I wanted to get one thing straight at the start of my postelection chat with Steve Cramer, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. Are you still a DFLer? I asked.
“Absolutely I am!” avowed the fellow I first met during his 10-year stint on the Minneapolis City Council, 1984-93.
Just checking, I explained. So many social-media electioneers had lately called him and his business allies by the meanest name in their political lexicon — “Republican” — that I wondered if he had taken that affiliation himself.
Not at all, he said. His politics are pretty much the same as they were 24 years ago when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the DFL-dominated town, talking about the need for improved public safety, a more vigorous quest for jobs and a city government alliance with a strong business community to solve shared problems.
Those were DFL positions then. Cramer wants to believe they still are. But after an election in which voters agreed with a business coalition’s picks in just two of its seven targeted City Council races, he’s not sure how willing the city’s new DFL officials will be to hear, let alone heed, the concerns of the city’s employers — quite a few of whom are DFLers too, Cramer says.
The election didn’t produce the “lurch to the left” at City Hall that some employers feared, Cramer said. But by his measure, the council that will take office in January “leans more to the left” than does the current one. Three comparatively business-friendly incumbents — Barb Johnson, Blong Yang and John Quincy — were defeated by more liberal challengers. That could be enough to strain the relationship between city government and Minneapolis employers.
Make that “further strain.” Good feeling was already in short supply after the City Council proceeded over business objections to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 and compel employers to offer workers paid sick leave. The state Chamber of Commerce filed suit Friday over the wage increase; it did as much over the sick-leave rule last year, without success in the courts to date.
Things got worse this summer as downtown business owners complained of too little City Hall response to recurring episodes of late-night violence.
Then came the campaign, and the business community’s alarm as it saw key members of an already liberal City Council being challenged from the left by hard-running candidates. Employers decided to fight back. They formed a political-action committee called Minneapolis Works and employed tactics that state business groups had used to proven effect in legislative campaigns — hard-hitting direct-mail messages.
None were as toxic as the now-notorious missive in St. Paul that was funded by the capital city’s business community and police union. The hit job about a theft of guns from Melvin Carter’s home spectacularly backfired. Carter waltzed to an easier victory than seemed to be in the offing before the mailer appeared.
The mailers from Minneapolis Works were mild by comparison, but generated a buzz of their own. The similarly named MPLSWorks coalition that had advocated in favor of stricter citywide labor standards howled about “lies, deceit and corruption” in the business group’s tactics. The entire Minneapolis DFL legislative delegation objected on these pages, saying that the “ultraconservative” state Minnesota Jobs Coalition was behind the ads. (The coalition was involved in the Park Board but not the City Council contests, campaign finance reports subsequently indicated.) After learning that a photo in a mailer intended to help her had been doctored to include black faces, Barb Johnson asked the group to desist. A candidate targeted for attack in the Third Ward, Ginger Jentzen of the Socialist Alternative party, said Minneapolis Works had misstated her position and engaged in “coded sexism” to boot. (Jentzen also lost, coming in second to DFLer Steve Fletcher.)
Minneapolis Works might fairly claim some credit for Jentzen’s defeat, though the group’s favorite in the race, Tim Bildsoe, also lost. But the rest of the election’s results ought to occasion some tactical rethinking among politically engaged business folks. The business communities in both Twin Cities appear to have bumped against a limit on negative campaigning’s effectiveness.
Cramer deemed my day-after-Election-Day visit too early for that kind of postmortem. But he was keen to talk about how much the city’s businesses and elected leaders have in common — and need each other.
Take transit, he said. “The Minneapolis business organizations have been the loudest voices in the state’s business community about the need for more transit,” long a DFL priority as well.
Take job opportunity for disadvantaged populations. Cramer and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin cochair the Hennepin Workforce Leadership Council, which has created structured training programs leading to jobs in 18 in-demand occupations in both the public and private sectors. “Minneapolis officials have only been slightly engaged” in this work, “but we could put this effort on steroids with the right support,” Cramer said.
Take education. No entity can take a back seat to the Minnesota Business Partnership — a state organization with headquarters in Minneapolis — in calling attention to the race-based gap in achievement and rewarding educators who close it.
A case can be made that of the three goals most often voiced by the city’s most progressive candidates — environmental protection, racial equity and stricter labor standards — the business community takes issue with just one. The labor standards fight likely isn’t over. The table has been reset for a proposal that was considered, then set aside, two years ago to prohibit short-notice and variable scheduling of workers by any employer in the city.
If it returns, Cramer said, the Downtown Council will fight it. “Minneapolis is becoming a singularly costly and complicated place to do business. If that continues, eventually there’s going to be an impact” in terms of lost investment, lost jobs and diminished community vitality. “We’re not going to be mute about that.”
If the new City Council wants a battle with the business community, pushing for a worker scheduling ordinance will ensure a fight. But it would be a fight that would cost the new crowd in charge at City Hall some potent allies in their quest for other goals. If the new DFL-dominated City Council wants to make progress on closing race-based socioeconomic gaps and protecting the environment, they’d do well to remember that there are DFLers in the business community, too.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.