A socialist analysis of the 2023 Minneapolis city council election
Minneapolis, MN – Police accountability. Rent control. Ending cruel encampment evictions when no shelter is available. A minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers. A city council that doesn’t oppose community initiatives from communities like East Phillips, Little Earth and North Minneapolis.
These are some of the issues at stake with the upcoming Minneapolis city council elections. As the election gets closer, conservative forces in Minneapolis are going into a panic that they might lose control of the city council, and their attacks on the more progressive council incumbents and candidates are getting more shrill and desperate. For example, they’re ridiculously trying to cast the more progressive and socialist candidates as “pro-terrorism’ if they are in any way critical of Israel’s horrifying and genocidal operation against the Palestinian people in Gaza.
On November 7, all 13 Minneapolis city council seats are on the ballot. Early voting has already begun. This year there are no national, state or mayoral elections. Historically when it’s an “off year” election like this with only the city council on the ballot, it will be a very low turnout election.
Why should we care?
As Marxists, we understand that both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist parties. History has shown that the capitalist class won’t let us elect our way to socialism. Given that, should these elections even be of any concern to working-class and oppressed people, and to socialists?
Electoral politics has been and will remain an important realm of political struggle for working-class and oppressed people, to improve our daily lives, to gain a greater measure of political power (especially for oppressed nationality and national minority communities), and to win important reforms.
In the context of capitalism, elections help set the conditions that our movements struggle within. Voting for candidates who are more likely to stand with our movements can be important. In low turnout elections like this one, wealthier, whiter, older and more conservative voters participate in greater numbers. So if working-class, oppressed nationality and younger people ignore the election, we'll end up with a much more conservative city council.
What does the city council do anyway?
The main powers of the Minneapolis city council are to pass ordinances (laws) for the city, and to approve the city’s annual budget. Currently Minneapolis has a nearly $2 billion annual budget that pays for departments like Public Works (roads, infrastructure, etc.); the Office of Community Safety, which includes the police and fire departments; Regulatory Services, and much more. In recent years the Minneapolis city council has passed some ordinances that have made a real difference in working people’s lives, like the $15 minimum wage, earned sick and safe time for all workers, and measures to combat wage theft. The city council didn’t come up with those ideas on their own. It was unions and mass organizations engaging in serious, prolonged struggle that pressured the city council to take action.
Class struggle at City Hall
Just as the country as a whole is becoming more politically polarized, we see increased polarization and struggle between opposing class interests at City Hall.
Mayor Jacob Frey consistently represents and fights for the interests of the rich and powerful – landlords, big developers and big corporations and the police that protect their interests. Like most Democratic Party leaders in big cities, he tries to sell a progressive image to the public, but his actions betray his complete subservience to the rich and powerful.
The city council elections in 2021 created a more politically polarized city council than before. Some of the newly elected council members were more sharply conservative and more fully aligned with the mayor and the powerful interests backing him. But on the other side, a block of council members more sharply to the left were elected as well. Three of them identify as socialists and two others mostly vote with them as a block of five. A few council members in the middle vote with one side or the other depending on the issue.
During the current two-year term, when issues touching on the power of corporations, developers, landlords or police are voted on, the votes are often 8-5. Eight council members are aligned with the mayor and the powerful interests backing him, and five vote against them. On some issues, when mass movements have brought a lot of pressure to bear, like around rent control or the East Phillips Roof Depot struggle or minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers, one or two council members have flipped and the votes have been 7-6 in one direction or the other.
This situation means that if two or more council seats flip in this election from more conservative to more progressive members, it would flip the council from an 8-5 majority aligned with the corporations, developers, landlords and cops, to at least a 7-6 majority potentially willing to challenge their power. There are multiple competitive races where those flips could realistically happen.
The issues in play – from police accountability to rent control to encampment response to minimum wage for gig workers – matter deeply to working-class and oppressed people in Minneapolis. So it’s worth voting for the candidates who are more likely to stand with the people's movements.
Let’s look at some of the races in a little more detail.
Ward 10: Aisha Chughtai runs for reelection against two conservative challengers
Aisha Chughtai won election for the first time in 2021 in Ward 10, which is 80% renters and is heavily working class and multinational with many young people. She ran openly as a socialist and foregrounded her experience as a union organizer and immigrant rights activist. She’s the first Muslim woman and the youngest person ever elected to the Minneapolis city council.
Her leadership on issues like rent control, police accountability, and standing up to the mayor and business interests, have led two conservative candidates to try to unseat her. One is a cop, Nasri Warsame, who’s main issue seems to be wanting more police. He gained infamy, and may have torpedoed his ability to win, when video went viral of his supporters rushing the stage to attack Aisha Chughtai and her supporters at this summer’s DFL nominating convention. Another person also jumped into the race at the last minute to challenge Chughtai: Bruce Dachis. His sparse website also focuses on his desire for more police, echoes the mayor’s dishonest talking points about encampments, and represents his interests as a developer.
