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:
- In 2015, the council passed zoning reform that slashed parking minimums around high frequency transit and profoundly shaped an entire building cycle of new development.
- In 2016, the council passed an ordinance mandating that employers provide employees with sick time off, the necessity of which has only been underlined by the pandemic.
- In 2017, the council set the city’s minimum wage on a path to $15, one of the first cities in America to take this step.
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.
- In 2019, the council passed one of the country’s strongest protections against wage theft.
- A few months later, the council passed a strong bill of tenant protections.
- At the end of that year, the council passed the groundbreaking Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, which shattered the taboo of single family zoning and sparked a national debate.
- Through the implementation of that plan, the council also approved a first-class transportation action plan, abolished parking minimums, and re-legalized single-room occupancy housing.
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.