Assessing the Legacy of Minneapolis’s Progressive Urbanist City Council

The 2021 general election is over. All across the country it was a deeply divisive and angry campaign and the results reflected that dismal process. In Minneapolis, it was no different. It was a bad time to be earnest about the future. The cynics won in a rout.

Among the losses were four councilmembers, Cam Gordon in Ward 2, Steve Fletcher in Ward 3, Phillipe Cunningham in Ward 4, and Jeremy Schroeder in Ward 11, who—along with their staffs—I think represented the best of local government and the progressive urbanist tradition. Together with retiring Council President Lisa Bender of Ward 10, they came together at a remarkable juncture in Minneapolis history and transformed not just the city, but the landscape of local politics across the country.

I think this is important to say out loud. It is too easy to live in the political moment and not to take stock of the only measure of political success that matters; governance that makes a lasting, positive impact on people’s lives. There will be a new council in January, but there may not be a council that gets as much done for a long time to come.

Eight Years Of Meaningful Action

The wave of progressive change was a long time coming, but it really got into gear in 2013 with the election of Councilmember Bender to join Councilmember Gordon on what was then the council’s left flank. Here’s what happened next:

The next year, Gordon and Bender were joined on the council by Fletcher, Cunningham, Schroeder, and others like Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison of Ward 5 (who survived this past cycle), all of whom unseated or replaced incumbents to their right. Bender was elevated to Council President, and the council was unmistakably under progressive management.

Council President Lisa Bender and Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison with housing activists. (Image courtesy of Bender’s office)

Although this council ultimately lost the debate on public safety in the most recent election, they laid the groundwork for reform well before the murder of George Floyd made it an even greater priority than before. Most notably, in 2018, the Council created the Office of Violence Prevention and launched a study of 9-1-1 calls, two initiatives that will shape the city’s attempts to reform its policing structure in the future.

I know there’s a lot I’m leaving out here. There was a lot of stuff. Many important things didn’t have as wide an impact or get the same news coverage, but nonetheless made a big impact for people (adult-entertainment workers, for example) who don’t normally get a hearing at city hall.

I also don’t want to veer too far into hagiography. There were many times when I wished the council had pushed the envelope more, pulled back in certain areas, or prioritized differently. But what’s done is done. And what was done adds up to a remarkable legacy of achievement.

A Practical Progressive Consensus

In the United States, cities typically may only exercise the powers that state government grants them. As a result, cities have rarely been considered as promising vehicles for social change. The typical job of a local government is patching potholes, plowing streets, and maintaining other such essential services.

Then in the late 2000’s and 2010’s, as the federal government started to become more ineffective and “blue” cities began to drift apart politically from surrounding “red” states, it become fashionable to speak about cities being at the forefront of policy change. But all too often this talk was only that.

Minneapolis’ outgoing council put those words into action. Whereas previous council terms were distinguished by which sports venues or development boondoggles they subsidized, in these past eight years—and especially the last four—the Minneapolis City Council vaulted the city to the vanguard of American local governance. At the moment, the city has among the most progressive land use, transportation, and labor policies in the country. For those of us who live in cities that have seen slower progress, Minneapolis’ example is an inspiration.

This council was progressive in both modern and historic terms. Like the original progressive movement of the early 1900’s, they challenged the city’s reigning establishment and reoriented city governance away from narrow interests towards a broad conception of the public welfare.

This council was also pragmatic. Initiatives that their opponents reflexively painted as radical were often so only because the status quo was so sclerotic. Just like the original progressives, they elevated the social sciences as a critical tool for policy development and analysis. Policies like the city’s tenant protections and inclusionary zoning, whether you thought they went too far or not far enough, were informed and shaped by research and a good faith attempt to balance competing interests.

It is notable that so much of this ambitious agenda was enacted through unanimous, or near-unanimous votes. Progressives never held a clear and commanding majority on the council. But the council’s progressives drove the agenda and brought their colleagues along (and often St. Paul, 6 to 12 months later). This is how so much was achieved even before the progressive wave in the 2017 elections. This is why the outgoing council’s legacy is a legacy still shared by almost all of the council’s surviving incumbents and the incumbent mayor. This is what makes it durable.

The council’s progressives have also influenced the city’s day-to-day work in a way that is lasting. At a public meeting that I once attended, Hennepin County commissioner Marion Greene once analogized Hennepin to a ‘big ship’ that can take a long time to turn around. The same metaphor applies to Minneapolis. In all large organizations there is a powerful inertia behind ‘The Way Things Are Done Here’. That’s usually a negative thing, but it doesn’t have to be if that ‘way’ is a good one.

