Jacob Frey talked big in his bid to defeat a two-term Minneapolis City Council member.
The professional-marathoner-turned-lawyer-turned-rookie-politician told people in the Third Ward that their homes and businesses were sitting in the middle of one of the most exciting parts of the city. In downtown, in the North Loop and in the area east of the Mississippi River, he saw places to build, to expand affordable housing and to create new destinations, like the development going up around the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
After his victory just over a year ago, Frey kept talking. At council meetings, in media reports and at drop-ins at neighborhood businesses, the 33-year-old has established himself as one of the most prominent voices among the seven new council members. Frey’s ability to help secure deals on projects and land funding for affordable housing, coupled with a tendency to drop delicious sound bites, has launched him to the forefront of local government — and, at times, made him a clear target for criticism.
Now, as the new council moves into its second year and cranes crowd the downtown skyline, Frey’s challenge is to keep the momentum in his ward while navigating his place in public life.
“The thing that has surprised me the most, honestly, is you always hear about government being exceedingly slow, that the pace of government is a joke,” Frey said. “I’ve found it to be anything but. Every once in a while, I’ll look over my shoulder and wonder if anybody is going to stop me from doing this or that.”
In late January, Frey gathered supporters and neighbors at Nye’s Polonaise Room for his first “Third Ward Awards.” The event featured a presentation by the council member on top accomplishments in his first year, a discussion one attendee said ran for nearly a half-hour.
Frey had plenty to highlight: the council’s vote to end strict food and liquor sales ratios, a few major housing projects underway in the ward, the building boom around the new stadium and the successful push he led to get the city’s affordable housing trust fund to one of its highest levels in years.
At his own events — including monthly “Wake up with Jacob” breakfast discussions on a revolving list of topics — and in other public appearances and conversations, Frey is unflappably upbeat about his part of town.
Frey often uses amped-up phrases in discussions about possible developments in the ward. He called the empty Nicollet Hotel Block downtown “arguably the sexiest parcel in the city,” adding that “designers and developers better bring their A games.”
Frey takes the same message to his neighbors, both on his regular 5-mile runs and in visits to local businesses.
Jeff Metzdorff, co-owner of Mill City Running, said Frey stops in frequently to chat and even joined the store’s running club for early-morning group runs. (Frey, who once placed fourth in the marathon at the Pan American Games, no longer competes in races. “I’m not at the point yet where I can get beat and suck up my pride enough to not be a total jerk when the race is over,” he said.)
Metzdorff said Frey is representative of a newly redrawn Third Ward, where young professionals increasingly have moved in next to established residents. “I think he’s a perfect fit for the area,” Metzdorff said. “He’s fun to talk to because he’s always got a great story: ‘Hey, this is happening; this is going to come down the pike.’ He gets you excited to be a part of what’s going on in the neighborhood.”
Council Member Lisa Goodman, an early Frey supporter, said the council member, who was raised in the state of Virginia, has the advantage of seeing Minneapolis from an outsider’s perspective.
“His approach to things comes from ... having faith in the city as being a great national, if not international city,” Goodman said. “And approaching things from that very pro-city point of view … the things he’s agreed to take on don’t come from an ‘I want to fix this problem’ point of view as much as an ‘I want to see the city grow and prosper.’ ”
Tangled up with ‘latte levy’
That message hasn’t always gotten across.
In December, council members found themselves in a sharp divide over a relatively small part of the city’s $1.2 billion budget. One bloc of the council was poised to make cuts to a handful of programs in an effort to ease the burden of a proposed property-tax levy increase. Items on the chopping block included new positions meant to lead the city’s racial-equity efforts, money for the city’s new clean energy partnership with utility companies and programs aimed at new homeowners.
Opponents of the proposed cuts — most of which were eventually restored — called the plan a “latte levy,” noting that the savings achieved would amount to the price of a cup of coffee.
Frey, who has touted his efforts on equity, was in the camp looking to make the cuts. He argued that the city had spent too much time and money on studies and programs that didn’t amount to much progress. But equity advocates, including many who filled the council’s offices after a protest that shut down Interstate 35W — some of them chanting “enough with the lie, we want Frey”— weren’t buying it.
“I think he frankly maybe miscalculated the backlash,” said Anthony Newby, who heads the group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “For us, there is not such a thing as a small amount of equity cuts that are acceptable. We’re already under-resourced. We totally get that he wants to focus on the big picture and we support him on those things, but we think we can do both.”
Frey acknowledges that his job comes with a responsibility of being “a sounding board, or even a dart board.” And he says he’s happy to take criticism from a Republican from the suburbs who hates gay marriage and doesn’t like racial equity. But from fellow progressives closer to home?
“It’s more difficult,” he said.
Sharing the spotlight
Neighborhood leaders in the ward said Frey has been popular with residents, who see him as a strong advocate and appreciate how frequently he makes himself available to listen to their ideas.
Kevin Upton, a board member of the Nicollet Island East Bank Neighborhood Association, said Frey’s biggest challenge won’t be winning over his constituents. Instead, he said, the young politician will have to prove he’s a leader who doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight and the credit for big victories.
“I’ve been in government and politics for 50 years, and to me the most successful people are the ones that are the most generous with praise,” Upton said. “They share the glory when there are great events.”
Frey said he’s asked a lot about his political ambitions. Several City Hall insiders say there are whispers of the council member pondering a mayoral run.
But Frey shies away from the speculation.
“I believe that everybody in the world has the obligation to do whatever it is they do best to benefit society,” he said. “There were definitely better attorneys out there. But I’m not too modest to say I think I’m good at this.”
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790
Represents: Minneapolis’ Third Ward, which covers part of downtown, the North Loop and the area immediately east of the river
Home state: Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary, law degree from Villanova University
Occupation: Attorney, formerly a professional elite runner
Running highlight: Placed fourth in the marathon at the 2007 Pan America Games, with a time of 2:16:44.