Mayoral candidates challenge the status quo
by Nancy Sartor
Minnesota may be a blue state, edging ever closer to red status, but as the September 13 primary approaches, Twin Cities voters will be seeing Green. This year Green Party Minnesota has endorsed two candidates for mayor: Farheen Hakeem in Minneapolis and Elizabeth Dickinson in St. Paul. Both women are first-time mayoral candidates and long-time social advocates. Most importantly, both are true idealists determined to challenge the status quo and give a pair of Democratic candidates—who are themselves locked in a too-close-to-call race—a fight for the keys to the cities.
Most people will tell you that Farheen Hakeem is a long shot to beat out incumbent
RT Rybak or Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin in the mayoral primary,
since only the top two finishers will advance to the general election in November.
But Hakeem sees things differently.
“Actually, the chances of my winning are not so slim,” she said.
“If my chances of winning were so slim, I don’t think RT and Peter
would be kissing my butt as much as they are. Why would they give me the time
of day if I wasn’t a threat?”
Hakeem believes that her ability to relate to the average Minneapolitan will
win her votes. “If you look at the people in Minneapolis, they look a
lot more like me, they have the same background as me,” she said. “I’m
still a renter and I’ve seen the effects of development, the economy,
the job market—these are all things that have directly affected my life.
And when you look at RT Rybak and Peter McLaughlin, they are pretty far away
She is convinced that she’ll get support from a broad and diverse swath
of the populace. “There’s a voter base they can’t touch. I
have the women’s vote, the immigrant vote, the people of color vote, the
transgender/radical/queer vote, the low income vote, the renter vote, the Green
vote. The list goes on and on. When you add them up, there are a lot of votes.”
Whether or not Hakeem can actually mobilize those voters remains to be seen.
She is often criticized for being “too young” and inexperienced,
although at age 29, her resumé is impressive. Born and raised in Chicago,
she moved to Minneapolis to pursue graduate studies.
She taught math in the Minneapolis Public School system, and after September
11, 2001, turned her attention to social activism. Hakeem is involved with the
Anti-war Committee and the Women of Color Building Project, and speaks publicly
She’s been a community organizer for a housing co-op, has tutored youth
at District 202, served as an advocate at the Minnesota Department of Public
Health and worked as a counselor at Upward Bound. Currently she’s the
membership coordinator for the Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis. And—oh
yeah, she’s an Arab-American Muslim who wears a headscarf and used to
perform standup comedy.
Despite her age and lack of political experience, Hakeem sees her advocacy work
as ample qualification to become mayor, but whether she can win may be less
important than simply having her in the race. For many, the difference between
RT Rybak and Peter McLaughlin is slim—so much so, that neither Democratic
candidate garnered a majority of delegates at the DFL convention last May, and
therefore neither received the party’s endorsement.
Hakeem sees herself as a viable alternative to the other choices—“RT
and RT Lite”—and embraces the policies of a true progressive. But
while her platform, which focuses on four issues: sustainable economics, living
wages, affordable housing and an anti-racist approach to public safety, may
not differ extensively from that of her DFL challengers, there is one issue
that clearly sets them apart: The Stadium.
unabashedly decries any public financing of a baseball stadium, while both DFLers
support legislation that would give $350 million of city money to the Twins.
In an effort to placate both sides, McLaughlin has added an amendment to the
stadium bill that includes funding for youth sports activities, amateur sports,
child care and libraries. Hakeem called this “a little Band-Aid on a bullet-sized
wound,” adding, “That money could be used for so much good …
so much good. It’s such a disgrace.”
Perhaps it’s her age or her idealism showing, but it seems clear that
DFL support of the stadium is a deliberate nod to developers who influence public
policy and can make or break political careers. As one source proclaimed, “If
you want to have a political career, you have to support public funding for
stadiums. You can placate the liberals with other issues [such as same-sex rights
and social service programs], but if you’re going to do business with
business, you’ve got to support public subsidies in some form.”
Even if it means doing business with Carl Pohlad—owner of United Properties
and one of the wealthiest landlords in the state.
