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The Minneapolis City Council was poised for historic change Tuesday as voters elected the city’s first transgender council member, on a night that saw a handful of veteran council members from across the city struggling to hold on against strong challenges.

“I’m feeling elated. Ecstatic. Extraordinarily happy right now,” Andrea Jenkins, who becomes the first transgender woman of color elected to public office in a major U.S. city, said from her election night party at Curran’s Restaurant. “I’m really, really deeply proud of my community.”

At least one longtime council incumbent seen as vulnerable seized an early victory: Lisa Goodman, first elected in 1997, reclaimed her downtown-area seat. Council President Barb Johnson was leading challenger Phillipe Cunningham by the slimmest of margins on the North Side; if Cunningham pulls ahead after second- and third-choice votes are counted, he would join Jenkins as the second transgender council member.

Council Members Cam Gordon, Andrew Johnson, Linea Palmisano and Lisa Bender all won their south Minneapolis wards by comfortable margins, while Council Members Abdi Warsame and Alondra Cano were also leading. In the other North Side seat, incumbent Blong Yang was trailing challenger Jeremiah Ellison.

Two other incumbents, Kevin Reich and John Quincy, were both locked in tight races. In the other open seat, Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen held a small lead.

All 13 council seats were up for grabs this year, and two were open. Some of the most competitive races were contests between left and further left, with a group of activist candidates challenging incumbents, including some of the council’s longest-serving and most powerful members.

Minneapolis uses ranked-choice voting, in which voters list their top three choices for council member. It can take multiple rounds of counting to determine the winner, and some races may not be determined until Wednesday or later.

Divisive election year

The prevalence of activist candidates this year was a new phenomenon. The change rattled establishment DFLers concerned about the newcomers’ lack of electoral experience and business leaders who worried a far-left council would be unfriendly to their interests.

In October, downtown Minneapolis business and community leaders held a news conference to level criticism at candidates who said in a survey that they believe Minneapolis could one day be a city without police.

“I do think there’s what I would characterize as a fringe movement in the city to abolish the police department,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “And I frankly think that the folks who answered that question the way they did are pandering to that very fringe.”

In recent weeks, Minneapolis Works — a political action committee (PAC) funded largely by DFLers and tied to business leaders, including Cramer — made a final push with mailers targeting far-left candidates in races against incumbents including Quincy, Reich, Goodman and Barb Johnson.

Candidates supported by Minneapolis Works made efforts to distance themselves, saying they hadn’t asked for the PAC’s help and didn’t want it. Candidates on the other side condemned the flow of outside money into their races.

“I think we should all be worried that this is happening,” said Erica Mauter, who ran against Quincy.

The Ninth Ward race between Cano, former Council Member Gary Schiff and nonprofit founder Mohamed Farah also took a turn in the final stretch of the campaign. Minneapolis Works sent out mailers attacking both Cano and Schiff.

Competitive races

Seven of the 13 council races were considered competitive, including in wards where the incumbents won handily four years ago.

Cunningham embraced supporters when he arrived at his campaign party at Corner Coffee and Cone, then stood at the front of the room to address them.

“When I stepped into this election, people said she’s unbeatable,” he said of Barb Johnson. “These results show that our community is ready for change.”

A mile away, the mood at Johnson’s campaign headquarters was somber. As results came in, the 20-year incumbent, whose family has held the seat for nearly half a century, huddled with campaign staff to work out possible remaining paths to victory.

“Everyone is a little discouraged,” she said.

Across town in the open Third Ward, results were still unknown late Tuesday. Jentzen led DFL-endorsed Steve Fletcher in first-choice votes, but it appeared Fletcher could pull ahead once second-choice votes were counted.

At Jentzen’s campaign party, Sarah Gonser explained ranked-choice voting to fellow supporters.

“I just want to know what happened,” said 29-year-old Nestor Garcia, who has volunteered with Jentzen and the 15 Now campaign, which Jentzen led, since January.

Fletcher was feeling optimistic as his party wound down at Mac’s Industrial Sports Bar.

“We think we probably won,” he said, his voice turning up slightly, like a question. “And we’ll celebrate that when that is official.”

Star Tribune staff writers Liz Sawyer and Sharyn Jackson contributed to this report.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509