Reinventing public safety will be a central goal of the new Minneapolis City Council elected Tuesday — but it won’t be a repeat of the 2020 debate after nine council members stood atop a stage emblazoned with “DEFUND POLICE” and are committed to ending the department.

This moment provoked a violent reaction. But Tuesday’s election results made clear that voters still expect and are still comfortable with major changes in policing.

Unofficial election results suggest that the Minneapolis electorate, while barely recovered from the unrest of 2020, has moved past this moment of defunding, toward a more nuanced and progressive period. Voters Tuesday re-elected a handful of moderate council members who advocated for more funding for police. But they rejected candidates who tried to win by calling their opponent a police abolitionist; every serious candidate who attempted this strategy lost on election day.

Among the winners were candidates like Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who was one of the architects of the police defunding pledge — but now says he and voters think about the issue in different ways.

“It’s just not what people focus on anymore,” Ellison said.

From now on, the new council composed of 13 members, with a progressive majority, and Mayor Jacob Frey will be responsible for new police challenges, including:

  • Comply with federal and state court orders to rid the department of a culture that too often violated the constitutional rights of those it was charged with protecting, particularly Black and American Indian people.
  • Replenishing depleted ranks of traditional officers while seeking alternatives such as mental health and substance abuse specialists better equipped to de-escalate people in crisis.
  • Fund and rethink the traditional police station, starting with the new third precinct and adjoining “community safety center,” envisioned to provide a host of community services.

The “definancing” stage

Less than two weeks after the killing of George Floyd, nine council members – a veto-proof majority – stood on a stage at Powderhorn Park and pledged to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”

It was an image seared into the mind of a nation forced to come to terms with the horrors of police brutality, and one that would define Minneapolis politics — at least to outside observers — for some time.

But three years and two elections later, the situation has changed.

Of the nine council members who advanced to the funding stage, only City Council President Andrea Jenkins and Ellison will serve on the council in 2024. Some who were in Powderhorn Park were defeated, while others others did not seek re-election.

While both made the same anti-police pledge three years ago, Jenkins and Ellison today occupy opposite sides of an ideological divide that mirrors the council’s politics: Jenkins has settled into a relatively moderate wing who generally aligns with Mayor Jacob Frey, while Ellison is part of a more progressive group that believes moderates are moving too slowly to transform policing.

Ellison and Jenkins have differed on other major issues: rent control, responding to homelessness and the location of a new Third District police station. But they were both re-elected on Tuesday.

Jenkins narrowly survived a challenge from Soren Stevenson, who campaigned to the left of Jenkins, emphasizing that he was a “survivor of police violence”; his eye was destroyed when a projectile fired by police hit him in the face while he was protesting Floyd’s killing.

While Jenkins, like many of his colleagues who have stood at the top of the defund scene, has abandoned calls to defund the police department, his campaign has not focused on portraying Stevenson as a police abolitionist.

This contrasts with Ellison’s opponent, Victor Martinez, whose central theme was one of law and order against an anti-police Ellison.

Ellison, who beat Martinez by 12 percentage points, brushed off Martinez’s strategy in an interview days before the election.

He acknowledged that even though he stood on the stage at Powderhorn Park – and supported the failure of the 2021 ballot to replace the police department – ​​he now views police as an integral part of security public.

Electoral lessons

During the 10th Ward council race, candidate Bruce Dachis frequently brought up council member Aisha Chughtai’s past statements criticizing policing in campaign forums. Chughtai won easily.

Luther Ranheim wrote a press release highlighting a slew of since-deleted tweets by his 12th District opponent, Aurin Chowdhury, calling for the abolition of the police.

The response was telling: Chowdhury did not disavow the tweets. Instead, she said they reflected her feelings at the time, but her opinions had evolved — and, she said, so had the feelings of many residents.

Chowdhury beat Ranheim by 17 percentage points.

In the race to replace longtime Council member Lisa Goodman, who did not seek re-election, Scott Graham secured Goodman’s endorsement — a potentially powerful asset.

“Scott understands the importance of public safety,” Goodman’s endorsement reads. “He never supported abolishing the police.”

In a close race, Graham lost to Katie Cashman, who campaigned to Graham’s left but cautiously, making it difficult to pin her down as a defunding supporter.

Beyond reimbursement

All of those winners — Ellison, Chughtai, Chowdhury and Cashman — had the support of Minneapolis for the Many, a group seeking to create a more progressive majority on the council.

All three defeated candidates were supported by the Frey-friendly All of Mpls party, which poured about five times as much money into campaigns to help Graham, Dachis and Ranheim, as well as Jenkins and several other relatively moderate incumbents who won easily.

The moderate group spent about five times as much money as its upstart progressive group. But Minneapolis for the Many founder Chelsea McFarren said the messages from candidates her group supported resonated more than those from candidates trying to sink their opponents by tying them to the fleeting moment of defunding the police in Powderhorn Park.

“I think the candidates we supported have creative approaches and are solution-oriented for public safety,” McFarren said. “And I think the voters… agreed.”

Star Tribune Staff Writer Susan Du contributed to this story.

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