A group of about 20 Minneapolis residents huddled outside a downtown building on a recent Friday, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with messages, like “Tax the Rich” and “Minneapolis Needs a Political Revolution.”
“Rent control! Rent control! Make Minneapolis affordable!” they chanted in unison. “We’re gonna beat back the developer PACs! We’re gonna beat back the huge developer PACs!”
They were gathered on that unseasonably warm evening, as they do most days, with a singular goal: to help get socialist Ginger Jentzen elected to the Minneapolis City Council.
Jentzen, running with the Socialist Alternative party, is a first-time political candidate, but her campaign – with the support of small-money donors – is the best-funded campaign in Minneapolis City Council history.
She brings to the race a history of community organizing, having led the push to bring a $15 minimum wage to the city. And she is one of many grassroots candidates across the country who has tapped into the energy unleashed by Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, finding broad support among voters who want to upend the political establishment.
Sanders is today the longest-serving independent member of Congress, but he himself got his start in municipal politics, and his bid for the presidency last year got Jentzen thinking about running for office as a socialist.
“I think Bernie Sanders’s campaign really threw open the doors to talking about what does it mean to have socialist politics? And what does it mean to firmly stand with working people, and how is this different from the status quo?” Jentzen told The Intercept in a recent interview at her campaign headquarters.
Jentzen announced her candidacy for a city council seat in Ward 3 in January. At the time, she was executive director of 15 Now Minnesota, one of the groups whose advocacy led to an 11-1 vote by the Minneapolis City Council in June for a $15 minimum wage by 2024. Jentzen gained credibility as a result, and she hopes it will help her across the finish line in the November 7 election as she faces off against the Democratic Party and a phalanx of unions determined to keep the council seat in the hands of the city’s political establishment.
Candidates from minor parties, such as Socialist Alternative, are often stymied by the two-party system, but Minneapolis’s political landscape and somewhat unique electoral system work in Jentzen’s favor.
Since 2009, the city has used 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 votes splitting, gives voters more options, and reduces candidates’ incentives for negative campaigning.
Ward 3 is also an overwhelmingly Democratic ward, which means Jentzen isn’t so much competing as a third-party candidate than as a second-party one. As a Socialist Alternative candidate, she is competing against the dominant Democratic Farmers-Labor Party, Minnesota’s branch of the Democratic Party.
Two Democrats will join Jentzen on the November ballot: Neighborhood North Loop President Tim Bildsoe and Steve Fletcher, whom the DFL endorsed in May. The Green Party’s Samantha Pree-Stinson is also competing.
Fletcher is the opponent with the most heft. In addition to the DFL, he is backed by a slew of unions, like the SEIU and locals from the Teamsters and AFSCME, which tend to line up behind whomever the Democrats have endorsed. His platform focuses on many of the same issues as Jentzen’s — ranging from affordable housing to police reform — but offers less bold policies. For instance, Fletcher proposes using height bonuses, which would allow developers to build higher, as an incentive to spur the development of low-income housing. This is a far cry from Jentzen’s proposal to enact rent control, which could place hard caps on rents as a direct means to increase affordability.
Although most of local organized labor is with Fletcher, Jentzen has her union backers as well, including the Minnesota Nurses Association and the Minnesota State Council of the Communication Workers of America. (The labor union split is not dissimilar to the Sanders-Hillary Clinton matchup in the 2016 Democratic primary.) The Democratic Socialists of America, which sometimes butts heads with Socialist Alternative, has also put its weight behind Jentzen.
There is no polling for the city council elections, but if financial support is any indication, Jentzen is quite popular. She has raised about $140,000 so far, despite a self-imposed fundraising rule against accepting money from corporations and big developers. Fletcher, by comparison, has raised around $40,000.
The Intercept reviewed the campaign’s finance documents, which confirm that Jentzen is very much small donor-funded: As of October 20, a little more than 1,860 donors had backed the campaign with a median donation of $25.
“This is a campaign that is entirely built off grassroots donations from regular working people,” Jentzen said. “Five dollars from a nurse to me is far more important in terms of being accountable and having public representatives who are accountable to movements and the interests of working people, as opposed to $1,000 coming from a big developer.”
Fletcher, in contrast, has argued that developers are an important constituency.
“I think it’s a little bit weird to single developers out as some particularly worrisome group of investors or some particularly corrupting force,” he said at a recent candidate forum, MinnPost reported. “For us, to build the housing we need to build, we need private developers doing what they do. It’s actually a service to our community. It’s actually very important.”
He also sees his association with the political establishment as an advantage. “Ginger has to convince voters they’re socialists, and I have to remind them that they’re DFLers,” he said in a recent interview.
But Jentzen’s message is catching fire in the ward, party notwithstanding.
About 200 people have volunteered for the campaign, according Andy Moxley, the campaign’s volunteer coordinator, who characterized the support as a revolt against the political establishment.
