Bill Rodriguez was the first speaker at the first public hearing on cutting funding to the Minneapolis Police Department. “We need both: the police and reform,” Rodriguez said at a City Council meeting in November.
Variations on that phrase — “we need both” — were repeated throughout the hearing. It is the signature talking point of Operation Safety Now, the pro-police group Rodriguez founded.
Rodriguez was pleased with how the hearing went. “Seems like the first half was overwhelmingly pro (Minneapolis Police Department), the 2nd half more balanced,” he later wrote to Natasha Hanson, executive assistant to police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
Rodriguez was writing to Hanson because — though he claimed in a Star Tribune opinion piece to just be a concerned citizen with no government connections — Rodriguez was working closely with Arradondo’s office. Ten days before the public hearing, Rodriguez ran draft language for the Operation Safety Now website past the chief’s office for review.
Robin McPherson, the police department’s director of financial operations, replied: “I am copying the Chief on this email as well. He is a much better wordsmith than I am and may want to offer some ideas.”
This and other emails obtained from the City of Minneapolis through a Reformer public records request show that both the Minneapolis Police Department and Mayor Jacob Frey’s office collaborated with Operation Safety Now to lobby City Council members and sway public opinion in the hopes of winning increased funding for the MPD.
As part of their campaign to lobby Council Member Alondra Cano, Rodriguez and his associate, Eric Won, offered to use Won’s influence — including a seat on the Minneapolis’ Capital Long-Range Improvements Committee — to benefit businesses in Cano’s ward. Cano then met with the men, arranged a meeting between them and business owners, and later supported their position on a key police budget vote.
The emails offer a window into the help Arradondo and to a lesser extent Frey have received from political operators as they engage in a fierce lobbying campaign against their opponents on the City Council, who want to take control of the department and fundamentally change it.
Council Member Andrew Johnson called the coordination between Arradondo and an outside political group to lobby the public and the council “pretty unprecedented.”
After another recent rash of gun violence, the political conflict between the mayor and the council has reemerged, with Frey appearing side-by-side with the leaders behind Operation Safety Now. During a recent press conference announcing a plan to stem the violence, Frey echoed Rodriguez’s November rhetoric, describing his plan as a “both/and approach.”
During the police budget debate, Rodriguez worked so closely with Arradondo’s office that he was practically integrated into the team. In one email, Rodriguez wrote to Arradondo’s executive assistant asking her to arrange a meeting with MPD Communications Director John Elder “ASAP,” so Rodriguez and Won could “relay our conversation with the Chief and next steps.”
Arradondo’s office also helped prepare the script for an Operation Safety Now video encouraging Minneapolis residents to support the MPD at public hearings.
Rodriguez and Won have both said they are volunteers, but both are experienced hands in public affairs — they run consulting firms offering services that mirror their work on the campaign. Though Rodriguez has repeatedly claimed to be a Minneapolis resident, including by listing a south Minneapolis address when he signed up to speak at the Nov. 16 meeting, he is registered to vote in Richfield.
Though the connection is never stated in public, Operation Safety Now is a project of another group, MPLS Voices. Operation Safety Now is not an incorporated non-profit. It has no organizational structure and holds no member meetings, according to Karen Forbes, a member who spoke to the Reformer. Meanwhile, MPLS Voices is incorporated, and several politicos and business owners are identified in emails as leaders of the group.
Frey’s office declined to provide someone to be interviewed, but wrote by email: “The mayor’s team did its best to engage with as many groups and residents as possible on a defining issue for our city.”
The MPD did not respond to requests for comment. After initially agreeing to an interview, Rodriguez ultimately declined. Won did not respond to interview requests.
The inside/outside game
On June 7, nine Minneapolis City Council members took to a stage in Powderhorn Park and pledged to begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department. Crime had been rising even before George Floyd’s murder, but in the following months, it skyrocketed in Minneapolis and cities across the country.
Some blamed the City Council after they publicly vowed to dismantle the police department. Johnson, who was on the stage at Powderhorn, dismissed that criticism, calling it an “everything would be fine if not for Powderhorn” mentality.
The lines were drawn. A majority of the council wanted to restructure public safety in Minneapolis: Fewer police officers and more alternative responses (such as mental health professionals) directed by a civilian, overseen by the council. Frey, Arradondo and several council members wanted the MPD to continue under the direction of the mayor, with targeted reforms.
