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Minneapolis and St. Paul: Trying Times for Two Leaders

The Twin Cities have always been alike in some ways, very different in others. Their mayors reflect the differences and similar monumental challenges.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. “The job that I had as mayor for my first two years in office and the job of mayor in the last two is not the same job. It goes without saying, but George Floyd’s murder has changed me, and certainly our city, forever.”
(David Joles/Star Tribune)
The mayor’s press room in Minneapolis City Hall looks over the Government Plaza light rail stop in the still COVID-hollowed heart of downtown. Life is slowly returning to this city that’s seen more than its share of turmoil these two long years. But that isn’t much in evidence on a rainy spring afternoon, as Mayor Jacob Frey appears behind a podium in a sharply cut dark blue suit.

Frey, who is 40 years old, is talking up his plans for the future of Minneapolis government. When he was re-elected to his second term last year, a ballot initiative was passed to concentrate more power in the mayor’s office. Another, associated with the call to “defund police,” did not have his endorsement and failed.

“It’s a moment not to work in poetry, but in prose,” says Frey, as a portrait of his long-ago predecessor Hubert Humphrey looks on from a corner. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this particular moment today. This is perhaps the most important thing that I will ever do as mayor and we need to get it right.”

Frey’s proposal would create a four-person cabinet to help the mayor better handle the city bureaucracy, which previously had to answer to the city council too. It would also create a new all-purpose office of public safety. All this will, he hopes, assuage frayed confidence in local government.

These past two years have been tough on American cities, and none more so than Minneapolis. After seeing a February 2020 peak of almost 220,000 workers, downtown emptied out with the rest of America’s urban centers. Then on May 25, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, and the city exploded.

In a year of dramatic protests and outbreaks of violence around the country, none were more sensational than those in Frey’s city. The city council was one of the only political bodies in America to clearly embrace the “Defund Police” slogan. Violent crime went up, as it did elsewhere. Then the 2021 elections turned ugly, although Frey beat two challengers who attacked him from the left.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter spoke during the DFL Election Night Watch Party.
(Star Tribune/LEILA NAVIDI/Star Tribune/Star)
Meanwhile, down the river in St. Paul, Melvin Carter breezed into his second mayoral term with no substantial opponents. He shares many challenges with Frey, including a spike in violent crime and homelessness, a hobbled downtown, and a shortage of affordable housing. Public safety and rent regulation are at the top of both men’s agendas.

“In many ways, the job these past two years has been different, harder, more stressful, more traumatic than the job I signed up for,” says the 43-year-old Carter. “At the same time, the crises that we’ve experienced have birthed opportunities that we’ve never experienced before.”

Minnesota’s Twin Cities are facing many of the same problems and opportunities, fueled by federal aid, as other plague-stricken American metropolises. How they rebuild in the wake of extreme duress could be a signpost for America’s urban recovery — or its failure.

Frey and Carter were first elected in a very different political moment. Both were on their city councils when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and both ran for mayor the next year, at the beginning of an electoral backlash against the excesses of the Republican administration. The 2017 elections made both city councils more left-leaning and less focused on parochial district-level concerns.

“We’re going to look back and see that the high watermark for progressives was 2017 and 2018,” says Kendal Killian, a Minneapolis political consultant. “There’s frustration on the left about not being able to move things at the federal level and using cities as a laboratory to get momentum.”

In 2016 and 2017, both cities passed paid family leave ordinances, then under their new mayors secured $15 minimum wage laws as well. In Minneapolis, wage theft protections were implemented and extended to cover freelancers. Rental protections were enacted. The city won national attention for a zoning code change that allowed triplexes to be built wherever single-family homes are allowed. In St. Paul, library late fines were eliminated and college savings accounts created for children born in the city.

Despite these similar recent trajectories, there are long-standing distinctions between the two cities. Minneapolis is higher-profile, flashier, with a historically more robust downtown that is home to corporate giants such as Wells Fargo and Target. St. Paul is the state capital, a long-time union town with a history of consensus-driven politics.

