Mayor Betsy Hodges made her way west on Broadway Avenue, slowly.
Flanked by her husband and two campaign staffers, Hodges got buttonholed by a fundraising third-grader. A couple confided they were struggling to find work. Young people with brochures demanded she turn control of the police over to an independent elected panel.
She listened, she talked, she hugged, she commiserated. She conversed. And it took her about an hour to cover two blocks.
It is this quality, Hodges’ comfort and effectiveness in one-on-one conversation with voters, that she is banking on to carry her to re-election in November over a field of 15 challengers. If she wins, she will continue the work of her adult life: righting the city’s wrongs.
“I knew I wanted to change the world. I knew that racism in particular was holding us back as a people, as a country. In my mid-20s, I discovered local politics as the avenue to make those changes,” Hodges, 48, said. “My entire adult life has been focused on local government as the avenue to social change.”
As mayor of a prosperous, growing city, Hodges should be in a commanding position before the election. Only one mayor has lost a re-election bid in Minneapolis in 40 years.
But Hodges’ campaign has struggled. She is in conflict with a majority on the City Council. Her strained relationship with former Police Chief Janeé Harteau ended with the chief’s forced resignation in July.
The mayor’s campaign fundraising lags behind that of two of her competitors — Jacob Frey and Tom Hoch. Twice — in April and in September — she was forced to replace key people in her campaign after abrupt resignations. Business owners are furious with what they see as inaction on public safety and a tin ear from the mayor.
But Hodges, though not a high-energy salesperson, is a good mayor, said state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped persuade her to run for City Council in 2005. She’s diligent behind the scenes and “highly productive” despite persistent opposition on the City Council.
“She’s geared toward really doing the deep dive on understanding policy and trying to implement good policy,” Dibble said. “She has done more to build in long-term cultural change in the police department than any mayor that I can recall.”
Focused on details
Hodges grew up in Minnetonka, the youngest of three children. Her father was a cardiologist and her mother was a physical therapist.
The mayor has always been scholarly and prides herself on a certain nerdiness — she loves Wonder Woman, young adult fiction and the movie “Die Hard” — and after college she went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study sociology. There, she became convinced that local politics could reshape society to reduce injustice, inequality and racial disparity.
She settled in Minneapolis, took a job with Progressive Minnesota, and ran for City Council after spending two years doing one of the things she does best — meeting one-on-one with more than 150 people in the relatively more conservative 13th Ward to talk about issues.
“Almost everybody I had coffee with volunteered on my campaign,” Hodges said. “I won, handily, and shocked everybody.”
As a council member, Hodges focused on important but unglamorous details. Her signature accomplishment on the council, something that took almost six years, was reform of the city’s pensions. Her work helped save the city $20 million, and it was a typical Hodges endeavor — long-term, difficult to reduce to a sound bite, opposed by powerful interests.
“I would go to the Legislature to talk about it, and some male members of the delegation would all but pat me on the head, and say this will never happen, you’re tilting at windmills, you’re going to ruin your career,” she said. “But I do my best to do what’s right for the people of Minneapolis.”
Hodges was not the favorite in a crowded field running for mayor in 2013, but she won the backing of the Service Employees Union International and progressives in general, got the Star Tribune’s endorsement, and won.
Record and outlook
Hodges claims a long list of accomplishments from her first term in office: $330,000 in incentives to keep pollutants out of the air and water, lead abatement, funding for a 16-unit affordable housing development, down payment assistance for low-income homebuyers, a wide range of police reforms that are underway and a series of responses to President Donald Trump, whom Hodges sees as a direct threat to Minneapolitans’ way of life.
But she has faced divisive challenges. The police shooting of Jamar Clark and subsequent protests scarred north Minneapolis and everyone at City Hall, but few more than Hodges. Her friendships were strained through the protests, she was shouted down in City Council chambers and protesters showed up at her house.
Disagreements with her police chief, Harteau, boiled over with Harteau’s appointment of Lt. John Delmonico as inspector of the Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis. Hodges rescinded the appointment and butted heads with Harteau before forcing her to resign in the wake of a police officer’s shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July.
Hodges’ harshest critics, however, are downtown. Jay Ettinger, a real estate agent and one of the owners of the Pourhouse, said he campaigned for Hodges in 2013 and feels “duped” into believing that she took downtown business concerns seriously.
Hodges has isolated herself, Ettinger said, her office is unresponsive, and she’s “apathetic” about the issues he cares about — notably the uptick in street crime and gun violence in the Warehouse District.
“This is Minneapolis, this isn’t Mayberry. You don’t get a second chance,” Ettinger said.
Hodges rejects the charge that she’s isolated herself, but she said relationships with other public officials are not her first priority.
To Hodges, the biggest issues the city faces in the next four years are smart growth, since Minneapolis is growing, and closing the economic, education and criminal justice gaps between white people and people of color. Her initiatives aimed at building community trust in the police are underway, as is her work on climate change. She believes residents have confidence in her to continue that work, because that’s what they tell her.
“There are political echo chambers. There are social media echo chambers. My litmus test is how are conversations going with voters,” Hodges said. “Those conversations are going well.”
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Bryn Mawr University, master’s degree in sociology from UW-Madison.
Family: Husband Gary Cunningham; two adult stepchildren.
Fun fact: Hodges tries not to miss Wheel of Fortune, her favorite TV show.