During the graduation ceremony for Minneapolis Central High School’s class of 1969, a politician by the name of W. Harry Davis spoke to the students. Sharing words of encouragement he told the students what it means to be involved in the community and said someone in that crowd could one day be a mayor.
“Nobody thought it would be Sharon,” said Sharon Sayles-Belton, who listened with the rest of her class on that graduation day 48 years ago.
In 1971, Davis was the first African American with the endorsement of the DFL to run for mayor in Minneapolis. Although he didn’t win, he later provided guidance to Sayles-Belton and encouraged her to run for mayor of Minneapolis. In 1993, she won the mayoral election and became the first ever African American and woman to be elected mayor in Minneapolis, serving from 1994-2001. Sayles-Belton is the only mayor of color to serve either Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Now, 16 years after Sayles-Belton left office, four candidates of color are running for mayor: two in Minneapolis and two in St. Paul.
In Minneapolis mayoral candidates Nekima Levy-Pounds and Aswar Rahman emphasize supporting communities of color in their challenge of the incumbent, Mayor Betsy Hodges. Across the river, with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman stepping down to run for governor, the candidates of color vying for the position include current City Council Member Dai Thao and former City Council Member Melvin Carter III.
These candidates are all progressive, from different backgrounds, and have an endgame to challenge the status quo by providing communities of color resources to flourish. How will they do that? They each have their methods but by in large they plan to diversify the police force and support education to make sure the future of the Twin Cities is in good hands.
As both cities have seen their populations of color increase by more than 10 percent since 2010 according to Census data, having candidates that could have more reflective representation means more voices and ideas are at the table.
Sayles-Belton is excited to see well credentialed candidates of color step up in this year’s election.
“It’s terrific,” Sayles-Belton said. “This is not an anomaly.”
Melvin Carter III
St. Paul Mayoral Candidate
Executive director of Minnesota Children’s Cabinet and former City Council Member
“The fact that we see a president who is extremely out to just nail so many of the policies, that so many of us worked hours to build… it just creates an urgency that doesn’t give us the opportunity to sit on the sideline,” Carter said.
Carter was born and raised in St. Paul and a graduate from Central High School. His father was in law enforcement and his mother a teacher who later became a Ramsey County Commissioner. As the son of a public servants he grew up looking up to authority, but has also experienced racial inequality.
“I grew up literally praying for the safety of our police officers every day,” Carter said, but “I also grew up an African American man driving in the city of St. Paul and I myself have had the same type of experience that I hear people talking about…all over the country.”
It wasn’t until an incident in 2000 when he voted in his first election while enrolled at Florida A&M University, that he knew he needed to get active in politics.
During that election, some of his classmates, including his brother-in-law, were turned away from the voting booth. There, he grew passionate about making sure people’s voices would count in the political process and worked as a trainer and organizer at organizations like the Wellstone Center.
Carter put his organizing experience to good use in 2007 when he ran for St. Paul City Council. During his six years of service from 2008 to 2013, he was integral to the formation of St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), which focuses on confronting discrimination and providing accessibility and economic opportunities for all residents and businesses. He also worked to ensure the construction of the Green Line light rail was more equitable for the communities along the line, like making sure there were more stops in more neighborhoods.
“We may be focusing on prioritizing hearing those voices of folks who haven’t necessarily, always felt heard,” Carter said.
When it comes to the incoming Major League Soccer stadium in Midway, as mayor, Carter promises to make sure development focuses on local residents and that the venue won’t force them out of their homes. While on St. Paul’s City Council, he was a big proponent for housing initiatives, having worked to create a city trust fund for affordable housing development.
After the death of Philando Castile and standing with protesters in the following days, public safety is a key part to Carter’s campaign. For him, holding officers accountable and recruiting officers that are more reflective of the city’s population to counter racial profiling and police brutality are crucial measures. Essentially, he wants a police force that is transparent and helps create safe neighborhoods.
Having grown up in the city has given Carter a broader understanding of the community and has led to what he calls an “unconventional campaign.”
“The way we take care of each other on a local level…sends an even stronger message about who matters and who’s a part of our big democracy,” Carter said.
St. Paul Mayoral Candidate
St. Paul City Council Member
“As mayor, nobody is going to be pushing this city around,” said Thao, who co-sponsored a resolution to reunite St. Paul residents with their families after President Trump’s executive order banning refugees. “Somebody has to stand up to this bully.”
Thao came to Minnesota as a Hmong refugee. As a child his family migrated to Thailand during the Vietnam War and along the journey he tragically lost a brother and sister. While in Thailand, access to food and health resources was limited. Thao thought that when he and his family arrived in the United States it would be better.
“When I got here in 1983, I realized it wasn’t paradise at all,” he said reflecting on when his family migrated to the North Minneapolis.
Kids called him offensive names, spat at him and even told him to “go back to your country.” The experience was a rude awakening. In fifth grade, Thao’s teacher, who was an African American from Louisiana, shared with the class that she came to Minnesota for a better life. That year during Black History Month he worked on a project covering the Underground Railroad and that’s where he first learned about Harriet Tubman.
“Right away I resonated with her,” he said. “Our people were discriminated…enslaved. That resonated with me and my people who were refugees.”
Ever since then, Thao has used his lens for racial equity to fight for others. When lower income families couldn’t access swimming pools he fought for them so they’d have access to it, after all their tax dollars were going towards it. He has fought for affordable housing in the Rondo community for African Americans so families could continue living in the neighborhood they were raised in.
“I’m not only a person of color, I’m a refugee. I’m an immigrant. I know exactly who the people are that Trump is going against right now,” Thao said. “That gives me another layer of sensitivity and lens, eyes and ears to [reach] more people.”
