urban farm has been presenting itself as a viable project with a constantly shifting set of goals and deliverables, and no credible funding plan. They’ve sometimes misrepresented that, to the frustration of my colleagues who have repeated those misrepresentations in public. This seems likely to sit as a vacant polluted site for at least a decade if we spend the money to move the water yard.

    Third: The water yard will include a training facility to give BIPOC people in the neighborhood easy access to the nearly 400 jobs that will be located on and around the site. The urban farm organizers have estimated the urban farming operation creates fewer than 10 full time jobs.

    Fourth: City workers need a new place to work. The current water yard is in Ward 3, so we know that it is not the nuisance it is made out to be. The current yard is inadequate to safely house those workers, and we need a new facilty, like two decades ago and counting. Furthermore, the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood is currently underserved with its growing population by the existing fire station, which is slated to move into the old water yard space when the new water yard goes online. Further delay extends the use of an already under-equipped facility in Ward 3.

    Fifth: The City Council has never, and should never given exclusive development rights to a specific developer (even a non-profit neighborhood group) by staff direction on a vote by elected officials. Can you imagine the corruption that precedent could lead to in future councils? I can’t justify being a part of that.

    Sixth: Yes, it will cost money. A lot of money. $12.3 million dollars and counting. That’s just to leave it as a vacant, under-maintained polluted site. In a moment where many worthy projects are crying out for more funding, that also feels hard to justify.

    This is a hard vote, and if I seem like I’m being a little strident in my presentation of the arguments, it’s that I’m sensitive to the way this project has been portrayed as an environmental justice and racial justice project that should be obviously aligned with my values. I just don’t think the evidence supports those arguments in this case, and I can’t in good conscience vote for a project that seems poised to do more harm than good on at least a ten-year horizon, and in my view, probably beyond.

    This was delayed a cycle because, on top of all of the questions raised above, the authors tried to bring this through without the required race equity analysis and fiscal note we would need to pass this, so, to my dismay, we will get to vote on it again this week. I honestly have no idea what will happen, but I’m probably not the vote the coalition is most likely to pick up.”

    His answer definitely gave me pause in supporting project and made me look askance at the people pushing for it. I’m sure there are arguments that could be made against some of those points, but I want leaders who are willing to be honest and straightforward about positives/negatives about projects. And while I really like both Cam and Robin, they both seem like they skirted past the issues in a way I really didn’t like.

    • Thanks for this addition. One of the things about this project: the Council Members making a case against it have a detailed case full of practical considerations, while the Council Members in favor don’t really seem to be making a case per se.

    • This is so helpful, thank you for posting it. I met a group of folks advocating for the urban farm on the Sabo bridge a couple months ago. They gave me some lit and it made the project sound awesome – something I would definitely be in favor of and encourage my councilmember to support. Fletcher’s side of it explains fully why there’s been limited enthusiasm for it on the council, though.

      And this illustrates something I’m mildly concerned about in this election, which is whether many of the people running really understand what making policy entails. Robin’s comments around wanting to “organize around people” rather than the council sort of rub me the wrong way because of this. I guess it’s hard to know exactly what she means by that (because it’s one of those vague terms that could sort of mean anything), but it feels like a critique of the kind of behind-the-scenes consideration of all the types of unsexy factors that Fletcher’s comment lays out, but that kind of careful deliberation is exactly what a good councilperson SHOULD do. So I have concerns.

      And can I just say – I’m always SO impressed with how thoughtful and thorough Fletcher’s communications are. He assumes people are capable of understanding the complexities of things, and WANT to understand them, and takes the time to walk you through his thinking and it’s always super helpful.

  2. “Neither Yusra nor Tom is not endorsed by Operation Safety Now but in a footnote on the OSN site it notes they declined to interview” – is that “not” a typo?

    I think the Midtown Exchange shows up in “Chaos on CatNet” as a place people are eating lunch, right?

    • Yes! That’s where Steph and Nell go by bus (and run into Siobhan) and then later Steph takes Rachel. When I first moved to Minneapolis, it was this giant empty building sucking energy out of Lake Street, and multiple development projects got approved there only to fail. But the project finally got completed and it is such an amazing asset to the city.

  3. “I think what Cam would say (and I think what Jeremiah was saying) is that advocating for a project like this, shepherding it, helping the community group to find funds, leading on it, that’s the job of the person who represents that ward — it was Alondra Cano’s job,”

    Coming from Eagan I’m just completely boggled and jealous that the city council members think this is anyone’s job.

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