An Unlikely Challenger

Natalie Johnson Lee knows she's a long shot to beat Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes in Minneapolis's upcoming election
Craig Lassig

The tabletop is already covered with drawings of Minneapolis's Fifth Ward on which Natalie Johnson Lee has scribbled all kinds of notes and statistics detailing who votes and in what precinct. But she hurries out to her car to get "the really big map that's easier to read" anyway. Johnson Lee, a 37-year-old mother of two and a self-employed consultant, has gathered all of this arcane data because she's running against Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes in the upcoming election. She's entering the race, she says, for the simplest of reasons.

"I'm running because I can," she says, letting loose one of her trademark loud laughs. "It's my right to run. Everyone has that right and, in north Minneapolis's Fifth Ward, it's almost like people have forgotten that they have any rights at all. Like we've just accepted that we have to let Cherryhomes control our community. Well, we don't. I really want to win this race, but even if I lose I think my running will give people a sense of power. If people can see that change is possible, then I've done something already."

The biggest problems confronted by residents of north Minneapolis are economic, she opines. And as a member of the city council, Johnson Lee says, she would represent those in the Fifth Ward who need affordable housing, child care, and jobs that pay a decent wage. "They're simple human problems that can be worked on by anybody who cares to help," she says.

Born in Oklahoma, Johnson Lee moved to Philadelphia in her early 20s. There she juggled several part-time jobs and raised two sons by herself. It was a difficult time that taught her a lot about how to get by on very little. "I've always had a really strong entrepreneurial spirit," she recalls. "I had a virtual monopoly on baby-sitting in my neighborhood when I was nine. I work hard and I really like working with people to help them succeed."

Eventually she landed a job as an account representative with General Mills. In 1992 the company transferred her to Minneapolis. But two years later, tired of sales, she took a position at the Minneapolis Urban League as an employment counselor helping women who were trying to get off welfare. She left the Urban League in 1999 but continues to work as an independent consultant on employment issues and is involved in a number of other local and national projects aimed at helping the poor. She is a vocal member of the committee charged with overseeing the Hollman redevelopment on the near north side and an ever-present figure at city and county meetings.

Bounded by West Broadway to the north, Hennepin Avenue to the south, Xerxes Avenue to the west, and the Mississippi River to the east, the Fifth Ward has long been home to a large portion of the city's minority and immigrant populations. A growing number of wealthy voters are moving into the ward, however, buying up the luxury condos and lofts that are being built along the Mississippi River and in the downtown Warehouse District. Critics, including Johnson Lee, accuse Cherryhomes of increasingly catering to the well-to-do at the expense of those who worked hard on her behalf during her first campaign 12 years ago. That's not surprising, Johnson Lee suggests, since election results bear out the fact that the haves vote and the have-nots don't.

In 1989 Cherryhomes--then the director of the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council--unseated Van White, Minneapolis's first black city council member. She campaigned on the assertion that White had crawled into the pockets of downtown developers and lost touch with his constituents. After taking office, Cherryhomes quickly became one of the council's most powerful members. Her influence grew when her peers tapped her to be council president in 1994. Over the years she has supported taxpayer subsidies for all manner of downtown development from the Minneapolis Convention Center to the building of half-million-dollar townhomes overlooking the river.

But it was publicity surrounding the 1992 housing-discrimination lawsuit known as Hollman that made Cherryhomes a household name. Settled out of court in 1995, the suit was brought by Legal Aid and the NAACP on behalf of public-housing residents who accused the city of routinely segregating poor minority families into the dilapidated projects on the city's north side. In a decision that was supposed to be a win for the plaintiffs, the rundown housing was bulldozed and former residents were told that better-quality affordable housing would be built for them throughout the metro area.

But six years later, displaced residents have little to look forward to. Few replacement units have been built, so many families have either been bouncing from shelter to shelter or have just left town. And in the end, Cherryhomes opposed many of the affordable-housing units that were to be included in the new development. She agreed with St. Louis-based McCormack Baron, the developer overseeing the Hollman project, and others who said that the new development needed to attract more moneyed residents.

To say that Hollman is the big issue in the Fifth Ward is putting it mildly. "I think the way the Hollman development has ended up has shown people Cherryhomes's true colors," says Rev. Curtis A. Herron, who directs the north-side Zion Baptist Church and is the father of Eighth Ward council member Brian Herron. "There was a time when she was an effective council person, but it seems clear that she has lost her ability to identify with poor people. She is a bureaucrat now who has lost something that she will never get back. She has lost the ties that bind. She has political ties, sure. But she is no longer part of this community."

Herron, who has known Johnson Lee since shortly after she moved to Minneapolis, says he believes she is the right person to replace Cherryhomes. "I'm glad she is running," he says. "I agree with her on every issue I can think of. She supports affordable housing and she understands what poor families go through when they're just struggling to get by.

"People like and respect Natalie around here," Herron continues. "She will be a formidable candidate--and it will take one to beat Cherryhomes, because people are afraid of Jackie. They are intimidated by her, and many of them owe her favors. She hands out a lot of favors and is deeply entrenched around here. She remembers people who go against her and she gets revenge on them. People know that, so Natalie will have to go up against all of that fear people have, if she's going to win."

Herron's warning is no shock to Johnson Lee. In 1997 she helped her husband, popular KMOJ-FM (89.9) DJ Travis Lee, run against Cherryhomes. Lee lost the nonpartisan city primary to another candidate, Thomas Johnson III, who was making his third attempt to unseat Cherryhomes. If elected, Thomas Johnson vowed, he would name Lee his city-council assistant. The contest between Johnson and Cherryhomes quickly grew ugly. (See City Pages story "Taking the Fifth," October 29, 1997.) "I remember it all so well," Thomas Johnson says. "It was like I wasn't even running against [Cherryhomes]. It was like there was this giant political machine against me. It's the DFL party that really controls the power on the north side, and they were behind her."

Indeed, winning a race against an incumbent is always an uphill battle, says Beth Fraser, public-policy organizer for the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action. Not only do incumbents typically enjoy partisan endorsements, but they are also usually far better funded than their challengers. "Without resources it's much more difficult to get the word out about your campaign," explains Fraser. "People have won with significantly less money. But it doesn't happen very often."

In January Cherryhomes had more than $26,000 in her campaign coffers. By contrast, Johnson Lee says she isn't sure what she's got but it's probably just a few hundred dollars at this point. Still, she figures, even without organized money, it's possible to win an election with organized people. And she thinks she can gather the latter, no problem.

"I just want to see north Minneapolis get better. I want us to have a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee or order a turkey sandwich with cheese, like you can anywhere else in town," explains Johnson Lee. "We can't even buy a book anywhere in our community. It's just a forgotten place, and I want to change that."

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