It is “people who don’t like Trump, a lot of people who were Bernie Sanders supporters,” who support Jentzen, Moxley told The Intercept. “The common thread I’ve seen is people who are upset with politics as usual.”
The campaign’s activists trend younger, with 20- and 30-somethings buzzing around the downtown office.
One such volunteer is 29-year-old Nestor Garcia, who joined local activism a few years ago following the Black Lives Matter protests after the shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police officers. Garcia worked for 15 Now and was part of the campaign’s successful advocacy.
Garcia, a Mexican immigrant and a lawful permanent resident, cannot vote for Jentzen, but he is still doing everything he can to make sure she wins. On any given day, he’s out knocking doors and talking to voters.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in any kind of politics,” he told The Intercept. Like many others who are volunteering their time at Jentzen’s campaign office, he is fiercely loyal to the candidate. “Since she started out [in January], I’ve been helping out.”
He knows that running a Socialist Alternative candidate in a ward dominated by the DFL is a challenge, but he’s optimistic about Jentzen’s appeal. “We know that most people that we talk to have been Democrats forever, but … they care about the issues that we talk about. That’s why they’ve been really supportive at the doors,” he said.
Regardless of whether her supporters identify as socialists or not, Jentzen seeks to be a politician that is responsible to the masses, not the elite.
“That’s what I’d hope to do at the council office, is basically make it an organizing seat,” she said, “where we can first and foremost represent the needs of people in Ward 3, but it’s broadly for working people in the city of Minneapolis. Because the boundaries of our wards, I think are somewhat arbitrary.”
Should they succeed, Jentzen could spark a resurgence of socialist politics in Minneapolis. From 1917 to 1919, the Socialist Party’s Thomas Van Lear served as the mayor of Minneapolis; it was the second-largest American city to ever have a socialist mayor, behind only Milwaukee.
Inspired by Seattle Municipal Politics
Jentzen’s foray into municipal politics began in 2013.
That year, a pair of Socialist Alternative candidates — Ty Moore in Minneapolis and Kshama Sawant in Seattle — competed to join their respective city councils. Jentzen, who had joined Socialist Alternative the year before, was active in supporting Moore’s campaign.
Sawant won, becoming the first socialist member of the Seattle City Council. Moore came close but ultimately lost his election for a Ward 9 seat by 229 votes.
Both Sawant and Moore were an inspiration for activists in Minneapolis, who felt that they offered a path that was more than just politics as usual.
One of those activists is Kip Hedges, an organizer for 15 Now, the group Jentzen led until recently.
Hedges joined the organization after decades of working at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he was a baggage handler. He was fired when Delta Airlines discovered he had given an interview critical of the wage situation at the airport. But a local union sued Delta on Hedges’s behalf, leading to a settlement and a reversal of the firing. Still, Hedges decided he no longer wanted to work with the airlines and took a job with 15 Now in 2014.
It was there that he started working alongside Jentzen. The duo was inspired by Sawant’s work in Seattle, where the Socialist Alternative council member followed through on a campaign promise to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The city council at the time bitterly resisted the proposal, condemning it as an extreme policy, so local activists focused first on the neighboring town of SeaTac, which houses the airport. Sawant was arrested at a minimum-wage protest there in 2014 on charges of disorderly conduct, but the case was dismissed when the judge determined that it was actually the police and not the protesters who blocked traffic. Gradually, Sawant built overwhelming political pressure that led Seattle to adopt the boldest minimum-wage law in the country.
“Seeing that we can organize and fight around a specific set of demands and then achieve them through the movement building, the grassroots organizing, that I think really made it possible in Minneapolis,” Jentzen said.
15 Now mimicked Seattle’s methods in Minneapolis, focusing first on the local airport. The city’s Metropolitan Airports Commission, encouraged by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, responded to the activism by raising the airport’s minimum wage to $10 an hour – not quite what the activists were hoping for.
The movement turned next to city council, but initially found little support.
“The problem is the city council — with the exception of two or three out of the 13 — were pretty opposed. I think they thought we were crazy,” Hedges told The Intercept. “They bought into all the arguments that business advanced about destroying the economy, all the businesses will close down, [and] they’ll leave” if the minimum wage is raised, he recalled.
This prompted 15 Now to turn to a ballot strategy. Jentzen gathered the thousands of signatures necessary to place a minimum-wage referendum on the city’s 2016 ballot. The move was so controversial that it set off a legal battle, with the city council turning to the courts to block the referendum. The battle went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which effectively killed the referendum.
But Jentzen was not deterred. Her group organized across the city, establishing committees in every ward to promote the policy. The group also sent activists to DFL caucuses, threatening to launch electoral challenges against conservative Democrats who refused to support the wage increase.
In June, the city council approved a plan to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2024.
“It [took] years of strike action and rallies at city hall,” Jentzen said of 15 Now’s success. “We had dozens and dozens and dozens of public meetings trying to discuss out the aspects of a policy. … It’s not about, in my mind, just trusting that everybody has the best of intentions. It’s about fighting tooth and nail. Because council members are under pressure from the other side from the Chamber of Commerce, from the biggest corporations in Minnesota.”