Through Thao’s platform, he continues to fight for equality. Thao is establishing two committees: one for business partners and the other for community leaders. Business partners, big and small, will gather with Thao to collaborate on creating an effective business strategy for the city. With the community leaders, committee discussions will be focused on how they can improve the quality of life.
“It’s a holistic approach,” Thao said. “Government exists to serve the people, not to profit from the people.”
Fighting for small businesses he wants to make sure they are supported and it’s a balanced system with the increase in wages.
As a former Eagle Scout protecting the environment is important to Thao, who is a champion for the bike plan and wants to make it his goal to make sure streets are plowed during the winter for bikes, just like cars, for year-round cycling. Keeping the streets safe is important to him to prevent fatal pedestrian incidents. When it comes to recycling he plans to make it one hauler for the city so everyone is charged the same rate to make it fair for all residents.
Minneapolis Mayoral Candidate
Lawyer and former president of Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP
Peanuts, a laptop, binders and papers cover Levy-Pounds’ desk in the office of her new establishment, Black Pearl, on West Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis. The vocal and vibrant community leader, who served as both the president for the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and an advisor to Black Lives Matter, has a vision to support the Fight for $15 movement, dramatically improve law enforcement, employ more people in the city and address environmental concerns in North Minneapolis.
Born in Jacksonville, Mississippi, Levy-Pounds moved to Los Angeles, California at age 8, which is where she discovered issues around social justice and her desire to get involved. Living in Los Angeles at the height of the “War on Drugs” she witnessed the impact of crack cocaine on the neighborhood and decided becoming a lawyer would serve as an opportunity to help her community. “I am passionate about social justice, racial justice and equity. I want to help unite the city of Minneapolis and show people that we have much more in common than we recognize at this time,” Levy-Pounds said. “I want to see a paradigm shift in terms of how we do business.”
While working as a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, Levy-Pounds witnessed years of racial inequities and disparities in the Twin Cities sometimes referred to as the “Jim Crow North” because of the racial climate. She has taken a stand against budget cuts that increase racial disparities, police brutality and repealing discriminatory measures like the lurking and spitting ordinances in 2015.
“I want to see our police department become a world class police department,” Levy-Pounds said. “We cannot become comfortable with mediocrity, nor should we be comfortable with the current representation of the Minneapolis Police Department.”
Hiring officers who live in the community and diversifying the police force is Levy-Pounds’ plan. In addition, she wants officers to go through better job screenings and trainings, to ensure that the city’s officers aren’t affiliated with white supremacist groups and can work better with diverse communities.
When it comes to lowering crime, for Levy-Pounds creating jobs is the way. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Levy-Pounds said, citing Rev. Gregory Boyle.
“When someone has a job where they can put food on the table and help support their families it gives them a stake in society. They feel like a participating member, they feel valued,” she said.
Supporting small businesses and ensuring businesses are hiring inside the community is key, along with evaluating job requirements to match appropriate levels of education. Instilling pipeline programs for students to get them on path to obtaining a job after graduation is also on her agenda. Above all, Levy-Pounds wants to ensure workers have their rights to paid sick and leave time and is a supporter of raising minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Environmental concerns have been brought up to Levy-Pounds: high rates of asthma and lead poisoning amongst children of color in North Minneapolis, along with higher rates of cancer, are two issues Levy-Pounds looks to address immediately.
Minneapolis Mayoral Candidate:
Filmmaker, actor and UX designer
“Our government has an obligation to help everyone with the proportion they need help with,” Rahman said.
Eating a late 2 p.m. lunch at the Lowry Café in Minneapolis, Aswar Rahman said “I love the food here,” but time doesn’t always permit for him to eat out. For a guy who works a minimum 12-hour day, writes scripts and reviews text and data for outlets like Reuters in his spare time, he’s more than equipped to handle what comes at him. This comes from his discipline upbringing in a military family.
Raised by a single mother with two siblings, his family migrated from Bangladesh to Minneapolis. Rahman grew up on food stamps, and made sure he graduated early. He had already moved up a grade when he moved to Minnesota. After he was selected to a program that helped him forgo his senior year of high school, he later transferred to the University of Minnesota and received his bachelor’s degree.
While running for mayor, Rahman has already written a 200-week plan laying out his course of action should he win. Rahman says he thrives off data, and so he has used his research to prioritize his duties in office. For example, Hodges has budgeted $11 million into remodeling the Convention Center, which is ranked 95th of 97 important tasks in the city. Rahman said he would rather that money to go toward the community.
Rahman has also used data to address needs within the Minneapolis police force. Studying per-capita data nationwide, Rahman calculates 80 officers, preferably of color, need to be added. Adding more officers and a diverse staff would reduce crime in North Minneapolis, an area where crime has increased by 16 percent, said Rahman.
As a millennial who feels he’s a part of a generation that’s misunderstood, Rahman is on a mission to reflect the value of this population. Millennials are digital natives and growing up with answers at their fingertips, they are people that need more than just talk to be reasoned with, Rahman said. This is why Rahman bases his campaign in data: it’s a tool that’s factual, not predicated on one’s belief.
“I want to be a potent representative of my generation,” he said.
Millennials are often seen as innovators, but when it comes to starting a business in Minneapolis, the barriers are high for many. When Rahman attempted to start his own business, he was blindsided by all the fees that came along. Having seen how already-prosperous businesses tend to get the most tax breaks and assistance, Rahman said he wants to provide business owners of color with the same resources so they too can flourish.
Rahman believes that with a platform that supports families economically, children will also fare better as a result. For example, he wants more transparency with the city’s dealings with the Northern Metal Recycling plant and for the facility to fund blood testing for all children within a mile of the plant.
“The root of that disparity is economics,” he said.
Correction: This article has been corrected from a previous version to properly identify Sharon Sayles-Belton’s high school.