Reclaim the Block and other activist groups had been organizing to defund the MPD and building relationships with city officials since 2018. In the days following Floyd’s murder, they collaborated with council members on creating a plan and building public support for replacing the MPD.
While not perfectly aligned, this collaboration between City Council members and activists resulted in the council proposing a charter amendment that would put the question of defund before the voters. On a 10-5 vote in August, members of the appointed Charter Commission blocked the amendment from being on the November ballot.
After the Charter Commission torpedoed the amendment, the budget seemed the next best opportunity to advance the defund agenda. Council members would play the inside game of government bureaucracy. Organizers would play the outside game to build public support and continue to push council members to the left on the issue.
The pro-MPD side had no such infrastructure until, in September, Bill Rodriguez put out a call on the social media platform Next Door for crime victims who could speak about their experiences, according to Forbes, the Operation Safety Now member. She said she joined because her house was hit with gunfire, and she was concerned about rising crime.
Since then, Rodriguez has led a pro-MPD marketing blitz. Between September 2020, and March 2021, Rodriguez was quoted in more than a dozen articles and news segments, including by the France-based Le Parisien. Most described him as the leader of a grassroots effort by Minneapolis residents concerned about rising crime.
Operation Safety Now seems to exist solely as a Facebook page, a website, and Bill Rodriguez’s activism — and their Facebook page only has about a thousand followers. (By contrast, Reclaim the Block has 23,000 Facebook followers.) Still, they have had an outsized voice on one of the most significant issues in Minneapolis history.
Rodriguez, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a marketing and PR consultant, didn’t start in the pro-MPD camp. In the days following Floyd’s murder, he called critics of the defund movement “ridiculous” on Facebook for claiming it would result in chaos.
He cites a personal experience with crime for his shifting views. “His south Minneapolis home was burglarized in the middle of the night while he and his wife slept in their upstairs bedroom,” KSTP reporter Jay Kolls reported in September. Rodriguez told Kolls that he and his wife waited in a closet for 15 minutes for the police to arrive, clutching a baseball bat.
He gave a slightly different version of the story to Southwest Journal in November, saying “he only started paying serious attention to crime after his ex-wife experienced an early morning home invasion.”
Despite telling Council Member Jeremy Schroeder that he is a resident of Ward 11, Rodriguez is currently registered to vote in Richfield. Court records list him living there as early as 2008 and as late as November, 2019, and he occasionally posts in the “Richfield, MN Community” Facebook group where he declared in 2015, “I am a Richfield resident.”
Rodriguez claimed an address in south Minneapolis when he signed up to speak at the Nov. 16 public hearing. A neighbor told the Reformer that Rodriguez’s ex-wife had lived at the address before about six weeks ago, but Rodriguez had never lived there.
According to an MPD incident report, there was a 911 call from that location on June 10, but includes details that contradict Rodriguez’s depiction of it. In his KSTP appearance, Rodriguez said the door was “pried open.” But the incident report simply says the front door was open, and that the officer on the scene was “not sure why.” The officer reported there was no evidence of a burglary and it appeared to be a false alarm.
Rodriguez also told Kolls that a house two doors down had experienced the same incident and that “someone was going down the street in our neighborhood looking to see how they could pry open doors.” According to the MPD’s online crime map, no crimes took place within at least two blocks of the house that night.
The Media Maven
By early November, Rodriguez had become a trusted communications adviser to Arradondo.
He wrote to Arradondo’s executive assistant on Nov. 3 seeking information about police staffing levels. Compiling the numbers required input from the department CFO, the commander of the special operations division, a department analyst and the chief. MPD had the information ready the next day.
Rodriguez used the information to outline several infographics for the Safety Now website and sought revisions from the department. McPherson, the CFO, forwarded his request to Arradondo so the chief could change the wording “to coincide with some of his comments in the past,” she wrote.
The MPD may have provided input on more than messaging. Rodriguez’s proposed agenda for a Nov. 18 meeting with Arradondo includes the item “OUR REFORM POSITION [for review].”
City Council President Lisa Bender called the collaboration between the MPD and Safety Now “frustrating” because the MPD often fails to provide information to council members in a timely fashion, she said.
Rodriguez centered Arradondo — who was viewed favorably by 60% of Minneapolis residents in a 2020 Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE11 poll — as a personality in his campaign.
Emails show him working with the chief’s office to outline the script for an interview. In the video produced, Arradondo encourages viewers to testify to the City Council about MPD funding. It ends with the interviewer, an Operation Safety Now member, saying, “You need more opportunities to get in front of people to show your real self, because we want a little bit more of you than what we’re getting.”
