Every Monday, I listen to the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast where editors and reporters dive into the week’s news and trends through a data-driven lens.
On April 8, the group discussed Clare Malone’s fascinating feature story, “A Tale of Two Suburbs,” about how race and class is dividing cities’ political geography.
The podcast discussion focused on future political divides, including homeowner versus renter. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, we see this divide every week: at neighborhood meetings, at zoning and planning meetings, and on the local campaign trail.
Malone’s FiveThirtyEight story describes how the history along both sides of the Cuyahoga River helped to determine current politics in Cleveland. This reminded me of my local Ward 3 in Minneapolis, which is bisected by the Mississippi River — and saw very different politics in the 2017 election on the west side, Downtown, versus the east side, including Northeast and Southeast.
To understand how each candidate campaigned in 2017, it helps to start with the cultural geography of Ward 3.
Taking a walk through today and yesterday
Starting in the 1st Precinct, on the east bank, to the east of I-35W, many student renters are squeezed between student loans and high rent. Moving northwest along the river, the historic neighborhood of Marcy-Holmes has many homeowners who are frustrated with landlords who don’t keep up their properties. Tension exists in the Southeast area among homeowners, landlords and renters. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Marcy-Holmes is $890 per month, according to Rentometer.
The 3rd Precinct, which includes Nicollet Island and the Central-Hennepin (CenHen) area, has seen significant new construction of rental apartments, with more being completed after the 2017 election. Historic, luxury homes sit on Park Board land on Nicollet Island. On the east bank are high-rise condos next to low-rise townhomes. One high-rise, The Falls and Pinnacle, built in 1983, has 257 units, and has units for sale ranging from $165,000 for a studio to $400,000 for a three-bedroom. The condo association’s website boasts that residents can “experience ‘Nordeast’ Minneapolis.”
The moniker “Nordeast” refers to the cultural history of the area around the turn of the 20th century, when northern and eastern European immigrants influenced the culture of the area. Some of that remains, in the names of places, the churches, and the delis and restaurants.
In the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,626 per month, according to Rentometer.
My own great-grandfather was one of those immigrants. He served in the last days of the Great War. He put down roots in Northeast and ran a distillery in his attic during prohibition. My grandfather, at grade-school age, operated the still and periodically “tested quality.” The Minneapolis police busted my great-grandfather, but with the help of business connections to a politician-lawyer, he was freed the same day.
That moniker of “Nordeast” can be exclusionary, however. In my time door-knocking the neighborhood for candidates, some residents told me they appreciate the community being homogeneous, or white. Some in the 5th and 6th Precincts in Northeast said they wished the Lowry Avenue Bridge to North Minneapolis would stay closed, as it was at that time for renovation.
On the west side of the river, in Downtown, Interstate 94 wraps the neighborhoods in a concrete river, creating an island divided from the neighborhoods on the other sides of the freeway. Downtown has benefited from most of the development dollars invested in the city over the last several years, and new luxury apartments or condos are coming online every few months. The neighborhood associations for the most part have welcomed the new mid-rise and high-rise buildings, although some have griped recently about how one new building on a strip by the Mills Fleet Farm parking garage by U.S. Bank Stadium will block their view of the Downtown skyline.
The rapid pace of development has created an alliance between long-term renters and condo-owners. As long as the development boom continues, rent increases have stayed low — and more retail and dining is opening up. In Downtown East, within an area known as the Mill District, is a new Trader Joe’s, whose private-label staples are cheaper than the Hennepin Avenue Whole Foods or the Lunds & Byerlys across the river in CenHen. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Downtown East is $2,103, according to Rentometer.
On the other side of Hennepin is the North Loop. Different mapping programs label areas differently, but for me the heart of the North Loop are three streets: North First Street, North Second Street and Washington Avenue North from Hennepin Avenue to Plymouth Avenue North. The area is known for its warehouses that have been converted to luxury rentals and condos. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,750, according to Rentometer.