To take one example, in terms of street design, the city’s public works department has produced many designs for projects in the past decade, slowly moving more and more towards prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. This is a long process that can be frustrating because completed projects reflect the design thinking of several years prior. But the projects being completed now are at a high standard.

An accumulated weight of city policies now point in the same direction. An entire generation of planners and engineers in the city have now been inspired, recruited, hired, and trained in this new milieu. In Minneapolis, the council’s progressives pushed policies which have turned around the ‘big ship’ on street design and other issues.

The Coming Term

In the 2021 election, Minneapolis voters elected new councilmembers with remarkably little experience in city government—some of whom did not seem to even understand basic details of how it functions during the campaign. These new councilmembers will sit for only two years before a new election is held with different wards. In addition, the political power of the council will be weakened through the implementation of the “Strong Mayor” policy passed through Question 1.

Minneapolis voters were also polarized. Some wards lurched back towards the pre-progressive status quo, with candidates who promised solutions plainly inadequate to the problems they ostensibly target. Other wards grasped for a post-progressive vision, embracing candidates who pushed miracle cures above the level of one municipality to implement. And by-in-large, the council’s incumbent center faction were the movers, but not the shakers, of the outgoing council.

It’s hard not to see the conditions for conflict and stasis; lots of talk and little action. It should be a council strong on vibes but light on action, in sharp contrast to the councils of the past eight years.

But because of that progress and its inertia, so much critical work has already been done and so much positive change is going to continue unfolding. There is no going back.

In less than a decade, Minneapolis became a national leader in city policy through the assiduous work of its local leaders. Their work ran along lines that I think of as fundamental to progressive urbanism, because they reinforced the best of what makes a forward-looking city. They acted to increase housing abundance, expand transportation access, erode social segregation, and give every resident a fair shot at the prosperity that has been the calling card of urban places for nearly six millennia. They governed with future residents in mind, not just current ones, and they governed with governance in mind, not just politics. In all of this, they set a mark for cities across the country.

It’s not fun to see that era come to something of a close, but in fact, I don’t think it has been closed. For years still to come, Minneapolis will be a city that this past council indelibly shaped. To paraphrase one of humanity’s least welcome pieces of advice, don’t dwell on how it ended, celebrate how it happened.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

24 thoughts on “Assessing the Legacy of Minneapolis’s Progressive Urbanist City Council

  1. Sheldon Gitis

    If I’m not mistaken, the idiotic US Bank Football Stadium, as well as numerous other boondoggles, including the hideous Central Corridor Project and horrendous expansions of 35W and I94 through the City, overlapped the tenures of your City Council heroes. Of course, when multinational conglomerates like AECOM increase their enormous wealth while sucking on the public teat, it’s all good for folks like Alex.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      As a matter of clarification about US Bank Stadium, the City Council approved the plan in 2012, just before the period that I profile here.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I completely agree. I’ve been following CP Bender since she first ran for office (and interviewed her on this site, no less). Along with CM Gordon and many others at City Hall, they’ve done some amazing work on both housing and transportation that put Minneapolis in a very good place on those issues today. Few cities in the country can match their record. I only wish we had pushed the needle farther on transit mode share… So many of these problems are regional, and Minneapolis can only do so much.

  3. Richard Kelly

    That’s all well and good for white people… POC suffered from the council’s lack of understanding of that segment of the population .. CM Gordon over all clueless, Cunningham was a disaster .. Bender leaves office hated.. by damn near everyone…. Cano .. hides.. Jenkins lies… etc..etc…

      1. Jimmy Theronos

        You might be missing the reality of displeasure from her constituents and the rest Minneapolis. And beyond. A complete failure as a council member in many minds.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          The recent results from her district leave little doubt that had she run again, she would’ve been reelected easily.

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            That’s nonsense.

            You could have said the same thing about the results of the Ward 2 contest had Gordon decided not to run again. If anything, Gordon was more popular in his ward than Bender in hers.

            Just as Gordon lost in a close 3-way contest, the same could have happended to Bender, only it may not have been as close.

  4. Felix

    I’m not sure this mob is as smart as you think they are. Beyond a bit of lip service to defunding the police they completely failed to advance, fund, identify, or implement any meaningful programs to lead to a reduction in violence. Thereby, allowing themselves to be completely outmaneuvered by the right-wing police Union and setting back the cause of police reform a great deal.

    The trickle-down approach to affordable housing means an explosion of unregulated gentrification and luxury apartment development. The fallacy of this approach is clearly illustrated by a parallel explosion of homelessness. How is it that we are simultaneously advancing gentrification and urban blight?

    Does the upper harbor terminal qualify as a development boondoggle yet? Or is there some kind of statute of limitations on this that hasn’t kicked in yet?