Smiling, Arradondo replies, “Wow.”
The emails show that the mayor’s office also coordinated with the group in the days leading up to the budget vote, though not as extensively as the MPD.
In one email, Rodriguez suggested the mayor “threaten a veto on anything other than his plan,” asking, “is that dumb, suicidal, premature — or bold and effective in continuing to help him recover a strong, in-charge persona?”
The issue of the veto came up several times in emails between Rodriguez and the mayor’s office.
In one instance, Rodriguez wrote a form letter for the public to encourage council members to support the mayor’s budget and submitted a draft to Frey’s office for revision. The mayor’s office struck a line explicitly calling for “more police” and one accusing the City Council of a “ploy to defund and downsize,” but kept a line encouraging Frey to veto the budget “if this City Council continues to handcuff our police chief.”
In the end, Frey threatened a veto over staffing levels.
Tara Niebling, a Frey spokeswoman, said in an email that Frey “was not made aware of the group’s request to threaten to veto the budget. He’s grateful to the hundreds of Minneapolis residents and local advocacy organizations who engaged his team directly on a defining issue for our city.”
Council Member Lisa Goodman, the longest serving council member, said she spoke to Rodriguez during the budget fight, but that she didn’t know much about him or Operation Safety Now. She defended their work as fundamentally no different than what other community groups do. “This is clearly happening on both quote-unquote sides,” she said.
As an example, Goodman cited how an activist with Reclaim the Block called council members and asked them to sign a pledge to defund the MPD. Only members who did were invited to participate in the event at Powderhorn Park to announce their pledge. “Talk about coordination,” she said, “that was coordination.”
Goodman declined to comment on Rodriguez’s residence, but pointed out that many who participate in Minneapolis politics don’t live in the cities. “You think everyone who works with Reclaim the Block lives in Minneapolis?” she asked.
The tactics Rodriguez and Won used to lobby Council Member Alondra Cano set them apart from most other activists, and may have given them their biggest win in the budget fight.
During the budget debate, Rodriguez and Won identified three potential swing votes to target: Andrea Jenkins, Johnson and Cano.
(Disclosure: The writer and his wife are constituents of Cano. The writer’s wife sent a text message in late 2020 to Cano urging her to vote against the mayor’s pro-MPD position.)
Johnson spoke to Rodriguez several times, he said, but voted against Safety Now’s positions in the end.
Jenkins voted in line with Operation Safety Now, but the emails do not show any coordination between her and Won and Rodriquez, although they reached out to her.
Cano, however, met with the men before switching sides in the debate and supporting their position on key votes.
As late as Oct. 28, Cano was undeterred in her push to “abolish our current policing system,” she told MPR News.
On Nov. 10, the City Council budget committee approved a one-time allocation of $500,000 so the MPD could contract with other law enforcement agencies to fill the gap left when hundreds of officers quit or took time off after the May and June civil unrest.
Jenkins, Johnson and Cano had all publicly vowed to abolish the MPD, but voted to advance the question to the full council, which approved it on Nov. 13 with their support.
On Nov. 15, Rodriguez wrote to Cano’s policy aide to schedule a meeting with the council member. He included a Washington Post article about Minneapolis residents who were concerned about crime. The residents quoted in the article were Karen Forbes, George Saad and Cathy Spann, all Safety Now members or leaders, though the article doesn’t say that.
In follow up emails, Rodriguez looped in Won who, he wrote, had extensive connections with federal, state and municipal governments. “Given his connections, he’d be in a position to help Ms. Cano with some of what she wants to achieve for the Lake St. corridor and the Latino community,” Rodriguez wrote.
The men met with Cano on Nov. 19. After the meeting, the council member helped set up a meeting between Rodriguez, Won and members of the Lake Street Latino Business Association. “I shared that the LSLBA is looking for fundraising and capacity support,” Cano wrote of her conversation with Rodriguez and Won.
The same day, Rodriguez proposed an agenda for the meeting with the LSLBA that had two items: “Explore ways we can help you stand up Latino businesses along the Lake Street Corridor,” and “Discuss the need for Latinos to be represented at the Dec. 2 City Council hearing on behalf of the Mayor’s proposed public safety budget.”
Later that day, Rodriguez again wrote to the association asking members to participate in an appearance on a Spanish-language radio program to “talk about the importance of more police protection along the Lake Street corridor.”
