Redistricting draft would have moved two City Council members outside of their wards

By: - November 12, 2021 2:50 pm

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

The first redistricting draft produced by the Minneapolis Charter Commission moved two just-elected Minneapolis City Council members outside of the wards they were elected to last week.

Then after an outcry, the panel reversed itself on Friday.

The Minneapolis Redistricting Group — made up of the Charter Commission and nine advisory members it selected — is beginning the months-long redistricting process based on the 2020 Census results. In 2010, voters gave redistricting authority to the Charter Commission. 

The city charter charges the commission with making minimal boundary adjustments to the 13 wards so that each ward is as equal in population as practicable. 

On Wednesday, the Minneapolis Redistricting Group redrew Ward 4 in North Minneapolis — where LaTrisha Vetaw ousted incumbent Council Member Phillipe Cunningham on Nov. 2 — in a way that would move Vetaw into Ward 5 for the 2023 election.

The first draft also moved Council Member Jeremiah Ellison out of Ward 5 — where he was narrowly re-elected last week — and into Council Member Lisa Goodman’s more conservative Ward 7. 

Advisory member Veronica Cary — who tweeted that she voted for Cunningham and said Vetaw would be a “disaster” — proposed the change, saying minimizing the “jut out” would make it easier for people to have events with their council member and have “election discussions.”

Later in the Wednesday meeting, Charter Commissioner Andrew Kozak interrupted a discussion about Ward 6 to point out the effect of the earlier Ward 4 move.

“I think we need to revisit Ward 4, because I think what happened (is) we redistricted… council member-elect Vetaw out of the fourth ward,” Kozak said, prompting laughter from someone on the virtual Zoom meeting.

Cary responded that it would hurt the group’s credibility if they made decisions based on council members’ addresses. 

“We should not, under any circumstance, be even discussing this as we make these decisions. Elections happen, people can choose where they live in order to get elected,” she said. “I don’t want this board to get sucked down into some discussion about where people live so that we can be drawing people’s wards for them to get re-elected. I think that’s frankly garbage.”

After the meeting, Cary tweeted that Kozak interrupted the meeting “to argue that we should draw a district boundary to protect the seat of a recently elected official” — to which Cunningham replied “glad you’re there.”

Kozak said he’s been on the redistricting board four out of the last five decades, and only once — when he was gone — did they “pare council members.” 

“We are an appointed group, as we’ve heard many times over the last year. And I think if people are going to get rid of council members, it’s up to them, not up to us,” he said. “To redistrict someone out of their ward a week after they’ve been elected I think is something that goes beyond what our charge is.”

Charter Commission Chairman Barry Clegg, an attorney, advised the group to be  “agnostic about where people live.” 

“Defining wards around where council members live has a name: It’s called gerrymandering. And I don’t want to do it,” Clegg said.

But after the meeting, attorney Brian Rice told the Reformer it’s preposterous to say the redistricting shouldn’t consider where incumbents live, citing a 1982 state legislative redistricting case, LaComb v. Growe, which said maintaining districts and minimizing contests between incumbents has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, unless it’s done with invidious, or discriminatory, intent. The decision talks about drawing lines based on the location of incumbents, including the very blocks discussed Wednesday, Rice said. 

Considering where incumbents live is not gerrymandering, said Rice, who supported Vetaw’s election, works on election law and has advised Hennepin County on redistricting since 1991.

“The idea that you don’t consider where incumbents live is ridiculous,” Rice said. 

The city charter says wards must be compact, contiguous areas and changes to boundaries should be minimized. Ward 4 was one person over the target population size before the group began its work, Rice said. 

“By moving the fourth [ward] an eyelash, they violated that criteria,” Rice said. “There was no reason to move anything in the fourth ward when it was mathematically perfect.” 

He said the redistricters appear to have changed the boundary for an invidious purpose: To eliminate a Black woman from the ward.

“I think that their motives are highly suspect,” Rice said.

Ellison said in an interview the political power of the north side won’t be undermined by redistricting, and excluding Harrison Neighborhood from the ward would be a mistake, but this is in the hands of the Charter Commission.  

“Fairness or further inequity is completely in their hands,” he said. 

Vetaw said in an interview she didn’t understand why they would change Ward 4, when it was “almost perfect” population-wise.

“It’s clear that they are pitting Jeremiah Ellison and I against each other,” she said. “It feels targeted.” 

On Wednesday, Advisory Group members Glen Johnson, Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott and Charter Commission Vice Chair Jan Sandberg all argued against taking into consideration politicians’ home addresses. 

Abbott said they should do their work and “if there’s some sort of outcry from the fourth ward, that might be worth listening to.”

Sandberg said their mission is to put together wards that make sense.

“I pride myself on the fact I have no idea where anybody lives. And I don’t want to know because I do not think that is part of our mission.” 

She said council members can always just move.

“I believe the council members always have an option to move if that’s an issue,” she said. “[Where they live is] nothing I would even care to consider. In fact, I would prefer that we don’t bring it up anymore in the future.”

In an interview, Vetaw disagreed, saying, “It’s the most white supremacist thing to say, ‘Just have the Black woman move out of her house to another ward.’ ”

Johnson said addresses shouldn’t be discussed.

“I think whatever we decide on this, it would be very bad to have these be discussed right now, just because we can’t take that back,” he said. “If we could just not talk about council members’ addresses, it’ll be very helpful.” 

Commissioner Dan Cohen disagreed, saying it would be a serious blow to the group’s credibility if it excluded Vetaw from her district after she was just elected with 60% of the vote.

Commissioner Jill Garcia agreed with Kozak and Cohen, saying they should adhere to the redistricting principle to “do as little movement as possible.” 

“This last election was very, very racially charged,” she said, adding that people of color have had a historically disproportionately difficult time with home ownership, and it’s much easier for some people to choose where they live than others. 

Ellison said ultimately, the map should reflect what’s best for the city, regardless of his address, but he thinks excluding Harrison from Ward 5 would not be best for Harrison or the north side.

During the Friday meeting of the redistricting group, Clegg said he sought the advice of the city attorney’s office, which cited the LaComb v. Growe case and another Supreme Court case. Based on that, he ruled that they group could look at incumbents’ addresses.

“I also think it would be outrageous for this group to draw two Black council members out of their wards less than two weeks after they were elected,” Clegg said in reversing course. “I don’t think a system blind to addresses would work.”

The group then voted to restore Wards 4 and 5 back to the old boundaries — except for two blocks.

The group meets again on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Story updated at 5:45 p.m. Friday to reflect the redistricting group’s Friday actions.

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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.