    These council members use the language of progressive politics to advance an agenda that primarily benefits only the city bureaucracy and corporate development interests. Decades of prosperity squandered on bike lanes, stadiums, and luxury development very little of which actually benefits the majority of the residents of Minneapolis.

    1. Monte Castleman

      So, what would your approach to affordable housing be?

      You can’t force private developers to build anything that they don’t want to, and they don’t want to build affordable housing. If you simply ban luxury apartments in the city they’ll be building luxury apartments in the suburbs instead. And meanwhile some of the people that would live in those luxury apartments are outbidding people for the supply of existing apartments. And we won’t have any NOAH to come online in the decades to follow. What if people told the Drake Hotel developers not to build it because they needed affordable housing instead of luxury housing, and were opposed gentrification, back in 1926?

      As government trying to build affordable housing, that got us Cabrini Green.

  5. Daniel ChomaDan

    Dude, Chavez is a former state legislative aide. For my money, that’s 10x the experience of being a City Planner in San Francisco. State Legislative Aides actually know how law and coalitions work. City Planners only know a tiny sub-category of law which relates to property and real estate.

    Let’s read that writing on the wall: It’s incredibly racist to predict 3 very well qualified young people of color are gonna be “strong on vibes but light on action.” This article is disgusting, Alex.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      It’s interesting that you decided to misread what I wrote and get mad about it.

      I specifically did not name any councilmember-elect when I wrote that in general the newcomers lacked experience in city government and sometimes seemed unclear about what it does and can do. This is because that judgement applies as much to the Senior Caucus-aligned CMs-elect as it does to the DSA-aligned ones. CM-elect Rainville suggested that he could personally go to the Capitol and get gun reform passed. CM-elect Koski repeatedly seemed confused about what rent stabilization was and whether or not she was for it or against it.

      The specific line you take issue with has more meaning when placed in context. My argument is that the next council will be more polarized, with councilmembers (Rainville and Koski probably chief among them) who ran campaigns based more on vibes than on a specific policy agenda. Add to that the general inexperience of the group and the lack of clear policy champions among many of the incumbents, and again, I think my prediction is fairly understandable.

      You can disagree with my forecast, but don’t strip one line out of context, present it as meaning something completely different, and then knock it down.
      I can only be held responsible for the things that I wrote. If you’re going to make something up and get mad about it, that’s on you.

    2. Joe Scottjoe

      I interpreted the author’s comments to reflect a lack of experience on the part of both the conservative, and dsa-aligned candidates elected. I definitely thought of Koski flip-flopping on rent control and citing her own naivete. Rainville saying he could get the state legislature to enact gun control is a good example as well. But I live in ward 2 and so therefore paid the most attention to that race, and a candidate who “did not seem to even understand basic details” definitely rang true to me about Worlobah. To give just two examples, in her interview with Wedge live https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5yGH1Fp31A&t=2089s , she brings up that new developments have “floors of housing that are reserved for AirBNB.” When the host John Edwards mentions that he believes the current council recently enacted a rule limiting short-term rentals, she clearly isn’t aware of it, and suggests that he should look into it. I believe if you are running for city council, and especially if you are bringing up specific issues that the current council has acted on, you should probably be familiar with the actions the current council took? Otherwise, how would you know that you’d be any better? Seems like common sense to me.

      Just to show it’s not a one-off thing, in the ward 2 candidate forum hosted by the Lake Street council https://youtu.be/tnQy7YKjKwU?t=572 , someone asks a question about preventing large trucks from parking on residential streets. Worlobah says that the incumbent should use city staff to do research and find alternative parking locations for the trucks. Cam Gordon, who speaks next, goes on to say that they did exactly that, the ordinance banning on street truck parking has been passed and takes effect in January. I don’t have particularly high hopes for a candidate who can’t even be bothered to familiarize themselves with the actions of the current council, but hopefully I’m wrong.

  6. Antonio BackmanAntonio

    Good article Alex. With a more conservative council and a re-elected strong mayor I think there are going to be a number of times over the next two years where we will miss this current council. (I’m still stewing that I am going to be represented by a man who likes throwing homeless people’s sleeping bags into the river) I think it is fair to say they never had a strong bloc of 9 members on all progressive issues but they had enough to create compromises that were good for the city (even if it pissed some people off when it didn’t go far enough). I am excited for Jason, Aisha and Robin but that is tempered by the fact that they are going to be working with Koski, Vetaw, Rainville, Palmisano and Goodman.

  7. F.J. H.

    Not one mention of the scurrilous rise in assaults and killings without a whimper from this band of , while they pondered such weighty concerns as drive-in windows, plastic bags, spending for their own private security forces, etc., etc. What a self-serving article for a band of incompetents.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I think you’ll find that the council had very little say in (1) the pandemic putting lots of people in precarious conditions and (2) the MPD murdering someone and walking out en masse when held accountable for it.

