Drawn and Quartered

Shapeshifters: The City of Minneapolis before and after
Courtesy of City of Minneapolis Web site

It was a behind-the-scenes process with a dull name that moved beneath the radar of the vast majority of Minneapolis residents. But when it was over, some incumbents on the city council had been thrust into an involuntary game of musical chairs and some critics were contemplating a lawsuit to overturn the results. Welcome to redistricting, the once-per-decade reordering of electoral boundaries. Ostensibly meant to reflect the demographic changes revealed by the U.S. Census, it inevitably gets bound up in partisan political maneuvering.

To put it another way: It's April 2002; do you know where your city council member is--or whether you still have one?

Residents of the Eighth Ward don't. Under the new boundaries, announced April 12, their elected representative, Robert Lilligren, now lives in the Sixth Ward. Meanwhile, the council member elected in the Sixth Ward, Dean Zimmerman, has been bumped into the Ninth Ward, where Gary Schiff is the elected representative (and still lives within its borders). Over the strenuous public testimony of dozens of residents, the near north side's Fifth Ward, represented by Natalie Johnson Lee, has been significantly redrawn, losing all its downtown neighborhoods to the Seventh Ward and picking up more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods such as Jordan and Hawthorne to the north.

Zimmerman and Johnson Lee are Minneapolis's first Green Party council members. Lilligren and Schiff are generally regarded as the council's two most Green-friendly DFLers. All are just months into their first terms. And they don't think it's a coincidence that they're the ones who've been most affected by the new boundaries.

The night before adopting its final plan, the nine-member redistricting commission held a public hearing that included a proposed map that would have kept all the council members in the wards where they were elected. None of the approximately 200 people who attended the hearing voiced disapproval with that arrangement. The majority of those who testified were angered by proposed changes to the Fifth Ward, arguing that it unfairly lumped together too many low-income people of color, without the economic balance of the more wealthy downtown neighborhoods. The next day, the commission ignored those complaints, and also knocked Zimmerman and Lilligren out of their wards.

"It was a bait-and-switch tactic that was absolutely planned from the beginning," Zimmerman alleges. "If they had shoved incumbents out of their wards before the public testimony, you can bet your bottom dollar people would have been talking about it. This is clearly an attack on the Green Party. They came back with a significantly different map that had one Green dangling with no ward [and] another Green in a much different ward than what the public asked for, and even left the citizens in the Eighth Ward without an incumbent looking out for their interests. It's no accident that they pitted the three of us [Zimmerman, Lilligren, and Schiff] against each other. In my personal opinion, it was cold and calculated."

Seconds Ninth Ward council member Gary Schiff: "It was definitely planned. The commission wanted to wait as long as possible to avoid a backlash. And [commission member] Rick Stafford was the campaign manager for Dean Zimmerman's opponent in the last election, so it's not surprising that he wouldn't be that upset that Dean and I were lumped together. The bottom line is, the whole process stinks. It became undemocratic and not representational of the people of Minneapolis."

Ironically, the redistricting commission was created in response to charges that the previous redistricting process concentrated too much power in the hands of incumbent city council members. Now, owing to a charter amendment approved by Minneapolis voters, the Charter Commission appoints two people from each of the state's major political parties. In addition, the DFL council members (as the majority party on the city council) and the Greens (as the largest minority party) were each allowed to appoint one commission member. Then the eight members of the commission choose a ninth member to chair the group.

Owing to a confluence of factors, the redistricting commission that emerged from this process skewed heavily toward moderates and conservatives. For one thing, while the DFL, Republican, and Independence parties were all represented on the commission, the Green Party did not qualify as a "major" party at the state level, having failed to capture five percent of the vote in the last statewide election. Yet the city council contains no representatives of either the Republican Party or the Independence Party.

Additionally, members of the Charter Commission are appointed by the Chief Judge of Hennepin County. And the two most recent judges to have held that post have been Kevin Burke and Dan Mabley. Burke is an old-guard DFLer, Mabley a political moderate. The representative chosen by the city council was former DFL state chair Rick Stafford. And finally, the two DFL members the Charter Commission appointed were from the Fourth Ward--and were members of the same electricians' union.  

Because they are the most prominent minority party represented on the city council, the Greens did get to appoint one person to serve on the redistricting commission. That appointee, Fred Markus, was the only commission member to vote against the final redistricting plan.

If the appointment process was overtly political, the redistricting negotiations were only slightly less so. Though a plethora of conditions had to be finessed--including provisions that each ward had to contain between 27,930 and 30,870 people and no ward could be more than twice as large in a north-south direction as it was east-west--to varying degrees, everyone had a partisan agenda. "I was interested in increasing the chances of getting a Republican elected in the 12th, 13th, 11th, and 7th wards," says Republican commission member Lyall Schwarzkopf. "I was not able to accomplish that in the 12th Ward. I was able to make the 11th Ward a little better for us, and with help from the Independence Party I was able to make the 13th and the 7th a little better."

The committee's Independence Party members had reason to want to shore up the 7th and 13th wards, with independent city council candidates having been elected four straight times in the 13th and a strong moderate council member (Lisa Goodman) holding down the 7th. "You have a lot of expectations going in, but it is a collaborative effort and compromises had to be made," says Independence Party member Karen Collier. "I'm sure everyone on the commission had someone they represented get upset. That means it was successful."

It also left the city council's Green Party members and left-leaning DFLers on the outside looking in.


By far the greatest public outcry centers on the Fifth Ward, which lost prosperous downtown neighborhoods and acquired more economically disadvantaged northern neighborhoods. "We already had an area where there is not a lot of economic investment, and they added another area where there is not a lot of economic investment. And they cut off downtown," complains Johnson Lee. "They are concentrating poverty and adding to the stigma many people feel about the north side."

In a city that is less than 40 percent nonwhite, the commission created a Fifth Ward that is 82 percent nonwhite. "If I have anything to do about it, there will be a lawsuit," vows Matthea Little Smith, founder of the Minnesota Black Political Action Committee and a member of the NAACP, whose Minneapolis chapter was once headed by her father. "We are looking at all options. That map is unacceptable, and if we have to live with it, I have to know I have done everything in my power to change it."

Johnson Lee concurs: "Right now a legal challenge is probably the way to do this.

"People were looking out more for the interests of their party than for the interests of the city, and I think that's sad," Johnson Lee adds. "This was definitely an old-line DFL plan. I don't want to use the word conspiracy, because it makes people turn their head. But it was a thought-out plan of retribution. The DFL is living up to their reputation for posing as a party that embraces and practices democracy but really practices elitism and cronyism and choosing who they want to come through. That's why people are real confused about what the DFL is today."

Commission members believe the law is on their side. "To say we packed that ward is bogus," says Karen Collier, a commission member who represents the Independence Party. "Everything we did, we ran up with the [city] attorneys time and time again. We can't help it that the Census showed we had a huge minority population in that area. That's the fact, folks."

Collier does allow that the system had its shortcomings. "I think the process was fair and I can say everyone worked really hard for two very intense months," she explains. "But I guess if you'd had the council do it again, then all the gripes would have to be directed against the council members. There's something to be said for that."

Adds Republican commission member Lyall Schwarzkopf: "I think this was as political as if the city council did it themselves." A former state legislator, city clerk, and governor's chief of staff, Schwarzkopf has participated in other redistricting plans at both the state and city level. "Back in 1971, I helped the city council when they did their own reapportionment, and I liked that better," he says. "The city council members know what kinds of wards they want and can compromise and work it out."

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