In addition to facing off against Rybak and McLaughlin, Hakeem has had to wage
a public relations campaign to combat racial stereotyping. Because of her appearance,
Hakeem says people assume she’s “a foreigner” and constantly
ask, “Where are you from?”
counted during Pride weekend – I got asked that question 67 times.”
She chalks it up to ignorance and increased scrutiny of Arabs and Arab-Americans
in a post-9-11 world. She says that since her campaign began in March, “I’ve
only counted five really nasty incidents—just five people being outright
gross to me and my volunteers. That’s pretty good. Mostly it’s ignorance
that I have to deal with.”
“But,” she added, “I’ve really held the media accountable.”
She describes incidents with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Southwest Journal,
the St. Paul Pioneer Press and WCCO radio that involved everything from labeling
her as “angry” (“The reporter whipped out a picture of me
at an anti-war protest at the Target Center and said, ‘Are you an angry
person?’ But the photo showed me looking at this woman who was all up
in my face, clutching her American flag, wearing her [Norm] Coleman sticker
… and I’m just looking at her”), to misinformation about her
ethnicity (“ … they described me as a ‘black Muslim from Chicago’”),
to questioning her religion (“ … they said, ‘Is Minneapolis
ready for a Muslim mayor?’ and I said, ‘Is Ward 10 ready for a white,
Is Minneapolis ready for a feisty, quick-witted intellectual Muslim mayor? Maybe
or maybe not, but Hakeem’s candidacy in the race—and her candidness
about race—sure make for interesting politics.
Elizabeth Dickinson knows that as a first-time political candidate, Farheen
Hakeem has an “uphill battle” in the Minneapolis mayoral race. And
while her own bid for mayor of St. Paul against incumbent Randy Kelly and Democrat
Chris Coleman will not be easy, Dickinson has the benefit of hindsight, campaign
experience, name recognition and community respect she earned during her Green
Party run for a Ward 2 city council seat in 2003.
lost that race to Dave Thune by a mere 123 votes, and spent a modest $10,000
on the entire campaign. In a world where big bankrolls often lead to political
success, Dickinson’s near-victory had a profound impact on her community.
“After that [city council race], Dave Thune was in my neighborhood holding
meet and greets and clean energy forums,” she said. “That would
not have happened if I had not been in the race. I know because other candidates
said, ‘I’m glad you’re in the race, otherwise the environment
wouldn’t be on the radar.’ I think there’s value in that.”
Dickinson’s advocacy work in St. Paul led to impressive victories for
environmentalists. As the founder of the Clean Energy Now coalition, she was
instrumental in getting Xcel Energy to clean up its metro-area coal-burning
plants. Both the High Bridge plant in St. Paul and the Riverside plant in Minneapolis
will switch from burning coal to natural gas before 2010, and the A.S. King
plant in Stillwater is slated to install the best-available pollution control
technology by that time as well.
Her environmental success gives her a particular advantage against challenger
Chris Coleman, who during his tenure on the St. Paul City Council in Ward 2
(1997-2003) was embroiled in conflict between his constituents and the Gopher
State Ethanol (GSE) plant, which was located in his district. Shortly after
GSE opened in 2000, residents began lodging numerous complaints about obnoxious
odors and noise pollution. Many constituents expressed frustration at the lack
of movement on the issue, which seemed grid locked between the city council
and city attorneys, and complained that Coleman was not a strong advocate for
their cause. GSE was closed in 2004.
Of her two challengers, Dickinson sees Coleman as the bigger threat. Or perhaps
it’s Coleman who sees Dickinson as the threat. “Chris Coleman is
trying to reinvent himself as a progressive,” said Dickinson. “He’s
been endorsed by Progressive Minnesota and there’s all sorts of ironies
livable wage is one of Progressive Minnesota’s biggest issues. Its website
states that part of its mission is to “extend living wage victories throughout
the metro area, and strengthen policies that require businesses receiving public
subsidies to create new jobs at livable wages.” This makes its endorsement
of Coleman puzzling, since as a city councilmember, he voted against a measure
that would have ensured that St. Paul workers were paid a living wage by Target
Corporation and Dayton’s department store.
