Around 100 people gathered in the Logan Park Recreation Center gym, 690 13th Ave. NE on Wednesday, March 15, for the Minneapolis First Ward Candidates Forum sponsored by the Northeaster. Three announced candidates, Kevin Reich, Jillia Pessenda, and Zachary Wefel participated and the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Minneapolis assisted and moderated. Written questions were gathered from the audience.
According to the “bean counters” at Logan Park, attendees came primarily from Audubon, Windom Park and Logan Park neighborhoods, as well as “other,” (non-First Ward attendees.) Mary Juhl from the LWV was the certified moderator for the evening, and randomized the pattern of responses from the candidates.
“Remember that we use ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis, so you’ll be ranking your ballots this year,” said Juhl. “As you listen to the candidates, consider your first, your second, and your third choices.” To learn more about ranked-choice voting, visit vote.minneapolismn.gov/rcv.
Jillia Pessenda said she first moved to the ward over 15 years ago because it was an affordable place to live as a young performing artist. Since then she’s served as vice president and secretary of her local neighborhood association, joined Occupy Homes Minnesota to fight unjust foreclosures, been a part of the arts community in Northeast, and worked with environmental justice, and urban agriculture.
Pessenda said as a staff member at OutFront Minnesota, she was part of the coalition that strongly advocated for passage of the Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Act. And in 2013, she joined the team at Project 515 to win marriage equality for same-sex couples. “As a member of the LGBTQ community, this legislation was so important to our community, because it not only gave us equal access under the law, but it shows so many people that it’s ok to be who you are and love who you love.”
According to her website, Pessenda is “a development and communications strategy consultant and works with Twin Cities-based social justice and nonprofit organizations. She lives in the Windom Park neighborhood with her partner, Monica Meyer, and their beloved dog Romeo.”
Pessenda explains her campaign as a “grassroots, people powered” campaign. “We’ve talked to over 1,000 people in ward one and we’ve had conversations about issues that are important to people like a living wage, like housing, and taking action on climate justice and I invite you to join us,” Pessenda said. “I hope to earn your support, and I look forward to together building a more just and visionary ward and city.” To learn more about Pessenda, visit jilliaforwardone.com.
Incumbent City Council member Reich was elected to represent the First Ward in 2009. He grew up in the community he now represents. He has worked as an environmental activist, educational material writer and neighborhood improvement project director.
“I again of course am seeking your support…I’m running on a campaign that has a record,” said Reich, “I think it’s a solid record of advancement and improvement of the things that matter most for this community.”
Reich went on to explain his connection to Logan Park. “It’s really great to be in this room to see civics happen in a real way, in a community that cares,” he said. “…This is the gym that I grew up playing in and it’s also the area where I first got involved with neighborhood revitalization activities. Here in the mid-1990s we decided to let the citizen’s direct resources directly, here in Logan Park and other parts of the city. But Logan Park was really the forerunner here in Northeast Minneapolis and it’s been a great success story moving forward.”
Reich spoke about how much improvement has already taken place in Northeast with thriving commercial corridors, and the nation’s best arts district, but that there is still work to be done. “(Affordable housing) needs to be doubled so we can make sure that people can live here no matter where they’re coming from and what they’re income is…now that Northeast is a success story, we need to balance that out,” Reich said. “I’m prepared to do that, I’m experienced to do that, and I plan on delivering with your support.” For more information about Reich and to see a list of what he’s already done in City Council, visit kevinreich.org.
Zachary Wefel: Lawyer, small business owner, president of the Windom Park neighborhood and co-founder of the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library in the Thorp Building, 1620 Central Ave. NE #126. According to Wefel, during his time serving the Windom Park neighborhood he has taken the lead in funding and developing a small area plan to advocate for better transportation options, and in advocating against city takeover of Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.
“As co-founder of the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library, I empowered our residents to improve their homes, create art and build a better community,” said Wefel. “And as an attorney who started my firm just down the road from here, I’ve been working to advocate for my clients including my pro bono work helping people solve debt issues and dealing with the IRS.”
Wefel said that some of his main focuses if elected, would be affordable housing, police accountability, and clean energy. To learn more about Wefel, visit zacharywefel.ngpvanhost.com.
Questions from the audience:
“City Council just approved a budget to hire 15 more police officers,” read Juhl, “will you advocate alternative means of law enforcement and community policing?”