The candidates in 2017
Four major candidates ran for City Council in Minneapolis Ward 3 in 2017: Tim Bildsoe (DFL, not endorsed), Steve Fletcher (DFL, endorsed, who ultimately was elected), Ginger Jentzen (Socialist-Alternative) and Samantha Pree-Stinson (Green). All four had unique bases of support along issue and class lines.
Ginger Jentzen (Socialist-Alternative)
Ginger Jentzen was executive director of the $15 Now group that pushed Minneapolis to adopt a $15 minimum wage. Her well-designed website had a checkbox filled on that issue. Unchecked were policy goals of rent control, inclusionary zoning to build more affordable housing, and taxing the rich to fund mass transit and education. Jentzen went to the heart of the class divide in Ward 3, saying in one of her policy planks that, “from rent hikes to unjust foreclosures, working people and young people are being priced out, while new luxury apartments and condos are affordable only to a few.”
Jentzen’s policy prescription to the challenge of high rents included lobbying the state legislature to end preemption against local rent control ordinances, “linkage fees” that operate similar to park dedication fees, but for affordable housing, and building new public housing funded locally by taxes on private developers.
While Jentzen’s campaign positioned itself as a resistance against the Trump administration and its policies, the messaging of the campaign did react to similar sentiments among its base. Jentzen, not unlike Trump, refused to take political contributions from “corporate executives and big developers”, pledging that she was “not for sale,” and also pledged to donate a portion of her council member salary to “building social movements.” Trump also promised to donate his entire salary to charity, and so far has kept that promise.
A clearer national comparison to Jentzen is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The base for his “political revolution” overlaps the base for her own. Jentzen’s local platform planks mirror his, including challenging corporate power and increasing funding for public education.
Jentzen spoke to the struggles of the renter class. Her base of support included University of Minnesota students and those feeling priced out by increasing rents on the east side of the river. In the end, she earned the most first-choice votes, but the precincts where she had pluralities were all on the east side of the river, including “Nordeast,” East Bank and Marcy-Holmes. Her best precinct was closest to the University.
In the November election, Jentzen earned 33.3 percent of first-choice votes but lost the election because Fletcher earned significantly more second- and third-choice votes through the ranked choice process.
Steve Fletcher (DFL, endorsed)
Steve Fletcher started his career in technology and community organizing. After a career in technology services, he was executive director of Minnesota 2020, a “progressive, new media, non-partisan think tank” where he wrote against Teach For America and in favor for initiatives that advanced public school teachers from within, such as Illinois’ “Grow Your Own” program. He was also a research consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
In 2010, Fletcher was the founding executive director of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) and became most well known locally for this work. NOC’s work started in South Minneapolis after the closure of ACORN, but after the 2011 tornado in North Minneapolis, the organization expanded into new neighborhoods.
In 2017, Fletcher ran on a DFL base platform. On affordable housing, he supported increased density of market-rate development, inclusionary zoning to build more affordable units and protecting naturally occurring affordable housing. Unlike Jentzen, he was not in favor of rent control. On transportation, he was in favor of moving the city toward a more “car-free” culture with transportation options that made living without a vehicle possible.
On May 6, 2017, Fletcher won the DFL endorsement after the second candidate seeking endorsement, Cordelia Pierson, withdrew and endorsed Fletcher after the first round of voting at the convention. After the DFL endorsement, Fletcher secured more endorsements from DFL- and union-connected groups, boasting 15 organization and media endorsements in the end. (Disclosure: I was the chair of credentials at the convention, but did not endorse a candidate.)
Fletcher threaded the needle between supporting development and supporting affordable housing and renters’ rights. In the November election, he drew support with both first- and second-choice votes from across the ward. Even though he was not first in first-choice votes, through the process of ranked choice, he won the election for City Council.
In the November election, Fletcher earned 27.4 percent of first-choice votes, and won the election with second- and third-choice votes through the ranked choice process.
Tim Bildsoe (DFL, not endorsed)
Tim Bildsoe entered the race for City Council on August 15, 2017. He was president of the North Loop neighborhood association, a neighborhood of Ward 3 that had seen significant new development. Before moving to Minneapolis, he served 16 years on the Plymouth City Council, first representing the 1st Ward and later as an at-large council member in the suburb of nearly 80,000.
