How Minneapolis became ground zero for a liberal uprising

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Activist Ginger Jentzen wants to become the first socialist elected to office in Minneapolis in living memory. Colin Michael Simmons

On a hot September day in Dinkytown, tables line the sidewalk outside University Lutheran Church of Hope, each manned by middle-aged people looking to talk about a cause—parks, public art, sustainable waste management, political candidates.

It’s the sort of sleepy bread-and-butter stop that forms the backbone of municipal elections, where candidates put in face time with constituents in exchange for addresses to add to mailing lists and donations to put toward a final push as November rears its ugly head.

On its face, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association ice cream social looks like business as usual on all fronts: kids playing catch in the street, a few enterprising girls running a lemonade stand, the faint sounds of genial conversation among neighbors.

Stop by Ginger Jentzen’s table, however, and she’ll tell you that community events like this are where the revolution begins.

She’s an openly socialist candidate for the Minneapolis City Council’s Third Ward—which runs from the U through downtown to the North Loop—looking to capitalize on her prominence as the face of the movement to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15.

Promising to take on big business and making “tax the rich” a campaign slogan of sorts, she’s energizing a long-dormant coalition of the left, hoping to turn voters worn thin by Democratic timidity into insurrectionists.

And, much to the chagrin of Minneapolis’ reigning power structure, she just might win.

Given the city’s liberal tradition, one might be forgiven for assuming a fertile environment for such a campaign to grow. But she’s fought pushback from just about every facet of civic life, from op-eds lamenting the “activist agenda” and news articles referring to her as a “single issue” candidate, to town halls hosted by business organizations and outright hostility from conservatives outstate.

Yet by screaming into megaphones about rent control and single-payer healthcare, Jentzen has managed to quietly out-fundraise her opponents by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, all without taking a single corporate donation.

Running under the banner of Socialist Alternative for the seat being vacated by mayoral hopeful Jacob Frey, Jentzen is among the first candidates being floated by a nationwide movement that may not have started with Bernie Sanders, but which he certainly pushed to the forefront.

She currently faces DFL-endorsed Steve Fletcher, the founder of community-based Neighbors Organizing for Change—an organization that advocates for low-income residents by fighting against foreclosures and rising rents—making him no stranger to the activist message Jentzen is running on.

It’s a race that sets the stage for a November election many are betting won’t be the calm, low-turnout affair such cycles usually produce when there are no major state or national races on the ballot.

Informed by Socialist Alternative’s struggle to win a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and the subsequent election of America’s first openly socialist, major-city politician in at least a generation—Kshama Sawant in Seattle—Jentzen & Co. have put Minneapolis on the map as a key laboratory for a brand of leftist politics not seen since at least the ’60s.

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Ginger Jentzen, socialist candidate for Minneapolis City Council Colin Michael Simmons

If victorious, she stands to push an all-blue city council even further to the left on a range of core issues, such as affordable housing, business regulation, and community policing.

Business leaders and establishment types are taking note. They’re mounting preemptive countermeasures against what they see as dangerous pro-regulation, anti-free market forces seeping into city politics.

In the past few weeks, an array of merchants’ groups—including the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Council, and even Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican front organization—have been called on to put money behind more establishment Democrats. 

“I think this election cycle has been a wake-up call for the business community,” says Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “I think it’s likely that you’ll see more involvement with business organizations at the local level than in the past.”

 

Alphabet soup

The new lefty push is an alphabet soup of grassroots organizations operating outside of the traditional DFL structure. They come in three- and four-letter abbreviations, with the potential to clog up any news story about protests or city meetings in a sea of acronyms almost indistinguishable from one another to anyone looking in from the outside.

“Minneapolis is the land of 10,000 501(c)(3)s,” said Debra Ramage, co-chair of the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America, referring to the IRS code for nonprofit organizations. “Everyone has their cause.”

There’s SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), who stand alongside MIFN (Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network) and CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha), though many of their members are also involved with SA (Socialist Alternative) or DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and, well, you get the idea.

Cramer’s Downtown Council—a business organization often pitted against such associations—splits these groups into two categories: community organizations, usually centered on a single issue, and political organizations, most notably the socialist groups whose membership skyrocketed in the wake of the 2016 elections.

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Mayor Betsy Hodges looks on as Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council speaks to the press about the Nicollet Mall reconstruction project and a new creative campaign. Matt Gillmer/[email protected] Matt Gillmer / Star Tribune

They’ve fought for—and won—big victories across the Twin Cities, including an ordinance banning discrimination against Section 8 housing recipients, and a significant increase in investment for affordable housing.

They were a key bloc in the battle to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota, and are now leading the charge to implement rent control in parts of Minneapolis.

In the coming months they plan to take their fight to the state Capitol, following the example of places like California by floating a statewide Medicare-for-All bill.

It’s all part of a nationwide push to move the conversation away from Democratic pragmatism—what’s possible today under a dysfunctional, unmoving system—and instead inspire people to think about what a better world might actually look like.

“These organizations are really driving some of the issues that are being discussed in Minneapolis right now,” says Cramer. “And it’s been extremely effective.”

 

The millennials are coming

It’s a message that resonates especially well with millennials who grew up in the shadow of America’s worst economic crisis in a century, burdened by soul-crushing student loan debt, rising rents, unaffordable health care, and waning dreams of achieving middle-class goals like home ownership and supporting a family.