There were stark differences between the mayors too. Carter is a fifth-generation resident of St. Paul who has been involved in Democratic Farmer Labor Party activism since his mother ran for school board. Frey, who grew up in Virginia, first experienced the Twin Cities region as a competitive marathon runner. Upon retiring from the sport, he relocated to Minneapolis and began his meteoric rise.

Then 2020 hit.

“The job that I had as mayor for my first two years in office and the job of mayor in the last two is not the same job,” says Frey. “It goes without saying, but George Floyd’s murder has changed me, and certainly our city, forever.”

It’s grimly ironic that 2020’s worst conflagrations over racial justice took place in the Twin Cities, with its history of civil rights victories. Minneapolis was among the first places in the country to abolish restrictive racial covenants and establish fair employment laws. Mayor Hubert Humphrey did more than any other politician to steer the national Democratic Party away from Jim Crow.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, regional policies to counterbalance white flight were adopted. Housing and education desegregation efforts were among the nation’s strongest. NBC News calculated that in “the 1993-94 school year, less than one percent of Black students in the Minneapolis region attended highly segregated public schools.”

But as the nation moved in a conservative direction, the Democratic Party tempered its support of civil rights for fear of alienating white voters. In the Twin Cities, this occurred as the region grew racially diverse for the first time in modern history. (In 1980, Minneapolis was still over 90 percent white; by 2020 it was 62.9 percent white.)

Formerly strong desegregation policies were worn away as charter schools proliferated and fewer subsidized housing units were built in suburban locations. By 2018, according to NBC, a quarter of Black students attended deeply segregated schools, with far worse educational outcomes.

“If you’re a white person, it’s a hell of a place to live, and Black people used to share some of that,” says Myron Orfield, professor of civil rights at the University of Minnesota. “But we stopped our school integration and housing integration programs. The Democratic Party decided to abandon these programs because they felt they were going to be costly to them.”

Today, racial disparities in the Twin Cities are stark. A lower percentage of African Americans own their homes than in any other metropolitan area in America. The Black poverty rate in 2020 was four times the white poverty rate.

George Floyd’s murder also occurred in a city where high-profile police killings of Black men had recently shaken the region. In 2015, Jamar Clark was shot to death while handcuffed. Black Lives Matter protests swept the city and an activist encampment at a neighborhood police station was shot up by white supremacists. Eight months later, Philando Castile was killed in a St. Paul suburb after alerting officers to a legal handgun on his person.

The city was primed to blow. In the hours after Floyd had the life choked out of him, the video of his death quickly made its way around the city, the country and the world.

The Reverend Alfred Babington-Johnson, a longtime civil rights advocate in Minneapolis, remembers being called to City Hall with other African American leaders. The gathered advocates pressed Frey and chief of police Medaria Arradondo: Are you going to fire Chauvin and his compatriots who watched him slay Floyd?

“Frey said ‘yes, it’s a matter of fact, I think these guys should be tried for what they’ve done,’” Babington-Johnson remembered. “Chauvin was easiest to fire. I thought maybe a little dicey with the other guys, but he [the chief] went full bore and the mayor stood with him. I came away from that with a sense of respect for the mayor. Frey showed up appropriately in that moment.”

Floyd’s death triggered massive peaceful protest but also violent unrest. The images of fiery buildings in Minneapolis’ southern neighborhoods were of a piece with the iconic photographs of Watts burning in 1965 or the 1991 unrest that gripped Los Angeles. The 3rd Police Precinct, in south Minneapolis, was razed. In St. Paul, 300 businesses were damaged, but the scale of the upheaval did not compare.
The Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct is set on fire during a third night of protests following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, on Thursday, May 28, 2020. George Floyd’s murder occurred in a city where high-profile police killings of Black men had recently shaken the region.
(Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
The Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) response was heavy handed and, arguably, fueled a violent backlash. An “after action review” published in March 2022 found that officers routinely used violent means to disperse crowds when they had an opportunity for dialogue. Within MPD’s ranks it was widely recognized that the response went poorly. “The City’s response exacerbated the mistrust that some residents felt toward the City and the MPD,” the report concluded.