In February 2001, St. Paul awarded Target Corporation a $7.2 million cash grant
to renovate its downtown Dayton’s store. Target requested a waiver from
the city’s living wage policy, stating that it already met such requirements
for its employees. At the time, Jay Benanav was the only city councilmember
who asked Target to open its books and verify it was meeting the living wage
requirement. Chris Coleman voted against it, and in the end, Target did not
have to disclose any information.
As for Progressive Minnesota’s narrow endorsement of Coleman—which
comes with a cadre of benefits to the candidate, including a campaign manager
and volunteers who phone bank and door knock—Dickinson said, “Ultimately
it’s the people who show up to the endorsing process to vote, and I think
we needed three more votes to block the endorsement [of Coleman]. They turned
out more votes. Basically their board said ‘we endorse to make a point,
not to win.’ Maybe they should rename themselves ‘Pragmatic Minnesota.’”
For true progressives and Green Party Minnesota, Dickinson is a dream candidate.
In addition to founding the Clean Energy Now coalition, she’s worked as
a lobbyist, advocate and community affairs manager for the MN AIDS project,
as well as an advocate for the Police/INS Separation Ordinance, the Code for
Corporate Responsibility, Livable Wage and Clean Water Action. Her astute, soft-spoken
demeanor has earned her respect among liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think one of my strengths as a person is that I can build trust pretty
quickly. I can talk to very conservative people. Part of it is my demeanor and
being respectful. And some of it is from my background—I have a masters
in psych—and just getting into their heads and figuring out what is code
Dickinson’s mayoral platform calls for promoting clean air, water and
energy through conservation and through renewable energy from wind and solar
power. She also champions economic and social justice through a living wage,
affordable housing, supports small businesses and expanding mass transit. And
she’s deeply committed to an “open door” policy at the mayor’s
“The fundamental piece that is missing from the two front-runner candidates
is a real neighborhood base and a deep commitment to community,” she said.
“I am talking about community issues—it’s the number one part
of my platform. Community councils and communities have been shut out of decision
making at the mayor’s office, particularly in regard to development issues.”
says small business owners are frustrated at the preferential treatment given
to big developers. “I just came from a meeting with small businesses and
they were up in arms about the fact that big businesses, along Grand Avenue
in particular, get variances whenever they want them. There’s a feeling
that the character of neighborhoods is being destroyed and there’s not
a darn thing they can do about it. And that’s because of the top-down
style of management that Mayor Kelly has brought.”
She goes on to say that at a recent environmental “Street Beat,”
Kelly openly declared his support for a floodwall around the Holman Field airport
in St. Paul. Residents adamantly oppose the project, saying that the level of
air traffic does not warrant it. But Kelly has publicly said the floodwall is
necessary so that “the CEO of Gander Mountain can fly his plane into the
city” and a major reason why the company located its headquarters here.
“I think what that speaks to is that there’s nothing covert about
his emphasis on big business,” said Dickinson. “It’s way out
in the open. And I think if people understand that, they’ll realize how
far the politics has drifted to the right. It’s amazing.”
Of course, this is the same Randy Kelly who endorsed George Bush in the 2004
presidential election, which led to a brief “Recall Randy” campaign.
With the ever-right-leaning Kelly clinging to the Democratic Party, and the
moderate-conservative Coleman trying to reinvent himself as a progressive, both
candidates fall prey to the same “mayor” and “mayor lite”
formula that plagues Rybak and McLaughlin in Minneapolis. Which begs the question:
can Dickinson win the primary on September 13?
“I think the primary is winnable,” she said. “Certain things
have to align right. We need incredible amounts of outreach so that people know
who I am and what I represent. Nobody who supports me already can afford to
sit back. They just can’t. If people want to see somebody like me in office,
they have to donate money, they have to take a lawn sign, they have to talk
to other people about me, they have to e-mail other people, they have to talk
to their neighbors, they have to distribute literature—they must be involved.
It has to be a grassroots thing.” ||