Money is pouring into Minneapolis elections at a blistering pace as residents of the city brace to vote on the future of its Police Department and as the issue takes on growing significance in national politics.
With two months left until the first municipal election since George Floyd's death, political committees on both sides of the issue already have surpassed fundraising totals set in the last election cycle.
Several political operatives and former city officials said they believe the fundraising is on record pace, though they agree it is difficult to verify.
"I've never seen anything quite like this," said Jackie Cherryhomes, who sat on the Minneapolis City Council for 12 years and served as its president. "We who live here will live with the consequences of whatever the outcome is, and it should be our decision as residents of our city."
The injection of national money into local races has become a divisive issue. Some groups say it's badly needed to correct a power imbalance that has left historically marginalized groups without a voice in city politics. Others worry the money is drowning out concerns from residents who fear their city is becoming a laboratory for untested policing proposals.
The fundraising figures reported so far represent just a fraction of the total amount that is likely to funnel into the Nov. 2 election.
The future of the Minneapolis Police Department already is emerging as an issue in state and federal races next year. Republicans hoping to reclaim majorities have sought to paint Democrats as candidates who want to "defund" the police. Democrats, meanwhile, face increasing pressure to clarify where they stand on an issue that has divided their party.
Surpassing election's totals
As of this month's latest campaign finance filing deadlines, political committees in Hennepin County had brought in more than $1 million. That already surpassed the roughly $740,000 total that committees raised there in 2017, when the last municipal races were held.
According to a Star Tribune review of the filings, 14 of the 20 committees raising money in 2017 had addresses in Minneapolis. This year, seven of the 18 committees had addresses in Minneapolis, while the others came from a mix of other Minnesota towns and cities across the country.
The largest fundraiser so far this year was the new political committee called Yes 4 Minneapolis, which wrote a proposal asking voters if they want to clear the way for officials to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency.
The group, registered in St. Paul, disclosed nearly $984,000 in donations — half in cash and half in services. (A spokesperson said they used a volunteer's address when they were getting started and are in the process of updating it.)
Among their donors was the national progressive organization MoveOn.org, which disclosed roughly $430,000 in "in-kind" donations in the form of e-mails and text messages to benefit the group.
Among the other highest fundraisers was a new committee called All of Mpls, which is campaigning against the proposal to replace the Police Department and promoting a proposal that would move Minneapolis closer to a "strong mayor" system. That group raised about $109,000 in the three weeks leading up to the deadline. Of the group's 23 donors who met the dollar amount for public disclosure, many were developers, business executives or lawyers. Roughly half also had contributed to Mayor Jacob Frey's re-election bid.
A snapshot of total spending
The donations disclosed so far represent a fraction of the total amount that will go into the race. If past trends hold true, some of the largest spending will happen in the final days before the election.
With the coronavirus delta variant complicating plans for in-person campaigning, some observers expect that fliers, ads and social media could play a key role in the final push.
Groups organizing so far are bracing for a deluge. JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said she expects her group will be outspent.
"It may be a David and Goliath story, and that story is powerful for a reason," she said. "I think it is gonna be a big fight on if these dollars are going to outvote, outrank, diminish people"
Because of a loophole in state law, some donations won't be disclosed until after votes are cast.
"I'm afraid you're gonna have a big blank part in terms of ballot question expenditures," said Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.
Committees that spend money on state elections as well as local ones have the option of filing with the state board. In odd years — when local races are held but not state-level ones — committees filing there only have to submit one disclosure report, and it doesn't come until after the election is conducted.
That will change in 2022, when a new state law increases the number of reports those committees must submit in local election years.
"It is a little disturbing that you can go through a whole election in the largest city in Minnesota, and there's no transparency about who's funding communications and electoral information pieces about it," said Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, who pushed for the new law. "I thought it made a lot of sense as a policy to make that change."
Searching for a comparison
Though political observers say campaign spending appears to be headed for local records, it's difficult to verify. Hennepin County elections officials keep records for five years, enough to compare only with one prior election. That retention schedule, they said, is based on state law.
Few others appear to be keeping historic data on local election spending, a phenomenon that David Schultz, a Hamline University politics professor, attributes in part to the fact the data is kept in PDF format, which doesn't lend itself to easy computer analysis.
He said he suspects the most apt comparison would be to the 1978 election, when national conservatives came to St. Paul to campaign for the repeal of an ordinance protecting people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
According to a Minneapolis Tribune story from that time, groups organizing for and against the repeal said they spent about $148,000 combined — an inflation-adjusted equivalent of about $630,000 today.
The money pouring into the fight over the Police Department is impacting the races for mayor and City Council, where it quickly has become the dominant issue. Political observers expect spending on the ballot question could affect turnout in the candidates' races, some of which have been decided by close margins in past years.
"You have to think, at this point, that ... several council members are going to live or die by where they stood on the 'defund police' [movement]," Schultz said.
Affecting other races
The fight over the city's Police Department already is rippling into state and national politics and campaigns for future elections.
Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sen Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, oppose the specific question on the Minneapolis ballot, though both said police reform is needed.
State and national Republican organizations are using Minneapolis — and the torching of the Third Police Precinct after Floyd's death — in messages to rally their bases. They have sought to paint Democrats as candidates who want to strip police funding.
Among those targeted was U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat whose battleground district covers the southern metro area. Craig issued a statement last week saying she opposed the plan to replace the Minneapolis Police Department and efforts to defund police.
"I think Democrats have to address this issue head-on," Craig said in an interview. "I think Democrats all over the country are going to get hit with this in 2022, and we better come out swinging with what our actual track record is or we're going to be on defense the whole entire election cycle."
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994