On June 7, 2020, a majority of the City Council assembled in Powderhorn Park and pledged before a vast crowd to “defund police.” Frey was quickly divided from them as he refused to embrace the concept, even when pushed to do so by a large crowd gathered in front of his home.

The intimate style of Twin Cities politics — where many local officials have little staff and no security, and their addresses are often widely known — began to take on an ominous salience. Politicians, including Frey, saw their homes vandalized, and experienced a surge in threats. Some council members who stood up in Powderhorn Park declined to run for re-election or were defeated in the 2021 election.

By comparison, St. Paul looked enviably stable. It has the strong-mayor system common to most American cities, giving Carter clearer lines of control during an emergency. He enjoyed a stronger grip on the levers of bureaucracy and comfortably wielded power during 2020. It helped that national attention was focused on Minneapolis.

“St. Paul has been in a really different position because they weren’t at the center of the storm,” says Michelle Phelps, professor of the sociology of punishment at the University of Minnesota. “They’ve had the flexibility, being out of the spotlight, to be able to innovate. They seemingly have a much more productive relationship between the mayor and the city council, as opposed to the hostility and more or less explicit war in Minneapolis.”

St. Paul also lacked the recent history of police tensions that Minneapolis suffered. Carter’s legitimacy among the Black community and the police department was bolstered by his family history of civic prominence. In 2018, Carter ordered a reset of use-of-force policies by police.

But the police department reputation for de-escalatory tactics, which paid off in 2020, predates that reform push. The department hasn’t performed a no-knock warrant since 2016. This controversial practice, in which police barge into a home unannounced in search of a suspect, is commonplace in Minneapolis and recently resulted in tragedy. “The work that we did on the front end really helped us,” says Carter.

In the wake of their re-elections, the two mayors are in very different places. In Minneapolis, many of the councilmembers to Frey’s left are gone. But tension lingers. In the neighborhoods surrounding Floyd’s memorial, there are still lawn signs reading “Jacob Go Home.” At a meeting of young Democratic Farmer Labor members in St. Paul it’s hard to find someone to say a good word about him. Carter, by contrast, is celebrated.

More conservative factions aren’t thrilled with Frey either. “In the past, the police knew the mayor had their back,” says Gregg Corwin, a longtime lawyer for the Minneapolis Police Federation. “He surrendered to the mob and let the 3rd Precinct burn. This guy is too young, too inexperienced, he’s not decisive. It’s a leadership crisis.”

As Frey’s new term got going, a teacher strike paralyzed the school system, while similar tensions in St. Paul were resolved amiably. In a more ghastly turn of events, Minneapolis police killed a Black man named Amir Locke in February during a no-knock raid to execute a warrant for a St. Paul homicide investigation. Carter’s police department did not ask for a no-knock raid, but the MPD refused to go forward without one.

For Frey, the incident shone harsh light on statements he made during the re-election campaign that claimed he’d banned the practice. But the Star Tribune reported that in the month before Locke’s death MPD executed more no-knock warrants than normal ones. “You said you’re doing this and you didn’t really do it?” says Babington-Johnson, the civil rights leader who endorsed Frey last year. “At this point, I think there’s a certain squinted look at the mayor.”

In early April Frey announced an actual ban on the no-knock practice, with caveats for “exigent” circumstances. But paired with the teacher strike, Locke’s killing — which officers will not be charged for — got Frey’s second term off to a rocky start.

For Frey, re-shaping the city government is a chance to change the narrative. The new governance model, in his telling, could be a solution to some of the ills that have dogged the city. It’s a chance to put his mark on a challenge Minneapolis mayors have been confronting since 1900.

“This is historic,” Frey said at a March news conference. “A new form of government that has clarity, consistency, and ultimately delivers better city service. This has never been done. Hubert Humphrey tried to do it, didn’t get it done.”

