One Minneapolis: Mayoral Candidates Squirm While Peppered With Questions About Racial Equality

Story for The UpTake by Allison Herrera and Jacob Wheeler

Candidates for Minneapolis Mayor met Thursday night in a forum focused on racial issues. Minneapolis, like the rest of the country, is becoming more diverse racially and whites are expected to be in the minority of city residents within a generation or so.

Attending were candidates Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges, Tony Lane, Doug Mann, Don Samuels, Gary Schiff, and Jim Thomas. Independent candidate Cam Winton was not able to attend. The forum was held at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis.

Candidates to succeed three-term Mayor R.T. Rybak as the next mayor of Minneapolis who may have expected more feel-good questions about bike paths and “green” homes made a wrong turn last night and instead found themselves squirming in their seats at a raucous, passionate debate over racial inequality in a city that is fast-becoming more racially diverse. During a town-hall forum held at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis, the candidates faced a youthful and racially diverse crowd insisting that Minneapolis isn’t the most progressive city in America, as it likes to tout itself but, instead, a city nearly buckling under the weight of racial injustice.

Watch a replay of the debate here.

An overflow crowd of over 500 shot pointed questions at the eight mayoral candidates (only independent candidate Cam Winton was not present) that focused on racial and educational inequality, police brutality, youth homelessness, jobs for ex-felons, the city’s policies towards people of color and the need for equitable hiring and affordable housing. Moderator Nekima Levy-Pounds helped raise the temperature of the occasion by pressing evasive candidates who didn’t sufficiently answer questions respond to the issues. Early in the debate, Levy-Pounds insisted that organizers had chosen her because she wasn’t “Minnesota Nice” but hails from Los Angeles.

“Be specific,” and “tell us more,” the crowd screamed at candidates who appeared to be ducking the questions.

“This is just like Saturday night at the Apollo,” Levy-Pounds quipped. “It’s a tough crowd!” Some who were following the debate tweeted their verdicts by anointing Levy-Pounds the winner of the debate.

The mayoral debate was sponsored by “One Minneapolis,” a consortium of youth workers and activists, but the name of the event caused confusion. Organizers announced at the beginning that it was not affiliated with the “OneMinneapolis” that is an arm of The Minneapolis Foundation. Levy-Pounds, however, is a law school professor who serves on the Board of Trustees of the Minneapolis Foundation, which, in turn, sponsors OneMinneapolis, a program working to promote racial equality.

But the confusion over the sponsorship of the event paled in comparison to the confusion of the candidates, some of whom clearly were not comfortable with hard questions and a skeptical audience.

The discussion featured eight candidates, including all six who see the DFL party’s endorsement: Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Gary Schiff and Jim Thomas. Socialist party Candidate Tony Lane and Green Party endorsed Doug Mann also participated.

Candidates were questioned about the challenges upcoming demographic changes will present: Minneapolis, in a generation or so, will be a city where whites make up a minority of residents..

The inspiration for this forum, and its focus on issues of race, grew from the organizers’ frustration with previous, more traditional mayoral forums, where they felt that, “90 minutes of their time was wasted,” said organizer Henry Jimenez.

“Minneapolis looks diverse, like this group today,” Jimenez said before the forum began. “I have an issue with the City of Minneapolis. A lot of people talk about it as the most progressive city in the nation. Yet we have some of the biggest racial disparities in the nation.”

Minneapolis’ African-American community and racial justice activists are reeling from the May 10 shooting of 22-year-old Terrance “Mookie” Franklin, who was killed by police after he fled from officers and hid in a basement. Many of the circumstances behind the shooting remain murky, and police have offered little in the way of explanations.

Mayoral candidates attempting to draw the crowd’s favor pledged that, if elected, they’d hold the police accountable for such actions.

Gary Schiff, who currently sits on the city council, pledged that he’d change the City Charter so that the police chief would answer not only to the mayor but to the entire city council, a position that candidate Mark Andrew pointedly disagreed with. Others also seemed to disagree with Schiff.

The police, and Mayor Rybak, have also come under fire for carrying out home evictions under the orders of banks and lending companies. Schiff and Jackie Cherryhomes both argued that city police, and public dollars, shouldn’t be used to evict people from their homes. Schiff went so far as to say that banks ought to reimburse the city for the cost of evicting tenants.

Schiff drew applause for his support of the Occupy Homes movement, several of whose members were in the audience. “Occupy Homes is a valuable organization that saves people’s homes every day,” he said.

Mayoral candidates also sought to identify with the audience by recounting their own stories of racial inequality. Cherryhomes said that her husband, who is African American, has been pulled over by police while “driving a nice car.” City Council Member Don Samuels, an African-American who represents the largely black neighborhood of North Minneapolis, said that he “lives in the gap” and wants to “obliterate the gap” under his leadership.

Betsy Hodges, who also serves on the City Council and is considered a mayoral frontrunner, spoke in more general terms when she said that racial equity must be considered within any city economic budget. “I will review budgets with a race-equity lens,” she said.

The audience also asked the eight candidates whether they currently employ a person of color on their staff, and whether they would do so as mayor. The question prompted a round of “diversity bragging.” Mark Andrew said he has two African-American co-chairs and a Pacific Islander as field director. Don Samuels pointed out that he, himself, is an immigrant of African descent.

Appeals were also made to Hispanics in the audience after one questioner identified herself as “a dreamer” (i.e., an advocate for the Dream Act). Betsy Hodges quickly gave a shout-out to CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha), a local Latino workers rights organization. Don Samuels fell flat when he swore that, if elected, he’d hire a Latino and learn Spanish himself.

Questions were also asked early in the debate about how the candidates would invest in the local Somali community, which is largely based in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Rising Somali influence in local politics of late has shown signs of transforming Minneapolis politics.

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