Once upon a time in North Minneapolis, there was a Fifth Ward city council candidate named Natalie Johnson-Lee, a Democrat, but endorsed by the Green Party. Johnson-Lee was the neophyte politician in the year 2001 who challenged 12-year veteran incumbent Jackie Cherryhomes and defeated her that November by 72 votes.
Johnson-Lee became the first African American woman in Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward history to hold that city council position and the second African American overall, the first being the late Van White.
The buzz from political pundits and community folks in North Minneapolis during that time was that Johnson-Lee didn’t stand a chance against the DFL-endorsed Cherryhomes, who was considered a frontrunner, a heavy favorite, and a power broker. Well, the pundits were wrong after all.
Johnson-Lee served one term, defeated in a runoff election in 2005 by the former
Third Ward City Council Member Don Samuels, who became a Fifth Ward candidate after a redistricting plan put parts of the Third into the Fifth. This led to both African American candidates running against each other in the Fifth Ward and cut down Johnson-Lee’s hopes for a second term.
Currently, there is a new buzz in the Fifth Ward: Natalie Johnson-Lee is back to challenge incumbent Don Samuels again and, she hopes, to reclaim her city council seat. Since the Johnson-Lee campaign was announced this summer, the new buzz involves curiosity about what really happened when Johnson-Lee was in office, what she’s been doing after leaving the council, and what she plans to do differently this time around, if elected.
We invited Natalie Johnson-Lee (NJL) to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder headquarters for a sit-down interview to help satisfy some of that buzzing curiosity.
MSR: Thanks for coming out to do this interview.
NJL: No problem.
MSR: There are people who are curious about you and have a lot of unanswered questions.
NJL: I’d love for those people to call and have a conversation with me, because I’m a very public person. I’ve lived in the same house for 17 years and had the same telephone number for 17 years. If you’re looking for me, I’m not hard to find. I’m at 1700 Oliver Avenue in North Minneapolis.
MSR: There was some controversy about missing files when Jackie Cherryhomes was leaving and you were coming into office. Could you briefly tell us what really happened and how it impacted your tenure?
NJL: They’re gone. Gone! They are not to be recovered. Now briefly, I went into city hall and we had three file cabinets that are about six feet high and three feet wide. We also had a computer database. That was the first day. The next day, ready to work, we discovered that we have no files. We asked one of her aides where the files were, and he said that they were all in that one box. So we laughed, because we thought he was joking.
MSR: How many were left?
NJL: There were no files; there were brochures and marketing folders.
MSR: So, no files?
NJL: Not one file. No letters, no files or anything. So then we proceeded to look on the computer. The computer was dumped.
MSR: Did they have the same hard drive there?
NJL: The Fifth Ward files had never been archived the entire 12 years that Jackie Cherryhomes was in office.
MSR: Was she required to do so?
NJL: It is [required] now. It wasn’t before.
MSR: So, you started out with no files and no idea where to begin?
MSR: What did you do? Did you read all of the city council meeting minutes?
NJL: What I did was, I had the City Clerk’s Office institute a policy so it wouldn’t happen to anyone else. Basically, during any transition now, the City Clerk’s Office actually does the transition of the files.
Although Johnson-Lee faced serious obstacles in what is considered a high-constituent area and not having any files transferred or any paper trails of correspondences to review, she says that she never saw herself as a sitting duck or used any of those obstacles as an excuse.
Johnson-Lee’s office began to build up the database from scratch and embraced the situation as playing the hand her office was dealt. “On one hand, you can’t miss what you never had an opportunity to see,” she now says.
Johnson-Lee takes pride in the accomplishments of her tenure, such as being one
of the negotiators with Jerry’s Foods for the Cub grocery store on Broadway in North Minneapolis and the Lund’s grocery store in S.E. Minneapolis, before that store was taken from the Fifth Ward due to redistricting. Johnson-Lee was the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, Way & Means Committee, and the Intergovernmental Relations Executive Committee.
Since leaving the council, Johnson-Lee has taken on the job of executive director of the Minnesota African/African-American Tobacco Education Network (MAAATEN) and is owner of Sister in Power, LLC, a professional coaching and personal development consulting firm.
When I asked Johnson-Lee what she might do differently as a city council member than before, she said she will be holding a series of town hall meetings and community forums to consistently communicate better with the people. According to Johnson-Lee, if she were in office currently, she would hold a series of information training sessions about the new ranked-choice voting. As a candidate, she plans to participate in a get-out-the-vote rally on September 26.
Johnson-Lee admits that the first time around was like feeling her way around. This time, she says, “I’m looking at better ways to connect with everyone.”
“The beauty of already being in office before is that you create a record,” says Johnson-Lee. “I’ll put my city council record up against incumbent Don Samuels’ record any day of the week.”
For more information on Natalie Johnson-Lee’s campaign, visit her website at www.NatalieJohnsonLee.com, email her at NatalieJohnsonLee@gmail.com, or call her at 612-986-8037.
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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