Frey’s proposal would create a four-member cabinet reporting directly to the mayor in a bid to create clearer lines of command. It would also establish an Office of Community Safety, with the police and fire departments, along with violence-prevention workers, under its aegis. This kind of strong mayor system, with less council control, mirrors critiques of the city’s 2020 response. The after-action report blamed the “decentralized structure of Minneapolis government” and the “lack of coordination of the city government departments” for inept public communications.

“The previous system was a total mess,” says Frey. “Every department essentially had 14 bosses. That’s not a good structure for clear accountability. The very first question always asked [when he made a decision in the first term] was ‘what's the council going to do?’”

Even with the promise of more power, the issues on Frey’s plate are daunting. There’s the future of downtown, the search for a new police chief, and the question of rent regulations (of which Frey is skeptical).

In St. Paul, Carter is enacting one of the strongest rent regulation policies in the country. It does not exempt new construction from rent ceilings, which has caused developers to temporarily freeze work on thousands of units.

“We can all agree that few issues have caused greater confusion in St. Paul,” said Emmett Coleman, a consultant who sits on the Board of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, at a forum on rent control. “I cannot think of any policies that have had such an immediate impact on the overall confidence and willingness to invest in the city.”

Coleman’s strong words introduced Mayor Carter to the Zoom chat full of aggravated business leaders. But the following exchange never devolved into acrimony. Instead, Carter talked of consensus. He had put together a working group to discuss the final form of the rent regulation — just as he had with the $15 minimum wage (fully phased in by 2028) and police reform.

On rent control, Carter is in the position of ratcheting down a policy he is sympathetic towards. But he argues that his changes to the voter-enacted policy would help the city mirror its peers: new construction is exempt from controls in most American cities that have them.

Carter is also insistent that rent regulation cannot alone bring affordability. He wants the city to build enough new units to accommodate the new people moving in. Unlike Minneapolis, which is still almost 20 percent below its demographic peak, St. Paul is just a few thousand short of its largest population.

As part of this effort, St. Paul eliminated mandatory parking minimums. Next Carter wants to streamline the regulatory and permitting process to allow developers to build more quickly. He’s contemplating massive changes to liberalize zoning laws too.

“Minneapolis took a really bold step a couple of years ago, eliminating single-family zoning,” says Carter. He wants to move in the same direction, and has assigned the Planning Commission to study paths forward.

Despite their differences, Frey and Carter face similar challenges. The most recent census numbers show declines in the populations of both St. Paul (311,000) and Minneapolis (429,000), while their downtowns continue to lag. Can the cities simultaneously make people feel safe and grow their economies, while providing for those left out of the 21st century urban resurgence? Is there the political will to bring back the fruits of integration and broad-based prosperity?

“All this fancy stuff [of the 21st century urban revival] hasn’t been captured to help people in the neighborhoods, close these gaps, and pay for stuff in the schools,” says Killian, the political consultant. “A lot of people have made a lot of money and a lot of people very nearby are struggling. We’ve never really found a way in our liberal politics in the DFL to square that circle.”

That tension is part of a longstanding question in urban governance that’s long tilted towards tax breaks and mega projects to lure outside investment. For critics like Killian, the fruits of that strategy fueled 2020’s incendiary conditions. This was a difficult quandary before the pandemic, when politicians such as Frey and Carter tried to assuage it with pro-labor policies and marginal housing affordability programs. Now the two must tackle these questions in the face of historic uncertainty.

During the Chamber of Commerce forum on rent control, Carter tried to answer that challenge. Policies like the $15 minimum wage and rent control would send a strong message, he argued, while the unique benefits of city life could continue to secure business investment.

“Our traditional approaches to city building were centered around…essentially, writing checks to get people to move here from Minneapolis, or Wisconsin, or Miami,” said Carter. “Our community members resent that. This [rent control] is part of an effort I think of as betting on ourselves.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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