Entering the race in August after the caucus and endorsement process was complete, Bildsoe earned no endorsements from DFL- or union-connected groups, but he did gain support from real estate and developer interests. As president of a neighborhood association, Bildsoe was highly tuned to the needs of homeowners in the North Loop and Downtown. In the November election, he would earn the third-most first-choice votes, but earn the plurality of such votes for all precincts but one on the west side of the Mississippi River.
Bildsoe appeared on the November ballot as a DFL candidate. In the homeowner versus renter divide, he was firmly on the side of homeowners with a pro-development, “neighborhood advocate” platform.
In the November election, Bildsoe earned 25.8 percent of first-choice votes and was the second major candidate to be eliminated in the ranked-choice process.
Samantha Pree-Stinson (Green, endorsed)
Samantha Pree-Stinson began the campaign as a DFL candidate but later received the Green Party endorsement and appeared on the ballot as a Green candidate. She was an educator and associate director of education for Corinthian Colleges and served in Afghanistan as a combat medic sergeant. Her top issues were political reform and education, tying into her past career at Corinthian.
In the November election, Pree-Stinson earned 10.2 percent of first-choice votes and was the first major candidate to be eliminated in the ranked-choice process.
Visualizing the results
Three candidates won pluralities in Ward 3 precincts: Jentzen, Fletcher and Bildsoe. If the election were held as plurality vote (winner-take-all), or something similar to the national electoral college, Jentzen would be council member today. But since 2009, Minneapolis elections have had a ranked-choice process where voters select first, second and third choices, and their one vote is allocated in a process of elimination to preferred candidates with the most votes.
Where this ranked-choice process led was determined in large measure by what the second choices of candidates’ supporters were. After the elimination of write-in first-choices, the candidate with the least number of votes was Pree-Stinson. Check out all the data here, including a record of all votes with ranked choices. Over 38 percent of her voters chose Fletcher as their second choice, and nearly 30 percent chose Jentzen. When Pree-Stinson was eliminated, 389 votes moved to Fletcher and 298 votes moved to Jentzen.
The second and last major candidate to be eliminated was Tim Bildsoe because he had the least number of votes after the first rounds of elimination. Over 59 percent of Bildsoe’s supporters had Fletcher as their second choice, and only 7 percent had Jentzen as their second choice. When Bildsoe was eliminated, 1,508 votes moved to Fletcher, but only 181 moved to Jentzen. Note that 8.7 percent of Bildsoe first-choice voters had Pree-Stinson as second choice. With Pree-Stinson eliminated earlier, those votes moved to the third choice. Of the people who chose Bildsoe first and Pree-Stinson second, an additional 131 votes went to Fletcher and 32 votes went to Jentzen. Check out all the data here.
When all the votes were processed and tallied, those second- and third-choice votes won the 2017 election for Fletcher. When the first-choices were first tallied, Fletcher was in second place, behind Jentzen by 585 votes. After Pree-Stinson and Bildsoe were eliminated and second- and third-choice votes were moved to Fletcher and Jentzen, Fletcher was in first place, ahead of Jentzen by 1,017 votes. Check out all the data here.
Lessons for the future
The homeowner versus renter divide is becoming a strong current in urban politics. From Twitter accounts like Wedge LIVE, to community groups like Sustain Ward 3 (St. Paul) and Neighbors for More Neighbors, organizers are responding to community demand on issues facing renters. We have also seen homeowners take up arms, often by fighting back against transit construction or zoning changes, to prevent projects that could benefit renters and depress property values.
In the future, we should not be surprised to see more candidates like Jentzen across the cities. But we should also not be surprised when second- or third-ranking candidates win in ranked-choice elections. In winner-take-all elections, however, we could very well have more Socialist Alternative or other third-party candidates win in urban districts for state representative or state senate a larger number of major candidates are in the race.
What do you see in the nature of your local politics? Has ranked choice led to upset wins in your area? What elections system would you prefer? Share your observations and opinions in the comments.