Minneapolis public safety question fails in defeat for progressives

Frey leading, public safety amendment goes down

By: - November 2, 2021 9:54 pm

Mayor Jacob Frey greets supporters on election night Tuesday after initial results showed him with a comfortable lead. Photo by Chad Davis.

In the first city election after the police murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis voters soundly rejected a sweeping plan to dismantle the police department and replace it with a department of public safety.

The defeat of Question 2 on the ballot is a rebuke of city progressives, who hoped to radically change the city’s public safety infrastructure, even if the ballot initiative did not go as far as “abolishing” police which many have been pushing for years. 

Their loss was made even more bitter by the early lead of Mayor Jacob Frey, who was against the initiative and has stayed close to Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who also came out against the charter amendment. 

Question 1, which would give the mayor more authority over city departments, also had a sizable lead, notching another victory for Frey, who was backed by a coalition of business groups, Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and establishment Democrats.  

Frey yelled “we did it!” to supporters on Tuesday night after taking a commanding lead.

“Minneapolis right now is sending a message to the entire nation that real progress requires real work. We’re sending a message that transformational change is within reach if we unite behind a common cause to get it done. We’re sending a message that real and serious government and true change in our society is not about a hash tag or a slogan, but is about doing the hard work each and every day, recognizing that the precision of our solutions must match the precision of the harm that was initially inflicted.”

A Democratic-Farmer-Labor operative working with progressives called it a “bloodbath” for their side. 

Frey’s frequent antagonists on the City Council, including Philipe Cunningham and Jeremy Schroeder, were both defeated, while Council President Lisa Bender is leaving office. His allies Linea Palmisano, Andrea Jenkins and Lisa Goodman all handily won reelection.

Bobby Arntsen, 65, voted for Frey as well as expanding the power of the mayor’s office while reducing the council’s. 

“I was glad that he stood up to the City Council because I didn’t think they were very responsible in how they did the ‘defund the police’ thing. I think it added to the chaos,” said Arntsen, who is white. 

Arntsen said he voted for the strong mayor question and against the public safety and rent control questions. 

“I think instead of trying to remake the wheel, make the wheel better,” Arntsen said. “I think Arradondo has been working on that. I’m all for adding more public health initiatives, but I don’t think you need to take away from one to give to another.”

Frey and the police department’s victory may ultimately be hollow, however. The department is down about 300 officers and faces a wave of disability claims and lawsuits, forcing the city to cover massive liabilities, even as the department’s esteem with the public continues to collapse. 

Frey and department leadership will also continue to face a powerful union that will resist reform and has powerful allies in both parties at the state Capitol. By leaving the minimum staffing level in the city charter, voters gave the union significant leverage.   

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said if Frey winds up winning reelection, he needs to step up. “He said he wants to make major reforms, so let’s go.”

Rybak said the city should get the U.S. Department of Justice to put MPD in receivership, invalidate the union contract and help the department remove cops for cause. 

And, Rybak said, the city needs to partner with the county, which administers social services, to take a public health approach to crime.

“Now we’re going to have to really come together in a way that we haven’t since the overwhelming majority of the city was marching for reform after George Floyd,” Rybak said.

Frey has said he supports creating a new department of public safety — but opposed the charter amendment.

Frey, who faced a series of humiliating public moments during the aftermath of the Floyd killing, nevertheless showed tenacity in his reelection victory. A well-funded and well known challenger never truly emerged. Frey explicitly ran against the City Council, the veto-proof majority of whom stood on the stage in June 2020 under a banner that said “defund the police” and often seemed oblivious to the city’s crisis. Frey and his advisers bet a silent majority of city voters — especially the whiter, richer residents who tend to vote in city elections — did not want to hand over the city to the council, and they were right. 

Progressives are left to regroup, having misjudged the Minneapolis electorate. 

“The empire strikes back,” tweeted D.A. Bullock, a local filmmaker and leading online voice for Question 2. 

The Rev. JaNaé Bates of Yes 4 Minneapolis, which advocated for Question 2, said a “disinformation campaign” won, but the battle will continue. 

“The working class Black folks over (in north Minneapolis) and people across the city are still going to have to grapple with the issues that we’re facing,” she said. Even with a fully funded police department, she said, the city has suffered a spike in violence, exodus of cops and new allegations of police brutality and misconduct. “And so we will most certainly continue to move forward.”

As violent crime spiraled in Minneapolis, several members of the council backed off their bold promise to “defund police” and even the coalition supporting the charter amendment to reshape public safety softened its “defund police” rhetoric, assuring voters that passage would not mean the end of a police force. 

The Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, said proponents of the amendment failed to talk to the Black community.

“The sad reality of it is so often we have people who want to do stuff for us, but they don’t talk to us,” he said. 

He said it’s shameful for a state as prosperous as Minnesota to have such wide disparities between white and Black residents.

“The resources and stuff that we need to counteract that (gap) is never coming. And to only deal with the police issue, which again, is a real issue, but that’s not the No. 1 thing that we’re facing as a people,” he said. “Our issues are much more complex than just the police.” 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.