A large banner supporting Jacob Frey hung above the entrance to the Karmel Mall as he strode in recently to campaign for a second term as Minneapolis mayor.
The embattled leader told voters that no one is better positioned to create a more diverse police force, more affordable housing and greater economic opportunity for all as the city emerges from one of its most trying times in history.
Down in the polls and without the DFL endorsement, Frey is sharing that message at countless small gatherings in a frantic final push to win over an electorate still reeling from the police killing of George Floyd, a global pandemic and a violent crime wave.
"Over these last couple of years, I have learned more lessons than at any point in my entire life," Frey said. "Those lessons will make me a better mayor and hopefully they make me a better person."
But not everyone at the East African cultural hub greeted him with kindness.
"What have you done for us in the last four years?" asked a stern Mohamed Ali Hassan, president and founder of the Somali American Peace Council. "There needs to be some accountability. I can't just vote for you again."
Frey has worked under an intense international spotlight since Floyd's death forced the city into the epicenter of a reckoning over policing and racism. It placed the mayor at odds with many members of the City Council and powerful political forces bent on reducing police funding. Others, meanwhile, pushed him to quickly hire more officers as the city grappled with a police shortage and an increase in violent crime.
A new Minnesota Poll found city voters evenly divided on Frey's approval rating six weeks before the election, with about 1 in 3 approving and disapproving of Frey's job performance and 29% with no opinion. But 55% of voters said the city should not reduce the size of its police force, a position Frey also supports.
'Nature of the job'
The almost cocky sure-footedness of Frey's first run has given way to a more reflective candidate, one scarred by political bruises that have him facing 16 insurgent challengers, many sharply critical of his refusal to defund or disband the Police Department.
"I did not know that doing the right thing would also subject you to getting hit so hard from both sides," Frey said in an interview. "It's hard. ... That's the nature of the job right now."
Local supporters praise him for pragmatism in efforts to reform police, not replace them. Anything a leader did in response to the civil unrest was bound to be criticized, many acknowledged.
"He's a very heartfelt person and that's what the world needs a lot now," said Frey supporter and Keewaydin neighborhood resident Evelyn Brown, 67. Even though she doesn't agree with his policing approach, he's done his best to lead amid an ongoing crisis, she said. "There's too much chaos and he speaks from the heart," she said.
Criticism of Frey came harsh and swift during his handling of the aftermath of Floyd's death: from President Donald Trump to Gov. Tim Walz, the City Council, local businesses and activists.
Protesters shouted "shame, shame" outside his apartment building after calling him to a microphone, where he said he would not abolish police but supported "deep structural reform." The next day, nine council members gathered in a park and pledged to "begin the process of ending" the Minneapolis Police Department.
Some people credit Frey, who turned 40 in July, with being straightforward and sticking to his guns. Others paint him as an obstacle to change.
The turmoil in the second half of Frey's term was unenviable for any leader, other politicians point out.
"I don't know anybody that has gone through a pandemic and a civic insurrection in the murder of George Floyd and the trial of Derek Chauvin all at one time," said former state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. "As an incumbent, the buck stops with the leader … and Jacob has to own and be responsible for things that happened in his city, regardless of if they were his fault or not."
With about $434,000 raised in his campaign the first half of this year, Frey will run TV commercials soon, along with distributing fliers and mailings.
His calendar is filled with small "Mayor on the Block" gatherings in supporters' backyards. Those events, he said, have helped him get his message out even when a couple of protesters have shown up.
"It has actually benefited us because the whole crowd gets to see how I work through a difficult situation," he said. "And they get to see that I have answers to [protesters'] questions and those answers won't change, regardless of who's yelling at me."
On a recent evening, Frey stood before about 25 people in the Standish neighborhood, fielding pointed questions about policing from a mostly young crowd.
"We have instituted a litany of policy changes ... both before and after George Floyd was murdered," he said. "We need a culture shift, we need safety beyond policing and we need police officers. It's got to be the both/and approach."
An hour later, a crowd of about 35 in the Keewaydin neighborhood asked more about his plans for housing and his relationships with other elected officials.
Frey is asking voters to consider putting him on their ranked-choice ballot, even if they don't list him first.
It's how he won the seat four years ago, beating then-Mayor Betsy Hodges, and it's how his opponents are working against him now.
His most active challengers — Sheila Nezhad, AJ Awed and Kate Knuth — are forming a coalition to oust him. They're campaigning in predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhoods, painting Frey as "pro-police" and saying his leadership is an obstacle to the urgent sweeping changes many yearn to see. His detractors are using social media slogans such as "Don't rank Frey."
Lower ratings over past year
Voter support for Frey has waned over the past year, according to the Minnesota Poll, falling from a 50% favorable opinion in August 2020 to 35% earlier this month.
While 52% of Black voters still have a favorable opinion, that number came down slightly from 60% last year.
Frey says communities of color are still some of his strongest supporters, but he knows too well that another police killing of a Black person could change that.
Back at Karmel Mall, Frey spent a couple of hours greeting supporters in Somali and Arabic, getting a haircut and shopping. He sat outside and relished sambusas and Somali tea as many exiting the mall greeted him and cars honked in support.
Hassan, who had pointedly asked the mayor why he should earn their votes, said he didn't plan to list Frey on his ballot. The mayor failed to hold abusive police officers accountable and hasn't been visible enough in the community, the 63-year-old said. Instead, he planned to vote for Awed, a fellow Somali American whose campaign fliers are plastered around the mall.
"I voted for the mayor four years ago," Hassan said. "I'm now willing to take a chance on AJ not because he's Somali but because he's energetic and qualified to do the job."
But many others at the mall said even though they were not as excited about Frey as when he first ran, they were willing to give him a second chance.
"When George Floyd was killed ... I was impressed with how the mayor spoke," said Amina Abdi, a south Minneapolis resident. "I want a leader in my city who tells the truth."
A second chance — even just a second ballot ranking — is what Frey is seeking now; a chance to follow through on the challenges of the past couple of years, he said.
"I feel a deep-seated responsibility," Frey said, "to bring the city through the difficult times."
Staff Writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.