Ever since a wave of activism placed the national spotlight on police violence and the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, several candidates for public office across the country have campaigned on promises for reform. They have called for independent investigations into police-involved shootings and training in de-escalation, and they have promised to change minimum mandatory sentencing schemes and address the factors that lead to mass incarceration, which disproportionally impacts people of color.
Minnesota state Rep. Raymond Dehn, the frontrunner in the Minneapolis mayor’s race, is one of those candidates. But to him, criminal justice reform is a personal issue, and one that goes way back.
The mayoral candidate was convicted of burglary as a teenager in the 1970s, an experience he says inspired his entry into politics decades later. In 2012, he was elected to the Minnesota state legislature, where he is known for his work on behalf of felons. He led the push for a 2014 “Ban the Box” law that expanded a prohibition on requiring job applicants to answer questions about their criminal histories to include private employers.
Dehn announced his candidacy last December, and he made his mark on the field this summer by winning more support than incumbent Mayor Betsy Hodges at the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s nominating convention. Although no mayoral candidate won the official endorsement, Dehn emerging at the front of the pack made clear he was a serious contender.
In an interview with The Intercept, Dehn described how his brush with the law led him to believe in redemption and criminal justice reform, themes that are central to his work in public office.
“I grew up in a real traumatic situation, there was some abuse in my family, some alcoholism. … In the end it was that addiction that led me to committing a crime to supply my habit,” Dehn said, explaining his circumstances at the time he burglarized a home.
When police arrived to arrest Dehn, who was 19 years old at the time, he was hiding in a closet. “I’ll never forget having three or four officers reach in, with guns pointing at my head as I came out of the closet,” Dehn recalled.
After a few rocky years, Dehn decided to get his life back on track and in 1982 he applied for — and received — a pardon for his crime from then-Minnesota Gov. Al Quie. Nearly a decade later, Dehn enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study architecture and move on with his life, which he said was made easier by the era he lived in. “My crime was also committed before the days of the internet, so as far public record out there … it just really didn’t exist,” he explained.
He started getting active in community organizations and in 2009 attended a conference in Oakland, where radical activist Angela Davis spoke about criminal justice. Davis asked everyone in the room who had been incarcerated to stand.
“I stood up and that was sort of the changing point in my life,” Dehn said. “I figured out that, you know, I had benefited from an unfair system, and I decided then to dedicate my life to try to dismantle that system.”
Dehn pivoted to politics and was elected to represent Minnesota’s House District 59B five years ago. He was re-elected in 2014 and again last year. To remind himself of his good fortune, Dehn keeps his grant of clemency on a wall in his office in the statehouse.
The mayoral race is nonpartisan, and Minneapolis is one of few major cities in America that uses ranked-choice voting — where voters rank candidates instead of voting for just one of them. If no candidate is the first choice for a majority of voters, then all votes cast for the candidate with the fewest votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on who is ranked next on each ballot. This process essentially eliminates the concept of a “wasted vote” and can lead to unpredictable outcomes.
The preferential voting system also means that candidates generally shy away from the negative campaigning that is a mainstay of many other mayoral races because they want to get the second- and third-preference votes from people backing their opponents.
“It has been a bit more collegial than if we didn’t have ranked-choice voting,” Dehn told The Intercept, noting that the race thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. He does, however, expect to see more attack ads as the November 7 election nears. “We know that in the final two weeks, we’re going to see a lot of independent expenditure money. It’s going to be attacking pretty much all the frontrunners in the race.”
That’s not to say that all of Dehn’s proposals so far have been well-received. When the issue of police reform surged to the forefront of the mayoral race in July, after a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed an unarmed woman, Dehn proposed that police be disarmed, suggesting that, for example, some officers keep guns in their cars but not wear them all the time. The local police union was furious.
“I don’t think the people in Minneapolis are logically ready for anything like this,” Lt. Bob Kroll told local reporters at the time. “Who would ever do the job of policing again? It’s absolutely an absurd thought.” Several other mayoral candidates also said they believed Dehn’s proposal was a step too far.