In a follow up email on Nov. 20, Won finalized details for the radio appearance and thanked Cano for facilitating the introduction. “I anticipate eventually bringing in business development, small business, and revitalization assistance to the Latino community along and around Lake Street,” he wrote.
On Dec. 9, Cano and Jenkins were the swing votes that blocked an effort to lower the maximum number of authorized MPD officers. This is the same issue over which Frey threatened to veto the budget, and it has been cited by both sides as a key victory for those supporting the MPD.
Cano said by text message that she shifted her position on MPD funding “because we had experienced the killing of five people of color at 38th and Chicago due to gang violence and gun violence stemming from organized crime.”
She also said Won and Rodriguez never met with the LSLBA. In the Nov. 20 email, however, Won invited the council member to a meeting between him and the LSLBA; Won’s Facebook profile says he is an “economic development consultant” for the LSLBA.
Most paid lobbyists, including municipal lobbyists, need to register with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, and neither Won nor Rodriguez are.
Like Rodriguez, Won’s day job mirrors his work on the police campaign. His LinkedIn and Facebook profiles identify him as the principal executive of The Leadership Praxis, which provides “premium consulting, advisory and mentoring services to clients in government, corporate and non-profit sectors.”
In addition to rallying public support for MPD funding, Rodriguez and Won scheduled meetings between city officials and a smaller group of well-connected players. In other emails, some of the members of this group are identified as leaders of Operation Safety Now umbrella organization MPLS Voices, including Minneapolis Charter Commissioner Jana Metge and three of the so-called “Minneapolis 8” who are suing the city over MPD staffing levels: Don and Sondra Samuels and Cathy Spann.
Other members of the group include Ian Bethel, a member of the Police Community Relations Council formed by Arradondo in 2017; Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Downtown Council; Jackie Cherryhomes and Barb Johnson, two former Minneapolis City Council presidents; and several individuals active in the DFL.
The earliest known meeting between Arradondo and the group happened on October 28 and was organized by Mark Oyaas, the principal at a public affairs consulting firm. Oyaas specializes in “state and local government relations, grassroots lobbying, issues management and media relations,” according to the firm’s website.
Jamil Jackson and Lisa Clemons are not included in the coalition emails, but are identified in another email as leaders of MPLS Voices. Jackson is the CEO of Change Equals Opportunity and Clemons is the founder and director of A Mother’s Love. Both organizations contracted with the City of Minneapolis to do community outreach as part of Operation Safety Net, the law enforcement response intended to prevent violence during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.
Modest Success and Ongoing Efforts
On Dec. 9, the City Council voted to cut an additional $8 million from the MPD beyond what Frey proposed. The next day, Sondra Samuels wrote to the group operating behind the scenes: “I read that the Mayor lauded the budget. Help?? I really don’t get how we are better off now or next year.”
Steve Cramer responded with a short list of victories. The proposal to cap the police force at 750 officers was voted down; $5 million was set aside to pay overtime, along with $6.4 million to fund two classes of recruits. He also cites the city attorney as saying the council can’t stipulate how the MPD spends the money.
“This was much harder than it should have been, and there were better decisions that could have been made,” Cramer wrote. “But overall, the resource base for the MPD and public safety generally in ‘21 is solid.”
Won named another success in an email to Arradondo’s assistant: “While we didn’t get everything we were hoping for, the community (with Bill’s unwavering leadership) has changed the narrative in the city.”
It’s not known if city officials continue to coordinate with Operation Safety Now, but Won and his group met with both Frey and Arradondo to “talk next steps” after the budget fight. Won wrote to the mayor’s office that his group was “really looking forward to hearing from the Mayor and learning how we might be of assistance into the future.”
Won wrote to Arradondo, “Thank you, Chief, for calling in last evening. We have a growing team of residents and businesses that you’ll be able to tap into the future.”
Beyond funding for the MPD, the group is organizing around several proposed ballot initiatives that would amend the city charter. They support the first, which would overhaul the city charter to shift power from the City Council to the mayor. They oppose others, which would take authority over the police department from the mayor and give it to the council.
They are also targeting City Council races and announced their endorsements.
Goodman pointed out that a group of Minneapolis residents had, on the day she spoke to the Reformer, signed an op-ed in the Star Tribune endorsing a slate of pro-MPD City Council candidates. “It’s obviously more than Mr. Rodriguez, right?”
In fact, the op-ed has just two bylines: Rodriguez and Don Samuels, who introduced the “both/and” talking point with his wife in a different August, 2020, Star Tribune op-ed.