In 2005, Ward Six was the most tightly contested city council race in Minneapolis. Owing to redistricting it pitted two incumbents – Robert Lilligren and Dean Zimmerman – against each other. The race was further complicated by the fact that Zimmerman, a popular veteran Green Party activist, was facing a federal indictment for bribery charges. In the end Lilligren prevailed by just 46 votes out of more than 3,000 cast.
Given the slim margin of victory four years ago, it’s not particularly surprising that numerous candidates are eying Lilligren’s post this election cycle. The Democrat has attracted five challengers – more than any other incumbent in the city. The introduction of instant-runoff voting, in which voters will rank their preferred candidate, further complicates matters.
“This ward historically has large fields,” says Lilligren. “We felt it was good that number stayed in the single digits.”
Lilligren was a strong supporter of adopting ranked-choice voting. He’s visited Cambridge, Mass., where they’ve long utilized such a system, and believes it encourages more constructive, issue-oriented campaigns.
“It’s a much more collegial, positive campaign environment,” he says. “I just think it’s better for the city if council candidates aren’t clawing each other apart.”
Ward Six includes the neighborhoods of Philips West, Whittier, Ventura Village and Stevens Square, stretching from the southern edge of downtown to Lake Street. At the time of the 2000 census, fewer than half of Ward Six residents identified themselves as white, and the demographics have only becoming more diverse in the ensuing years, with booming Somali and Latino populations. It’s also one of the city’s poorest areas: more than a third of the residents live in poverty.
Lilligren argues that his two terms on the council have positioned him well to address the needs of constituents in Ward Six.
“I think it’s a good time to have someone with experience in office,” he says. “The next two years especially are going to be critical, fiscally, for the city. We’re in difficult times.”
In particular, the Democratic incumbent’s excited about working on transportation issues over the next four years. He hopes to witness the long-awaited re-opening of Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street and the return of street trolleys to that corridor. In addition, planning for the southwest corridor light-rail transit line will ramp up in the coming years.
“A lot of transportation-related decisions that are going to impact this area are going to be made in the next few years,” Lilligren says.
Three of Lilligrens challengers – Andy Exley, Laura Jean and Michael Tupper – have come up with a unique strategy: they’re campaigning together. The three candidates have been holding shared meet-and-greet events and are refraining from criticizing each other.
“We are campaigning against the incumbent because he is not serving the needs of his constituents,” says Tupper. “You have three choices this time.”
Tupper cites a neighborhood effort to get a stop sign installed at 27th Street and Pleasant Avenue as evidence of the incumbent’s lack of engagement. According to Tupper, Lilligren showed up to a meeting on the topic and promised action, but never followed through.
“None of us ever heard anything,” he says. “That was the end of it.”
Tupper is a plumber, father of two and board member of the Whittier Alliance. He’s been endorsed by the Independence Party and the Minneapolis City Republican Committee. He lists crime, police accountability and spiraling property taxes as chief concerns in the ward.
“I am just the average guy in the neighborhood who cares,” he says.
Jean is a former pre-school teacher and Minneapolis native who also serves on the board of the Whittier Alliance. She’s running as a “progressive” without party backing and cites poverty as the primary issue motivating her to run. But she also echoes complaints about Lilligren failing to sufficiently represent that area.
“A lot of people in this area don’t feel he has any idea what’s going on in our community and isn’t involved,” she says. “What I hear from people is that he doesn’t return phone calls, he doesn’t return emails.”
Exley received the backing of the Green Party. He’s upset that efforts to repeal Minnneapolis’ anti-lurking ordinance last year were rebuffed by the city council. He believes it could be abused by the police to harass people who are deemed undesirable.
In addition, Exley and others are upset by what they view as a power grab by the city council. A proposal to abolish the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board was scuttled after public blowback. But a measure to eliminate the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation will be on the ballot in November.
“It was a very disturbing thing that they were trying to do,” says Exley. “I think the independent park board has been a great boon to the city.”
Mahamed Cali is a native of Somalia and president of the Somali American Community organization. Cali, who is also running as a Green party candidate (although without official backing), believes that the council would be well served to have a greater variety of voices. He would be the first person of Somali heritage to serve on the council.
“I’m connected with the community very, very well,” Cali says. “I already have a lot of relationships.”
He lists public safety and protecting small businesses as his top priorities. But Cali’s also concerned about whether immigrants will be disenfranchised because they don’t understand the instant-runoff voting system.
“People need more education to understand how to vote,” he says. “A lot of immigrant people are Spanish and African. They don’t know this system.”
The motivations of the final candidate, Bruce Lundeen, who is registered as Green Party candidate, are difficult to discern. He didn’t respond to three calls from MnIndy seeking comment.
Lilligren says criticism about him not being responsive to constituent concerns is off base. He argues that the fact that he was even at a block-level meeting regarding a stop sign is indicative of his engagement. He also points out that he wasn’t a supporter of plans to potentially abolish the independent boards.
“I’m supportive of the status quo, of what we have now,” he says. “In Minneapolis we have this unusually horizontal structure of government. I think this horizontal structure reflects our community values of involvement and engagement. It sets an expectation that more people will be involved in the government in our city, and I think that’s a good thing.”
This is the fourth in a 13-part series on Minneapolis City Council races to run every Monday and Friday, now through Oct. 16. On Friday, Ward 2.
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