Hodges, too, took a swipe at Dehn, implying his idea was naive. “If we are going to talk about changes in gun policy, we shouldn’t start with police officers, who are going to be operating in a world with people who have guns,” Hodges said.
Dehn remains adamant that there should be a conversation about the circumstances in which weapons are necessary, stressing that he does not think police should be disarmed at all times.
“I think there are some interactions that officers have with people in the community that they don’t have to carry guns,” he explained to The Intercept. “The controversy is in many ways how many people took that. Did I say that cops should never carry guns? I’ve never said that. And I also know that in the end to change real policy about officers and use of force you have to push a conversation that I think can be difficult for some people, I think in the end if people aren’t ready to have this conversation right now we’ve got a long long ways to go to talk about policing in our community.”
Dehn’s campaign against the incumbent Hodges and the other challengers hinges on the question of whether Minneapolis is on the right path or is in need of a big change. He believes the latter is true. Hodges, however, uses the “Strong and Stable” catchphrase reminiscent of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s campaign slogan, and labels her approach as “deliberate, intentional leadership.” Her platform page points to achievements such as passing a sick-time ordinance in 2016 and her work “transforming police-community relations.”
Her opponents, Dehn among them, point to a city that like many others is increasingly difficult to afford to live in. While Hodges points to $40 million spent on affordable housing programs over the past three years, Dehn counters by pointing out that the median income for African-Americans in the city — $14,951 — makes housing in most of the city unaffordable for them.
Dehn has proposed changing the status quo on affordable housing by lowering the cost of future affordable units from 50 percent of area median income to 30 percent.
His platform is heavily focused on inequality. In addition to a host of criminal justice reform ideas, he is proposing that Minneapolis start using participatory budgeting, something the city has been experimenting with on a small scale. This cutting-edge policy — which allows neighborhoods and residents to take control of a portion of city finances and directly decide how they are spent — has been used in a handful of cities in the world with some success.
He views participatory budgeting as a way to increase citizen engagement, especially among people who aren’t politically active.
“If you’re not bringing in individuals who generally have been left out of our process, we’re going to keep doing the same things that we’ve been doing,” he said. “For me, it’s that idea of how do we make space for people to actually engage, and then how do we make it valuable for them in that process in that engagement?”
Dehn’s inequality-focused campaign has attracted a strong stable of supporters from Minneapolis’s minority community. His communications director, Akhi Menawat, told The Intercept that a majority of Dehn’s paid campaign staff are nonwhite and their average age is 24.
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, the candidate’s colleague in the state House and the first Somali-American Muslim woman ever elected to a state legislature in the country, has endorsed Dehn.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) October 9, 2017
In an interview with The Intercept, Omar explained that she decided to endorse Dehn over Hodges and the other challengers because of his intersectional approach to issues.
“I believe that our next mayor for the city of Minneapolis needs to understand intersectionality, that’s really big in my book — understanding the connections between how housing and policing and mental health issues and how all of these things are all connected,” she told The Intercept.
She cited Dehn’s prior felony as something that gives him insight into the ills of the criminal justice system.
“As a resident of North Minneapolis, someone who comes from the history of having a record himself, he sees how criminalizing people leads to lack of opportunities,” she concluded.
The mayoral hopeful’s people-first platform has also earned him the support of Our Revolution, a group formed out of the remnants of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which endorsed him in July. “Now is the time for serious reform in Minneapolis. Raymond Dehn has the platform and vision to create a Minneapolis where every family can feel safe and have a good home and livable wage,” Our Revolution President Nina Turner said in a statement. And while Dehn has butted heads with police unions, he has earned the backing of a different form of organized labor: the Minnesota Nurses Association.
Our Revolution Twin Cities and the nurses’ union are also backing a much more radical candidate to join the city council. Ginger Jentzen, who is running on the Socialist Alternative ballot line in Ward 3, was one of the lead organizers behind a successful push to pass a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis. She is refusing to take any money from corporate developers and is campaigning heavily around expanding public housing.
Correction: Oct. 13, 2017 4:10 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dehn was convicted of armed burglary. He was not armed at the time of his arrest and was convicted of burglary.