Minneapolis Fourth Ward “dynasty” challenged

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Can incumbent Barbara Johnson address the needs of a changing constituency?

For almost 40 years, one extended family has politically controlled the Fourth Ward in Minneapolis, which sits on the far north and northwest sides of the city (north of Lowry Avenue). Fourth Ward City Council Member (and current City Council President) Barbara Johnson is a member of this family.

Her mother, Alice Rainville (who recently passed away), was the Fourth Ward city council member from 1975 to 1997 (Johnson was elected to the council right after her mother’s retirement). Rainville also became the first female president of the council.

Prior to that, Johnson’s cousin, John Derus, held the position of Fourth Ward city council member in 1971, leaving the position to become a Hennepin County commissioner. Other relatives have held and continue to hold various positions in government.

Soon after Johnson was elected to the city council in 1997, she became head of the Ways and Means/Budget Committee; she later became president. In the last election Johnson ran unopposed, which some say is due more to the fact that she is so thoroughly politically connected than to the work she is doing for the community as a whole.

This is not to say that Barbara Johnson does not have her supporters. Her mother did not just hand her the city council seat, and she has managed to hold on to the position (and become elected council president) while gaining strong support and respect amongst her colleagues.

Yet times are changing, and some believe that Johnson and her policies are not keeping up with the times.

Johnson’s challengers point to the reality of significant demographic changes taking place in the Fourth Ward and say these changes seem to be of little concern to the incumbent. People who represent many different cultures are moving in to the area, while many longtime residents are leaving. This is creating a new constituency for the ward with a different set of concerns and challenges — one that some believe Johnson to be unwilling to address or incapable of doing so.

According to the latest census reports (2000), every neighborhood in the Fourth Ward has had an increase in population (with the exception of Lind-Bohanon, which saw a decrease of less than 50 residents). There have also been significant increases in every documented race category in every one of the neighborhoods that make up the Fourth Ward — except for those who consider themselves White.

And, there are no signs of the trend changing. This situation creates an entirely new set of challenges, issues and concerns for the neighborhoods that are a part of the Fourth Ward.

For the election year 2009, there is not one but two challengers to what some have referred to as a “dynasty” currently being represented by Johnson: Troy Parker, a 15-year resident of the Fourth Ward who according to his blog has “been active in the DFL since 1997”; and Marcus Harcus, a resident of the North Side since a toddler, who describes his party affiliation as someone who has the Green Party endorsement but is a “non-partisan candidate” who is “opposed to the two-party domination of the political system.”

I spoke with both candidates about the incumbent, what the Fourth Ward needs, how their policies differ, and what it will take to unseat the politically experienced and connected Johnson.

Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to heydjmal@gmail.com.

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