“Most of my friends are precariously employed at multiple jobs and completely broke,” says Nicholas Rea, a U grad student and co-chair of the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists. “We really kind of hate showing up to these jobs where you have to pay your dues to the boss before you can get a living wage.”

Conventional politics haven’t offered much buoyancy for a better life.

Earlier this year, the Democratic Party rolled out potential slogans for the 2018 elections. Among them: “Better skills, better jobs, better wages.”

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“Most of my friends are precariously employed at multiple jobs and completely broke,” says Nicholas Rea. Colin Michael Simmons

Yet sloganeering won’t solve three decades of wage stagnation, despite a towering stock market and record corporate income. As for better skills: Millennials are the best-educated generation in American history.

“Any millennial on the street can tell you, ‘I have one or two degrees and I’m still working as an Uber driver,’” says Rea. “How are better skills or more education going to help me?”

Labor unions, seeing this rising tide of disillusioned young people, have begun to occasionally break ranks with establishment DFLers, who many progressives see as actively fighting against policies that might actually improve working people’s lives—like more stable workplace scheduling.

Unions and a cross section of the Alphabet Soup already provide major support to Councilman Cam Gordon, arguably the country’s most prominent elected Green Party official—and a consistent thorn in the side of Minneapolis’ DFL-led council.

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Jentzen has raised more money than any council candidate in history. Colin Michael Simmons

“I can tell you that [AFSCME Executive Director] Eliot Seide was a little offended when a recent Star Tribune headline said he was a DFL party kingmaker,” says Jennifer Mundt, a spokesperson for AFSCME, a union that represents government employees. “We don’t feel bound by any party structure. We’re simply looking for people who share our values and who can drive real-world programs.”

 

The socialist uprising

In the past year and a half, the Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists has exploded. In the early 2000s, its dues-paying membership could be counted on one hand. It’s now climbed to more than 400.

Without allies in office or friends with deep pockets, they’ve pushed the city to provide guaranteed sick leave for all workers and to illuminate the illegal practices of major landlords like Stephen Frenz.

One can trace their roots of their fight to the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members eventually branched out to form other groups in the Twin Cities. Occupy Homes Minnesota is perhaps the best example, organizing rallies to block evictions and fighting banks to accept lower mortgage payments, allowing families to stay in their homes even after foreclosure.

Concrete victories like these have led to the promise that there’s a valid alternative to the politics of resignation and disillusionment.

“It was those people getting together, saying, ‘Screw you, I’m not leaving my house because Wall Street or New York made a bad trade,’” says Rea. “And it worked! There are people still living in those homes.”

A resurgent liberalism was behind the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who’s done much to detoxify the left’s breed of politics. These days, majorities of Americans now support things like a higher minimum wage and guaranteed health coverage. And that backing is surprisingly broad, ranging from computer programmers to cashiers at Wendy’s.

“I think young people are growing up in the world with crushing student loan debt, the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression... and a government that doesn’t represent the interests of most people in this country,” says Jack Stanek, a leader of the Young Democratic Socialists chapter at the U. “I think now is a great time to get involved, because the emperor truly has no clothes at this point.”

The spreading message can be seen in all walks of life, from rowdy congressional town hall meetings, to immigrant protests over rent hikes, to even suburban mothers gathering outside Congressman Jason Lewis’ house to oppose Medicaid cuts.

 

Fears of a fizzle

The one worry—expressed again and again—is how to build upon a youth-based movement that, judging by history, carries heavy odds of eventually tumbling back to insignificance.

“We need to remind ourselves how small we are,” says Shawn Gude, a Minneapolis resident and editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. “DSA needs to be an organization in the hundreds of thousands if you want to accomplish what we want to accomplish. In a country as big as the U.S., 30,000 is not a mass movement.”

The challenge of coordinating diffuse, leaderless groups can quickly become an unwieldy mess, as demonstrated by Occupy Wall Street.

“If one group is doing Fight for $15 and another is doing Medicare-for-All and so on and so forth, it gets hard to keep track, and there’s always the threat of being perceived as a fringe group,” says Minneapolis DSA member Mike Mitchell.

That’s especially true in Minnesota, where the most galvanizing issues revolve around racial and economic justice, a difficult task for a largely white, middle-class organization like DSA to take the lead on in good faith.

“We’re trying to be very deliberate about not stepping on anyone’s toes,” says Rea. “We don’t want to be the people that show up and say, ‘I think we’re doing it better than you guys.’”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jentzen, who hopes to use the City Council to highlight the work of activist groups. If elected, she promises to donate half of her more than $80,000 salary to grassroots organizations.

She acknowledges that she can’t accomplish much without joining forces with the DFL establishment, the same people she’s been railing against for years. Her immediate plan is to keep pushing high-profile issues like tenants’ unions and rent control, two ideas once seen as impossible.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to troll for new supporters, the vast majority of whom will be new to leftist politics and socialism in general.

“I think it’s crucial to say, ‘Whether you identify as a Democrat or you caucus with the Democratic Party, we’re open to having people try all different kinds of strategies,’” Jentzen says. “You don’t have to fully identify as a socialist to be more involved with the issues we’re pushing.”


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