Lisa Bender on defund police, the persistent housing shortage and misogyny

Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender speaking to constituents in 2019. Photo by Tony Webster.

In her seven years in office, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender has shepherded through many of the most significant policy changes in generations: ending single-family zoning, passing renter protections, enacting a $15 an hour minimum wage, requiring many new developments to have affordable housing and — if voters approve in 2021 — replacing the Police Department with a new department of public safety.

Bender announced on Sunday she would not seek a third term. She said she made her decision more than a year ago, before the police killing of George Floyd put her and the city at the center of a national movement to defund police and rebuild public safety from the ground up.

Being the progressive leader of a progressive council made her a lightning rod for criticism of liberal city officials. Even some of her fellow progressive leaders criticized her pledge to replace the Police Department — made with eight other council members on a stage that read “Defund Police” — for costing Democrats legislative seats in the 2020 election. Although she won’t be on the 2021 ballot, Bender says a charter amendment proposal on reimagining policing will be.

Bender is a city planner by trade. She has a masters degree from University of California-Berkeley and worked as a planner for San Francisco before moving back to Minnesota. In 2013, she won her seat on the council representing Ward 10, which includes the Wedge, Whittier and Uptown neighborhoods.

She doesn’t know what she’ll do next. As she looks toward her last year in office, we asked her about her critics, her biggest accomplishments and what’s left to be done.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When did you decide not to run for reelection and why?

The last 10 years of my life have been just a constant pace. I had breast cancer during my first pregnancy. I went through cancer treatment. I had two babies. I ran for office against an incumbent and won — a lot of work. I ran for reelection, ran for City Council president, which is an enormous amount of work putting together a political coalition and building support.

And then, I have led on so many changes: minimum wage, paid sick time, the Minneapolis 2040 plan, our transportation action plan, renter protections. So for me, the last 10 years have just been constant busyness.

When I decided to run for a second term, I really thought about what I wanted to get done. After the pandemic hit and this very challenging summer, I thought about whether or not I should stay. But I have more than fulfilled the policies that I wanted to accomplish. Of course, there is much more work to do and I trust my colleagues to keep the work moving.

What is your response to criticisms from fellow Democrats like state Sen. Jeff Hayden and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from South Carolina that your city council hurt Democrats, both here in Minnesota and across the country, with a poorly articulated “defund the police” slogan? 

As an elected policymaker, I’m not writing the slogans that the grassroots movements for change use. And I think it’s a question of, how does an elected official that represents a particular constituency in a particular place respond to the needs in their community and the national conversation?

Look, I’ve knocked on a lot of doors, I’ve made thousands and thousands of phone calls. People vote for elected officials that they connect with, who they trust to have their best interests in mind. Yes, strategy matters and words matter a lot. But for each candidate, when we were talking with voters in their districts, it’s about those one-on-one individual connections that they’re making with voters.

“Defund Police” was spelled out in front of that stage that you and eight other council members stood on in Powderhorn Park. That was quite the image. Would you change that if you could? 

I’ve never used the words “defund the police” myself. Of course, it was spelled out on the stage.

So is that something you wish you could change? 

This is what I’ll say: Organizers in Minneapolis and around the country have been asking for a more balanced approach to safety that works better to keep people safe and demanding police accountability for many years. The death of George Floyd has inspired change around the country, and slogans that the movement is using now have forced a conversation that I’ve never seen before.

Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender shares her support for peaceful demonstrators on the fifth night of protests outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct in 2015. Photo by Tony Webster.

The Charter Commission recently decided not to recommend the City Council’s ballot initiative on reimagining the police. Their delay prevented it from getting on the 2020 ballot, but the council now has the opportunity to put it on the 2021 ballot. Will you?

I expect there to be a community-driven ballot initiative to make a charter amendment on the ballot to transform community safety.

Is it going to be the one that the council wrote?

I think that the proposal will be similar to what we proposed.

You’ve taken a lot of heat from people to the right of you, who don’t like your housing and policing policies, as well as people who believe they’re to the left of you — although frankly, that may be based more on perception, rather than your actual policy positions. Which has been more difficult to navigate? 

I think there’s a real disconnect between how much people think political will alone is driving results at the city. There is a lot that has to do with the relationship between policymakers and city staff. In Minneapolis, the City Council doesn’t have our own staff. We don’t have a research team, and a legislative staff that draft ordinances. We don’t have our own budget staff, or communication support. We each have two staff who, together with us as the council member, play all of those roles in some way.

