Don Samuels defeated Natalie Johnson Lee in the contest for the new 5th Ward in Tuesday’s Minneapolis General Election. With all precincts reporting, Samuels had 1718 votes for 55 percent of ballots cast and Johnson Lee had 1376 votes, for 44 percent
The contest was easily the most bitter and divisive of all City Council contests, and richer in controversy and more venomously attacking than even the hostile mayoral races in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
At stake was the question: “What is the definition of Black leadership in the Twin Cities?” Samuels’ election and that of Ralph Remington, the victor in the white 10th Ward in South Minneapolis, maintained a broadened role for Black political leadership.
Don Samuels, an African whose lineage is Caribbean, and who immigrated to this country 20 years ago, and Johnson Lee, an African of several generations’ lineage in the United States, and who migrated to the Twin Cities from Philadelphia, did trench battle over themes large and small, global and local. Hers was a fight to hold on to her job. Samuels stood to say more voters in her 5th Ward would support him than her. Johnson Lee presented herself as speaking truth to power, a perennial outsider. Samuels said it is time to flip the script. Be the power. Use power. Deploy power on our own behalf.
Johnson Lee supporters attributed their loss to a variety of causes. Some charged the Black Church Coalition/African American Leadership Summit (BCC/AALS) did not work hard enough on her behalf. Others said they felt the Coalition should have been more aggressive in confronting Samuels on statements he made about being a descendent of slaves. Some felt the Insight News endorsement of Samuels played a part in her defeat, while others said her loss evidenced the fabled Willie Lynch syndrome rift: old leadership against young leadership; Black men against Black women.
But according to the Rev. Randolph Staten, co-chair of the BCC/AALS, at the end of the day, “the community spoke its choice.” Staten said he and the Coalition endorsed and supported Johnson Lee. “A number of her views have been very outspoken and on point with our agenda. But now, we are looking forward and planning to work with the new Council Member on healing and building our community.”
In a November 9th statement to Insight, Don Samuels said, “I am out here at Cub Foods today to greet and meet people because some of the community may have harbored ill feelings because of the intensity of the race. I want people to understand that it was my opponent’s job to make me look bad. I am not the antagonist I was made out to be”.
Asked what will be done to combat community violence he responded, “It is going to be very challenging. But one of the things I want to create is a multifaceted plan that will provide alternatives for young people.”
Some community members commented on Samuels’ election.
“I want Don to make sure he creates resources for single parents like myself.” said Dejuan Cochran, a Northside resident.
“As long as he follows through with what he preaches and is not just blowing smoke, I have no problem with Don Samuels as 5th ward council member,” said Northside Resident Lazondra Brown.
“I was very shocked when I heard Don won. I read he didn’t like Black people,” said Cynthia Jross.
“All I know is the community has improved, as far as drugs and crime, from four years ago. And I hope it continues to do so,” said Northsider Mike Lee.
“I don’t care who won. All I care about is the community getting better,” said Jeff Halvorson, a Northside resident.
Remington, in Ward 10, out-polled Scott Persons 2841 to 2328, 55.45% to 44.61% of ballots cast. Remington had major endorsements of organized labor and of individual, well-respected politicians and community leaders. Yet, the question remained whether predominantly white voters could look beyond their own color issues to elect him. They did.
In both contests, a subtext of race consciousness provided a broader context for evaluating common, yet challenging issues. In North Minneapolis’ 5th Ward, the questions were whether Black people could talk about slavery honestly, and accurately, and how the legacy of slavery affects us all today. In the 10th, the race question was whether the electorate was mature enough to allow Remington to tell his truths about the racism he encountered on the campaign trail, yet still operate in complete confidence that he would be victorious.
The census-based redistricting stripped away from the 5th Ward the new white neighborhoods downtown and in the warehouse district. And it consolidated Black voting power in a vibrant North Minneapolis that is home to thousands of migrants and immigrants from Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and points farther south, and east and west, like Mogadishu, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi; like Khartoum, Accra, and Monrovia, places like Kingston, San Juan, Havana; and Sao Paulo; places like Mexico City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and Belize City; and places like Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Phnom Phen.
Both wards offer precious vistas of emerging Black leadership in emerging urban communities. Both wards offer the city of Minneapolis Black leadership that is self-aware, self-confident, and capable of defining and presenting Black interests as core, foundational interests of all residents of our city and region and of humanity.