“Yes, police accountability has been a major part of my campaign and that’s because I don’t think our police are serving everyone in our community,” said Wefel. “We need to find ways to better work with our police, (and) better work with our communities.”
Wefel wants to ensure that the use of force policy emphasizes de-escalation, and that people with petty misdemeanor charges should be seen as needing help, rather than part of the problem. “I really believe that as a city we need to step up and make sure that we’re making positive interventions,” he said, “rather than just bringing down the hammer on them when people make a mistake.”
Pessenda agreed with training to de-escalate, but her focus was on mental health. “We need to prioritize funding from our police budget to go into mental health first responders.” She wants to invest in mental health and public health resources to focus on prevention and community safety, including decriminalizing addiction and mental health issues.
She also spoke about the importance of including people of color and other minorities into the conversation about police, to ensure all people feel safe in the community. And mentioned how there can be advance solutions that don’t necessarily mean more police on the streets.
Reich brought up the recent City Council budget debate. “For the first time I think in the history of Minneapolis, the chamber was filled with people who do not want us to put more money into the police department,” Reich said. “That was an interesting dynamic.” He went on to say that they did step forward to approve those funds. “New hires are the answer, not the problem.”
Reich pointed out that they are hiring from local communities with diversity in mind. “We need a police department that represents the city and area that they are protecting,” Reich said. He also mentioned that while the police departments are highly trained, there is always room for improvement, which is why he strongly supports community liaisons because they can work as a link between the police department and the citizens.
“What local action do you support to fight climate change?”
Pessenda said that because the current national administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, cities should be taking the lead on climate change. She mentioned the city’s Climate Action Plan and clean energy partnership where energy utility companies are held accountable.
“So the first thing that I’m going to do, is to hold utility energy companies accountable to those goals and to make sure we are strengthening those goals.” She also mentioned her plan to advocate for sustainable programs that build towards a zero waste city, like compost recycling in apartments and local community farming.
Reich said he sits on the Clean Energy Partnership and they are continuing to fund that program. He also mentioned one of the first projects he did as a project director was to help create the city’s first solar townhome project, which then turned into a geothermal project.
“Moving forward we need to have all of our energy efficiency mandates put into our own buildings,” Reich said. “Energy is consumed, 50 percent of it by our structures, the city owns a lot of structures and we can set a very positive example on that front.”
Wefel said the city needs to be defining and measuring in real time their targets in terms of total emissions, because what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, and be transparent about sharing this progress with citizens via their website. And he believes that clean energy financing should be available with no down payments and utility bill reductions.
Wefel also mentioned applying a feed-in tariff along the lines of that adopted in Germany, to jump-start decentralized renewable energy production in Minneapolis. (Feed-in tariffs are payments to energy users for renewable electricity they generate. They are the electricity part of what some people call “clean energy cashback,” a scheme that pays people for creating their own “green electricity.”)
How do you define affordable housing, and what will you do to create more affordable housing?”
Pessenda said housing is a human right and that she’ll be working to eliminate homelessness, implement inclusionary zoning and invest in community land trusts and other cooperative models to ensure long-term affordable housing.
Reich said it’s a place where citizens can afford to live and something he’s been working on for quite some time, even before he was an elected official. He said there’s only one solution,“Putting more money in our affordable housing trust fund, (and) working strong with our partners to get more units for more people depending on their situation. I’ve been doing that all my life, (and) I’m going to continue doing it.”
Wefel said affordable housing is one third of someone’s monthly income or less for rent or mortgage, and that currently there isn’t enough of it. He would simplify the zoning code by moving toward a form-based zoning code rather than a use-based code, and upzone along transit corridors and important amenities.
How do you plan to support and protect immigrants and undocumented immigrants?
Reich said this is something City Council has been working on with increased vigor in the last year. “What we thought would be some really bad rhetoric in the campaign trail at the national level, has now turned into reality.”
He said the city has been responding by issuing ordinances left and right to counteract some of these changes from the national level. He also believes in providing sanctuary to new immigrants in Minneapolis and working to keep them safe by separating local police work from that of federal immigration authorities.
Wefel wants to establish a legal defense fund or provide funding to a nonprofit partner to provide legal representation in deportation proceedings. He also wants to direct all city departments, especially the Minneapolis Police Department, to identify information currently collected that could identify undocumented immigrants and determine whether it can be discontinued, de-linked from personal identifiers, or otherwise be made unusable for deportation actions.