Hedges credits Jentzen’s strategy for the win.
“Ginger was at the heart of all that. That was what she understood and pushed for. This is about not just 15, but about moving the needle, shifting the balance of power in favor of workers in Minneapolis,” he said.
Jentzen decided to run for elected office in an attempt to emulate Sawant’s success as a hybrid organizer and public servant. Her opportunity came in January, when Ward 3 Council Member Jacob Frey of the DFL stepped down from his seat to run for mayor.
“In Seattle with Kshama in office, 15 was won in basically six months, right?” Jentzen said. “She was able to use her seat, she was able to use her office as a voice for working people in a way that was even higher [than as an activist]. That’s where it connects to the idea that movement and electoral politics can actually … if we are running people independent of the political establishment and are actually building and organizing with working people and using their offices as a place to continue that organizing to pass policy in the best interest of the working people, I think we could do a lot more running people, running candidates that are rooted in the social struggles and movements that are shifting consciousness in society.”
Protecting $15, Taxing the Rich, and Making Housing Affordable Again
Jentzen is running on a promise to protect the gains she won as an organizer and being a voice for working people in city council. For instance, if elected, she plans to personally oversee the rollout of the $15 minimum wage.
“One of the things … we’re gonna have to do and ensure is that the policy is well-enforced and that people know what their rights are. That workers know what their rights are,” she said.
She is also heavily focused on the issue of affordable housing in Minneapolis. Stagnant incomes and an influx of new residents have created a situation in which rent is increasingly unsustainable for the city’s lowest-income families. Four out of five households that earn $20,000 or less in the city are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses. For families earning between $20,000 and $34,000 annually, the percentage of cost-burdened households grew from 66 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2016.
Jentzen wants Minneapolis to ultimately have the same rent-control policies that many other major cities use to prevent rates from spiking. But short of that, she is promoting a tenants’ bill of rights that would, among other things, require landlords to give residents six-months’ notice before they raise rents. (The current notice period is 30 days.)
A core tenet of Jentzen’s campaign is raising taxes for the city’s wealthiest residents. She supports a slew of taxes aimed at the ultra-wealthy, including a millionaire’s tax, an increase in developer impact fees, and excise taxes on big-box retailers and banks. In fact, these proposals are central to the candidate’s brand; when they go canvassing, many of her volunteers wear bright red T-shirts emblazoned with a simple logo: “Tax the Rich.”
Like hundreds of places across America, Minneapolis is trying to entice Amazon to open its second headquarters in the city. Jentzen is not totally opposed to bringing the tech giant to Minneapolis, but she has a few conditions.
“I think it’s fine to bring a company into the city if they’re going to allow all their workers to organize, they’re going to pay a living wage, they’re going to pay health care,” she said. “There’s always a fear in my mind that if we don’t leverage our power on the front end, putting big demands on these corporations that are making a lot of money and doing just fine — if they’re going to do business in the city of Minneapolis or in Minnesota, they should not only pay their workers a living wage, but they allow should union representation.”
Jentzen says she will apply her belief in equal pay to herself. She has pledged to take only half of the council’s $80,000 salary to match the median income in the ward, if elected. She said she will donate the remainder to social justice groups.
Taking on Big Business
Business groups in Minneapolis, home to 17 Fortune 500 companies, use a combination of political contributions and sophisticated public relations to make their voices heard in city politics. They’re paying attention to Jentzen’s platform, and they’re not happy.
In mid-October, the Minneapolis Star Tribune obtained a fundraising email sent by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Council, and the Building Owners and Managers Association to donors about Jentzen’s platform. “If you thought it was impossible for a committed Socialist to run on a platform of rent control and establishing a municipal income tax to pay for social engineering….meet: Ginger Jentzen,” the email reads. Jentzen is a “leading candidate” in Ward 3, it continues.
The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, another business-backed group, recently sent out an email warning its members about the city council possibly moving left, according to a local news website. “You are in the crosshairs of the progressive tidal wave. Help us elect a moderate city council we can work with,” the group wrote.
Minneapolis Works!, a business-backed independent expenditure group, recently sent out a mailer on behalf of Bildsoe that says the Democratic candidate is dedicated to “keeping us safe” and features imagery of police officers on horseback. While the ad makes no mention of Jentzen, it sends a message diametrically opposite to her platform, which includes a call for a community control board and other police reforms.
As Election Day nears, Jentzen is concerned that business groups will continue to fund independent expenditures to undermine her campaign and those of other populist candidates in the city, such as mayoral candidate Ray Dehn.
Still, her campaign remains committed to its message. Field staffer Theresa Powers addressed a group of volunteers before a recent evening of canvassing with a Franklin D. Roosevelt “welcome their hatred”-inspired speech.
“Big developers and the super rich are trying to buy this election because they’re scared,” Powers said to the group. “They’re scared of the strength of this movement.”