Activism, innovation and pragmatism: Andrew Johnson's first 100 (and a bit) days

Andrew Johnson is the youngest member of the Minneapolis City Council at only 29 years of age. (“Also the only single one,” he reminds me to mention.) One of seven (of 13) CMs newly elected in November 2013, he is also one of the ones most likely to succeed Gary Schiff in being the leftward pull of DFL progressivism on the Council. Johnson says it has always been his dream to be an actual politician, but not one he expected to attain, nor did he have a master plan to get there. He says circumstances just “opened a path” and he took it. Before that he had made his living as an IT systems engineer, while working tirelessly in his spare time as a neighborhood and environmental activist. His style is robust activism, with an emphasis on innovation, yet tempered with a keen pragmatism beyond what is expected with his youth and inexperience.

“Innovation” is a word that came up several times in our interview, along with “challenge,” which is a related concept to Johnson. “If we’re not keeping our minds open, and constantly challenging ourselves, we are not doing our jobs,” he says of fellow politicians at all levels. About innovation, Johnson says, “It means mainly challenging the ‘unchanging facts.’ ” For instance, he refers to the “fact” that you can’t grow food in Minnesota outside of May to September. One project he is currently looking into is the possibility of allowing and incentivizing solar greenhouses on commercial buildings’ roofs: “It not only grows food, but it cuts heating costs and fuel consumption.”

With his sense of living his dream combined with the irrepressible energy that seems to come naturally, Johnson has a massive to-do list, with a lot of it already in progress. To keep it straight, he divides the City Council workload into three levels—Ward, City and Enterprise.

Ward level is the “street level” service he gives to his own 12th Ward. “Right on this corner” he points out four projects underway (we are meeting at Angry Catfish). For Angry Catfish itself, a bike corral. For Buster’s, closed since a fire almost gutted their building, ongoing help to get re-opened. A stop sign pilot for an adjacent corner. And trying to get an ice cream shop into the attractive but problem-prone building with a slantwise storefront. He has also been involved in one of my pet projects: investigating another change in the hours of Roosevelt Library. Ward work, he says, is rarely one big project, but numerous small tweaks that add up to a big impact on people’s lives. He provides “Open Office Hours” at rotating business venues, which is indeed what he is doing this morning, and we take a break to talk with a constituent concerned about where city crews are dumping snow.

City level work comprises working on the ordinances and services of the whole city. In this bucket, he is involved with getting fiber-optic internet in the city, helping resolve the SWLRT conundrum, participating in the transgender workgroup, a lot of work on the restorative justice program, and getting language into the legislative agenda about protecting pollinators. He is exercising his environmental mental muscle on a proposed ordinance change that will completely ban styrofoam for take-out containers, and he is involved along with other CMs on tackling homelessness and lack of affordable housing and urban agriculture. (The city website notes that before his election, he helped establish the nation’s first community hops garden.)

Enterprise level is about the mechanisms of city government and inter-government or infrastructure projects. At this level sits one of his other techie projects—open data. And getting City Council meetings on YouTube (that’s been done!) Other examples include improving 311, better crime metrics, reviewing the IT outsourcing contract, and reforming Animal Care and Control.

Andrew Johnson said he would hit the ground running, and that was exactly what he did.

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