Inauguration Day

Monday, January 10th, was inauguration day for the recently elected Minneapolis Mayor, City Council, and BET members. It also ended up being a pretty significant (and disappointing) day for Ward 13 residents working for progressive change.

The morning ceremony included some guest speakers, oaths, and a lengthy speech by Mayor Frey repeating many of his campaign talking points. A couple hours later was the first meeting of the City Council, at which they voted on various organizational proposals for the coming term. A lot of us who watched were specifically waiting for the part of the agenda where the council would elect the new Council President and Vice President (formerly held by Lisa Bender and Andrea Jenkins, respectively). 

The Council President and Vice President are always elected by majority vote of the members at the first organizational meeting of the term. If you want to dig into the details, Josh Martin (@JoshMartinMpls on Twitter) made this awesome summary of the rules that govern this process and the responsibilities of the two roles. If you want to watch the council meeting in full, you can do so here.

As expected, Andrea Jenkins was unanimously elected as the new Council President. I know many people have felt let down by some of Jenkins’s more moderate votes lately, and many others deeply respect her. I’m not her constituent, so I’ll just say that she delivered a very impassioned speech about who we hope to be as a city and what should be prioritized going forward, which I largely agreed with. I hope she plans to lead and vote accordingly.

The big difference in this year’s council leadership election was public transparency into the election for Council Vice President. Both the president and vice president roles are traditionally negotiated and selected behind closed doors before the meeting, making the public vote more of a formality. This time, we were going to see a contested election for Vice President play out live.

On Saturday, newly elected Ward 1 City Council Member Elliot Payne announced his intention to run for Vice President. All of the solidly progressive members of this council (Council Members Ellison, Chugtai, Wonsley Worlobah, and Chavez) indicated they would support him. You can read Payne’s full explanation of his decision and qualifications in his Tweet thread

I was excited about the possibility of Council Vice President Payne! Payne ran against Kevin Reich, one of the most conservative members of the previous council, and won on solidly progressive policies on public safety, affordable housing, improved transit infrastructure, and a more equitable economy. This is Payne’s first term on the council, but he has experience working as part of the City’s Office of Performance and Innovation. He knows how our city government works and would likely be able to learn the rest of the responsibilities of the role quickly and easily. This is also the first Council where the majority of members are people of color, and it seems appropriate to honor that by having both leadership positions be filled by Black members.

But, Payne had an opponent: Ward 13 Council Member, Linea Palmisano (who also happens to be my council member). If you don’t already know my opinions on Palmisano’s positions and voting record, keep reading my posts and you’ll find out quickly… In summary, her record is full of votes against policies she claims to support, which is one of the many reasons I served as Communications Director for her progressive opponent, Mike Norton, last election cycle. 

After the 5 progressive council members failed to garner any more votes for Payne, an 8-member majority ultimately chose to elect Palmisano as the new Vice President.

Ward 12 Council Member Andrew Johnson spoke in support of Palmisano, saying that her years of experience handling the bureaucracy of the council is a more important qualification for the role than the arguments put forward by Payne and his supporters. If Palmisano had been applying for a purely internal role and the only responsibilities were administrative, I might see his point. But, the reality is, for at least the next two years, we will now be addressing the former “Council Member Palmisano” as “Council Vice President Palmisano.” Being able to claim that title means that she is now the second most important person on the City Council, and will be treated as such by other electeds, journalists, and residents. This position gives her power she didn’t have before.

Fun fact: She’s also now third in line to the Mayor’s office in the official succession plan.

The problem is—she already had A LOT of power.

Fellow Ward 13 resident Lynnell Mickelsen put together this excellent thread last fall explaining the history of Minneapolis politics and why some areas of the city have hugely disproportionate political power compared the others. Ward 13 is the whitest and wealthiest ward in the city and regularly has the highest voter turnout (double the turnout of majority-POC Ward 5). Two of the last three mayors have been from Ward 13. If you want to get elected to any city-wide office and don’t have the support of the majority of Ward 13 voters, you’re facing a huge uphill battle. With Palmisano in the Vice President’s chair, that road is even steeper.

After new President Jenkins gave her speech, Palmisano gave some short remarks. She said that she hopes to act as “glue” to bring together the different parts of the city and spoke about the importance of the Council’s “decorum of respect.” She then focused on her hope that the Council Members would break down the ideological coalitions that currently exist and work on collaborating and persuading each other. These are all nice words. Unfortunately, CVP Palmisano hasn’t given me any reason to believe she means them.

Her talk about the importance of decorum rings hollow considering one of her closest ideological allies, Council Member Lisa Goodman, has a long reputation for belittling and admonishing her colleagues in public. There was this time in 2018 when she explained that she supported a proposal being considered, but was going to vote against it because the authors hadn’t consulted her first. Or this meeting last year, where she condescendingly accused her colleagues of writing alternate Question 2 ballot language “in their kitchens over the weekend.” I’ve watched a lot of Council meetings over the past couple of years and have never heard Palmisano call out this behavior. (In fact, the only time I’ve heard anyone call it out was this moment, when Johnson accused her of creating a toxic work environment.) 

Placing an emphasis on decorum in any decision-making body also often serves to undermine the contributions and leadership of members from minority groups. There is a long history in the US of “respectability politics,” that requires Black people in particular to conform to white standards of etiquette and social norms, or pay serious consequences. I can’t say whether Palmisano has considered how to prevent this from being an issue in the culture she helps create in her new leadership role, but I hope she does. 

I also have to be skeptical of her intention to listen to her colleagues with differing positions and be open to persuasion. In a recent Southwest Voices interview, she was asked whether she had intentions of supporting any policies her strongest election competitor, Mike Norton, had proposed during his campaign. This was her (incredibly dismissive) response:

“Can you remind me of any policies he pushed? He was running a campaign against me, but I don’t know that he was for other things. I think he wanted to invest in electric vehicle charging stations, and he didn’t know where they were.

I’m honestly trying to think about it. He had allegations against me, he had votes he says he would have taken differently than me, but I don’t know that he had new ideas that held any water.”

You can read Mike’s response, detailing some of his campaign’s many policy positions, here.

I’ll be honest: I’m feeling pretty pessemistic. The past couple of years have been really hard for me, for Minneapolis, and for the world. This vote, and Palmisano’s speech full of empty promises, was predictable, but it still stings. At its first meeting, this new council could have committed to the values of collaboration and equity that Palmisano claims to support by electing Payne as Vice President. Instead, they sent a strong message that they think the status quo is great, actually, by electing our current incredibly flawed system’s biggest supporter. They value the idea of decorum and bureaucracy more than progress, and are fine with giving the most privileged area of the city even more power.

But, I do also genuinely feel inspired. The new, progressive council members have also sent a strong message that they aren’t planning to bow down to that deeply entrenched power. They, and their constituents, recognize the historic moment we’re in and are demanding action on true public safety, affordable housing, rent control, and more. 

At the end of the meeting, reserved for “announcements” (usually mentions of celebrations or upcoming events), new Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah announced her intention to visit the Near North encampment the next morning and invited all her colleagues to join her. The city had posted signs saying that they planned to evict all unhoused resident from the encampment on Tuesday morning, regardless of their needs. I’ve never heard an “announcement” like that before at a meeting. Just getting the news of the City’s planned actions, and the invitation to all Council Members, into the public record was a significant victory for amplifying the needs of our unhoused neighbors.

So, thank you, CM Payne, CM Wonsley Worlobah, and everyone else out there still committed to do the work after years of non-stop stress on a global scale. I’m doing my best to stay on board with you.

Photo credit: Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, CC BY 2.0