“People are literally scared for their lives,” said Pessenda, “(and) we as a city, need to work to make sure that our neighbors feel safe.” She also wants to explore a legal defense fund and ensure any city data collected that could identify undocumented immigrant neighbors, be separated from Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other deportation forces.
“How can we raise the minimum wage while also ensuring the viability of our neighborhood businesses?”
Wefel started by saying he supports a $15 minimum wage with no tip penalty, and that he isn’t concerned with this having a negative impact on businesses. He said there have been recent studies done in Minneapolis where the results show a net positive benefit on businesses, on the community, on employment and on increasing wages. Because of this data and benefits other cities are experiencing, he plans on moving forward to implement it.
Pessenda also supports a $15 minimum wage with no tip penalty. “We have seen other cities phase in $15 in a way that works for our small businesses, we’ve seen from data and research that the impact on small businesses is not negative, in fact it helps to fuel local economy.”
She also mentioned the study conducted by the University of Minnesota, available on the city’s website, showing exactly who would be impacted by the wage increase, predominantly being people of color and women. “We know that we have a racial disparities gap in our city, when we talk about solutions, this is one policy solution that we have to begin to chip away those racial disparities…I absolutely support it and will work to pass a living wage ordinance.”
Reich’s view was slightly different from the other candidates. He said the city has already advanced workplace conditions in the last year, but on the subject of a $15 minimum wage, he wants to make sure everyone is heard.
“Yes we had some initial indication from some national studies that there would be a lot of benefit with very little pain, however,” Reich said, “I had to listen to the people who were from my specific community and they said, ‘Wait a minute, we have a very specific situation that you should look at and be considerate to our considerations.’”
He said because of these concerns, the City Council is now busy studying what the effect would be on local, small businesses so they can make adjustments and move forward. He said the local businesses he’s spoken to want to be a partner moving forward, and asked Reich to be a representative allowing them to have a voice before City Council makes up their minds.
“We will move forward, we will make wages increase, however we are going to do it with our small business partners and that process is in the process,” said Reich.
What policy position most sets you apart from other ward one candidates?
“I would say the position that probably most differentiates me is that we have to listen to our partners, (and) make partnerships, before we move forward with the policies,” said Reich.
He said experience is another one of his strengths. “Things that I’ve talked about, I’ve actually worked on, I’ve actually delivered on it, I’ve done, it’s happened, and we can move forward on that strength. I don’t think this is a time to ask ourselves what could be, without having any sort of resemblance to what has been.”
He said he brings a lot to the table when it comes to solution making, partnership building and delivering on resources in a responsible manner. “Northeast is safer, Northeast is more invested in, and we’ve had more housing built in the last several years than ever before, and we can continue on those successes.”
According to Pessenda, what sets her apart is her working families agenda to make sure citizens have a living wage, her work with urban agriculture, and her promise to bring community members to the table, so that all voices are heard throughout the halls of power.
She also mentioned her experience passing city laws from the outside. “I do believe I have the experience to build coalitions…to ensure we are driving solutions forward,” said Pessenda. “I start from a place of possibility, what is possible for our city…and then lets bring people to the table, and create a transparent process to achieve our goals.”
Wefel said he has the most developed platform when it comes to police accountability. And that there are a lot of issues where he is the only one talking about them, and for every issue, he has the most comprehensive and detailed platform.
“On any issue you want to talk about, I have a truly detailed policy platform and it’s not based on an idea that you know, I thought of in the middle of the night,” said Wefel, “I can point to cities where these things have worked, and can point to real data that shows why we should adopt some of these new policies.”
Each candidate participated in a creativity send-off where they were invited to share a little more about themselves. Pessenda read one of her favorite quotes and poems, stating she finds creativity by observing and participating in the arts. Wefel demonstrated that he does or doesn’t know how to juggle (using apples), and shared several of his favorite books throughout his life, books that helped shape the person he is today. And Reich shared his beliefs that creativity starts in a room full of citizens, gathered to share concerns, ideas and conversations with one another, inviting attendees to bring up concerns, which a few did before his time ran out.
Before closing the forum, Juhl reminded everyone that caucuses will be Tuesday, April 4, “Show up, and do your civic duty,” she said, “…and the city wide election is November 7, so make sure you vote.”