The more conservative forces in the city want to get Aisha Chughtai out of office because they recognize her ability to successfully advance policies that benefit working people and challenge the powerful. Her deep ties to grassroots organizations and unions, her organizing experience, and her firm socialist principles mean that she’s a formidable opponent for them.
Our movements must support Aisha’s reelection. She’s a powerful voice on the council for police accountability and community control of the police, for rent control and other renter protections, for climate justice and in favor of community initiatives like the East Phillips Urban Farm, for public housing and for housing the unhoused who are currently living in encampments, for increased funding for immigrant rights and abortion rights. These are some issues she has led on in her first term.
Ward 8: Council President Andrea Jenkins vs. Soren Stevenson
Council President Andrea Jenkins was the first Black trans woman elected to office in the U.S. She essentially has run unopposed twice. But her votes on key issues have more often than not lined up with the mayor and the powerful forces that back him, rather than with working-class people in the city. Her role in continually increasing police budgets, in siding with the mayor against native people and environmentalists in East Phillips on the Roof Depot struggle, and her role in pushing through a vote to kill rent control this year on a Muslim holiday when three rent control supporters on the council who are Muslim were absent are just three examples of extremely backward things she’s done.
This year she has a serious challenger, Soren Stevenson. Stevenson identifies as a socialist. He’s a young white man who lost his eye when the MPD shot him in the face with a “non-lethal” projectile as he participated in the protests after the murder of George Floyd. Out of that experience, he built relationships with family members of police brutality victims and earned their respect, and decided that he would challenge the incumbent who has been on the wrong side of many votes on policing on the council. His politics are more in line with the majority of people in Ward 8 than Jenkins, despite her identity. Stevenson pulled off an upset by winning the DFL endorsement in the race. We’ll see if that translates into winning the election, but it seems he has a real chance to do so. If he wins, he’ll almost surely vote with the more progressive people on the council, so people in Ward 8 should vote for Soren.
Ward 5: Jeremiah Ellison vs. Victor Martinez
Jeremiah Ellison was elected after the police murdered Jamar Clark and he participated in the protests outside the MPD’s 4th Precinct. He usually votes with the progressive block. Ellison’s challenger, Victor Martinez, is an open Trump supporter, a pastor at an anti-choice church, and very likely committed fraud in signing up hundreds of people as his supposed supporters in the race for the DFL endorsement, people for whom he could provide no paper trail for. Martinez’s main issue is supporting the police; he’s basically a Republican who is only running as a Democrat because you can’t win as a Republican in Minneapolis. It’s important to vote for Ellison, who mostly votes with the progressive block, to keep Martinez out of office.
The open seats: Wards 7 and 12
Ward 7 and 12 are open seats with races between people aligned more or less with opposite sides of the city council divide. It’s important to vote for the more progressive candidates in these races – Aurin Chowdhury in Ward 12 and Katie Cashman in Ward 7 – to keep the conservatives out.
Chowdhury in Ward 12 is a first generation Bengali-American, daughter of working-class immigrants, and a renter who’s running on a progressive platform, while her opponents are campaigning on a more conservative platform. In Ward 7, the main conservative candidate – Scott Graham – is a landlord who has been exposed as having at least 209 violations in his rental units documented by the city. That’s not a person who should be deciding the future of renters rights and making decisions about development on the council.
If all the incumbents win, it’s these two races that would determine the political composition of the new council.
The rest of the races
Ward 2 is the only uncontested race this year, where Robin Wonsley of Democratic Socialists of America is running unopposed. Elliot Payne (Ward 1) and Jason Chavez (Ward 9), two of the other progressive incumbents, have opponents that are not running serious campaigns with much of a chance to win. In Ward 3, Green Party-endorsed Marcus Mills is running on a progressive platform challenging incumbent conservative Democrat Michael Rainville. It’s good to support independent progressive candidates like Mills. In Ward 6 incumbent Jamal Osman faces two challengers. Ward 11 incumbent Emily Koski, who has often aligned with the mayor on key votes, has no credible opponent. Ward 13 incumbent and current Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, a core force on the conservative side of the council, has two opponents: Kate Mortenson, who is running to her right on some issues, and Zach Metzger who seems to have little chance to win.
What is to be done?
Any hope for real change comes from independent mass movements and unions willing to wage class struggle and fight for working class and oppressed people’s felt needs. That said, elections can create better or worse conditions in which our movements wage those fights.
This year, it’s important to vote for city council candidates who are more likely to stand up to big developers, corporations, landlords and the police. This could create better conditions for mass movements to make gains that improve the lives of working-class and oppressed people in Minneapolis. And if the mayor vetoes good policies the council has passed, it would help expose the ruling class interests he represents. The capitalist class and their bought and paid for politicians and media mouthpieces would rather try to make this election a referendum on Palestine, or on socialism, or try again with their racist attack from the election two years ago in backlash against the George Floyd uprising. They’d rather scaremonger about those things than have to defend their favored policies that give big corporations, developers, landlords and the police whatever they want, directly harming working-class and oppressed people in Minneapolis.