Policy changes originate in city departments led by staff with subject matter expertise, and so there is a relationship there between policymakers and department staff on every single change we propose.

I know this is kind of a weird way to answer the question, but what is the most challenging for me is when I know there’s unanimous or nearly unanimous support on the City Council for a policy change, and I can’t seem to get a proposal from staff to bring to my colleagues.

Right now, some colleagues are trying to work on this “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act,” which is taking a lot of time with resistance from staff.

And so for me, I don’t mind the critiques of my policy positions. I do feel frustrated by personal attacks and especially some of the attacks that I think are really gendered. But the main frustration I have is that when we have political support for a thing we can’t always get a proposal in front of the council for the community to weigh in on.

Can you help me understand that better? Are you saying city staff are not doing what you’re asking them or they don’t have time to do what you’re asking them?

That’s unclear.

For example, I was told that staff didn’t have time to work on renter policies. So I created an entire full-time position focused on renter policies. And that alone did not seem to work to allow us to bring a renter protection policy forward. The question is, like, how much time should it take? I don’t know. But I do know that from the time of originating an idea to when we have a proposal in the public, it often takes years.

You became a lightning rod — first in the metro area and then in the country. You’ve had your home vandalized and received threats. How has that attention affected you and your family?

Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to the attention that comes from leading change. You know, landlords who opposed my renter protection policies had an event right next to my house a couple years ago. So it’s just a matter of scale.

When the police killed George Floyd, Minneapolis became the center of international attention and protest. There were protests around the world at the hands of our Police Department. George Floyd’s death and the pleas of his family for change have changed policy and budgets in cities around the country.

So I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring of demands for change that we saw after George was killed. Yes, the protests in the street, but from calls and emails and contacts from constituents just horrified that that could happen in our city. So it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do and that we need to change our policing system.

Of course, it is very concerning to me when folks who step up to serve their community are receiving so many threats. A member of our Charter Commission also had his home vandalized. It’s concerning to me that some of these boundaries are being violated because we need hard working public servants. We need more diversity in office, not less, and so when people who are advocating for change become targeted, we all have to come together and stand up for those leaders. It’s something I think about for my time after I’m in office: What role can I play to support women leaders and leaders of color for whom there are higher expectations?

What is your biggest accomplishment and why is it getting rid of the Lake Street Kmart? 

Haha. That is a good example. It was absolutely not a given that the city would take control of the Kmart. There was a complex negotiation with multiple landlords and leaseholders. It required vigilance and moving more quickly than government usually does. So it’s a big deal to have secured control of Kmart and to have secured that site for the future to reconnect the neighborhood, support transit access between south Minneapolis and downtown, and to use that site to advance sustainability and equity.

But for me the Minneapolis 2040 plan is the biggest single thing that I have led that I think will impact our city for many years to come. We have really shifted how the city is approaching infrastructure, street design and housing, in policy, rather than project-by-project decision making, which had a real mix of outcomes.

You have shepherded through some of the most significant changes to Minneapolis’ housing policies in generations. But even today, there are zero shelter beds available in the city. What does Minneapolis need to solve its housing shortage? 

I still want to make progress on rent increase caps like California and Oregon have done. So limiting the amount of rent increase that a landlord can implement year over year. I think that’s a big missing piece of our housing policy.

The crisis of homelessness is really exposing the failure of different levels of government to coordinate on a problem. At the local level, we’ve legalized homeless shelters. You know when I took office, you could only have a homeless shelter in a church. So we fixed the zoning code and dramatically expanded where shelters can be located. We are now putting more funding into shelter than the city ever has.

Part of the heart of this question is what is the city’s responsibility in a spectrum of government entities that have far more resources? And how much can we keep stepping up on issue after issue after issue when other levels of government are not providing the solutions? Obviously the city needs to be part of these solutions, but particularly with homelessness, there just has to be stronger coordination and a clear, shared approach.

You mentioned the gendered attacks. I’m curious if the misogyny that you’ve experienced is just as potent among progressive critics as moderate ones. 

I think that women leaders and leaders of color are under more scrutiny, and there are higher expectations than for white men from all. From all. I think it’s a consequence of not being used to different kinds of leadership, different voices, different ways of speaking, different ways of orienting to community. I am so heartened by the changes that have come and the leaders that are emerging. I think we’re on the right path for greater diversity in elected office.

Would you run for elected office again?

I’m not sure. I think there are a lot of ways to make change. I know a lot about how to make change in a system. So I want to figure out how to use that knowledge and experience to support other leaders.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.
Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.