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      A couple corrections:

      First off, “scurrilous” does not mean what you think it means.

      Second, the Mayor controls the police department in Minneapolis and has primary responsibility for public safety in the city. The city council that I wrote about thought they could do a better job and asked the voters to grant them that responsibility. That effort did not succeed, and so the Mayor retains the responsibilities that he held before the election.

      Third, assaults and killings have risen nationwide, in rural, suburban, and urban areas and red, blue, and purple districts. It’s probably unfair to blame any single mayor or city council for what is clearly a national, pandemic-driven trend.

      Fourth, the ban on new drive-thrus and plastic bags both passed in 2019, before the pandemic and when violent crime was near record lows.

      Hope that clears up some of your confusion.

  8. Trent

    I found Lisa Bender to be divisive, often pitting renters, or bikers, or low wage workers against homeowner, or small business owners, or the trifecta: white wealthy single family homeowners. Uptown bore the brunt of this approach with her dismissive approach to concerns of business owners or property owners coming up again and again, most recently during the riots last year and earlier this year. She could never bring herself to sell a compelling vision of how all of Minneapolis could move forward, how these changes were beneficial to the whole city, it was always about her chosen constituency at the expense of others, making it clear that if you were not struggling you did not need a voice at city hall. No better encapsulation of this than her national news moment, when she was still talking “defund the police” and when asked what she would say to people who were worried no one would answer when they called 911, she deflected, claiming that basic expectation “came from a place of privilege” – dismissing one group of constituents needs and priorities to double down on a different group she chose to prioritize. Ironically that cavalier attitude contributed to the defeat of her attempt to pull MPD under city council control and made an otherwise failed mayor look good in comparison to the options.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      The idea that Lisa Bender was divisive is somewhat belied by the fact that so much of her agenda was passed by unanimous or near-unanimous votes on the council. It seems clear to me that she very effectively sold a vision for how Minneapolis could move forward among her colleagues.

      Claims of “divisiveness” are frequently the last refuge of people who have lost a substantive argument. You see people making the same claims that things like vaccine mandates are “divisive” because people know that they cannot argue directly against the vaccines, so they choose instead to pretend that the fault lies in not waiting around until everyone magically agrees. But of course, vaccine mandates enjoy strong public support in poll after poll, and CM Bender won two elections decisively and I think the most recent results make it beyond doubt that had she run again, she would’ve won decisively a third time.

      As for the CNN interview, I’m sure she wishes she had made the point differently. But if you actually watch it in context, her point is very clear that 911 is functionally a privilege because not everyone has an expectation of safety from the police. Her argument was that this is a bad thing and that 911 emergency services should be something that everyone, the privileged and the underprivileged feel comfortable using.

      1. Mike

        And yet, MPLS voters decided to take power away from the council. That’s her real legacy. For the first time ever, MPLS Voters decided they would rather put more power in the hands of the Mayor. When the city was cruising along, and prosperous, happy days for many, Bender and the council took too long planning for homeless services, Public Health outreach (we have a major drug crises that blossomed 5-6 years ago), increasing crime (starting 4-5 years ago), and affordable housing. We did receive large 4over 1s across the city, bike lanes, plastic bag use charges, minimum wage/worker benefits. Over all those years, Bender also did nothing with MPD Reform, UNTIL a good part of the city burned, and many MPLS residents got angry enough to push Council Member off their stools to do something. But, Bender overplayed her hand, on the advice of her activist “community” They told her “Defund, Dismantle, Abolish, Reimagine”, and she repeated it, all the way up to the Yes4Mpls defeat. Bender screwed up, dismissing many MPLS Resident’s safety concerns, while attempting to sell us on a new, completely untested Public Safety response program, that was a Trojan horse for eventual MPD abolition. You are correct however, sadly I think she would have won re election from her true believers in Ward 10.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          In reality, the council opened the office of violence prevention and launched a study of 9-1-1 calls well before the murder of George Floyd, which is something I mentioned in the piece. That was led by CM Cunningham. The council also made an attempt before the murder of George Floyd, led by CM Gordon, to bring the police under more council control, but it did not succeed.

          So it’s just factually inaccurate that the council under Bender’s presidency “did nothing with MPD reform.” Within the limited powers that they had (again, the responsibility for MPD reform rested and still rests with the mayor alone) they laid the groundwork for what is being discussed today.

  9. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    The question for the coming council is who is going to step up and lead? Those unanimous votes were because of the groundwork done in the background to build consensus. Who remains who can get that work done?

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