An Organizing Seat in City Hall

An interview with
Ginger Jentzen

Meet the socialist city council candidate trying to make Minneapolis more than just a liberal bastion.

Ginger Jentzen at a $15 minimum wage rally earlier this year. MN NOC / Flickr

In Minneapolis, the limits of contemporary liberalism are on full display.

The mayor loudly condemns Donald Trump and touts her progressive credentials, then jets to Los Angeles for a country club fundraiser. City leaders wring their hands over high-profile police killings, but, coffers brimming with developer money, have no reforms to offer save for cosmetic tweaks. Elected officials trumpet their commitment to “inclusivity,” even as a quarter of residents are mired in poverty, the majority of them people of color.

The sole exceptions to symbolic displays of progressiveness occur when labor and left groups organize en masse and mount successful pressure campaigns. Only after months of sustained protest, a mass signature drive, an attempted change to the city charter, packed city council meetings, an adverse court ruling, and still more raucous meetings — only then did the Minneapolis City Council ratify a minimum-wage hike to fifteen dollars an hour.

Could things be different? Could Minneapolis and cities like it become places where elected officials don’t just pillory prejudice from on high but actually deliver economic security and high-quality public services to all of the city’s residents?

Ginger Jentzen, the former director for Minneapolis’s 15 Now campaign, is part of the burgeoning push in the city to build something to the left of liberalismJentzen, taking cues from fellow Socialist Alternative (SA) member and Seattle city councilor Kshama Sawant, is running for a spot on the city council.

Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude recently interviewed Jentzen outside her northeast Minneapolis campaign office, where they discussed her political program, the connection between movement and electoral politics, and what it will take to move the city of the seminal 1934 Teamsters Strike to the left. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of their conversation.


SG

What’s the political landscape like in Minneapolis right now?

GJ

I think some of it can be described pretty well through the 15 Now campaign.

In 2013, Socialist Alternative ran Ty Moore for city council in a different district. This was the same year that we got Kshama Sawant elected in Seattle. Throughout the course of the campaign in Seattle, the fifteen-dollar minimum wage became the key issue. Ultimately, we launched 15 Now and won in Seattle in 2014. But we raised the demand in Minneapolis as well. The only press we really got was the city council saying that Ty Moore didn’t really know what he was running for because it was illegal for the city to raise the minimum wage, that it was ridiculous and too high.

Yet at the same time, there was this wave of progressive-looking Democrats who were elected across the country. Our mayor, Betsy Hodges, was basically elected on a racial and economic equity agenda. But she was also very clear, from the beginning, that a minimum-wage increase would not happen under her administration.

After Jamar Clark was murdered in North Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, the main things in Minneapolis politics really were questions of how we deal with racial inequity in the city. There are seventeen Fortune 500 companies in Minneapolis — it’s among the highest in any major city in the country. And yet there’s some of the worst racial equity gaps in the country.

There is clearly enough wealth to go around, but there was still this intransigence to 15. The city council, up until very recently, continued to say that it was illegal to raise the minimum wage, that fifteen dollars was too high, and it was only really under the pressure of a movement that they were forced to actually pass something.

There was a real disconnect between what aspirations and hopes had been tied to a more progressive city council in 2013 and what developed politically. It set the stage for movements to play an enormous, and even outsized role, compared to what they had in the past in the city.

This year, we’ve had all of these left challengers who are seeing themselves in the role of Bernie Sanders, in some ways, and we’ve seen the fifteen-dollar demand become one of the main issues around whether or not people would get the Democratic Party endorsement. I think a lot of it too is based around the election of Trump and this debate on how to really fight back against a right-wing agenda.

SG

Can you talk more about the 15 Now campaign? How did it shape your perception of how city politics work, and how does it inform the way you’d act as a city councillor?

GJ

In February of 2015, we launched the campaign in Minneapolis. A couple of council members were there, including the current council member for this ward, who is currently running for mayor. He said he didn’t know what number, but generally liked the idea of raising the minimum wage. After he said that, there was an impromptu 15 chant that someone started from the audience.

It was a longer, harder battle than Seattle in many ways, and I think a lot of that comes back to not having a council member on our side. Of course, folks played positive roles at different points in time on the council. But after launching a ballot initiative and pushing for a charter amendment and going through that whole process, it was not just making a case that this is something that people need, but that the Chamber of Commerce, the Star-Tribune editorial board, and other mouthpieces of big business will say that this is all about process and putting it to voters is not the right way to do it.

This is about racial, gender, and economic equity. It is disproportionately women and workers of color who are in these low-wage jobs, and you can’t just say a lot of nice things about being for racial and economic equity and then fundamentally disregard that in the end. What we won is $140 million going from the biggest businesses in Minneapolis back into the pockets of workers every year once this is fully implemented. It’s huge. It’s going to have a dramatic impact on people’s lives.

Ultimately, it really boiled down to being clear and sober about 15 Now being a politically independent organization. It was very important that we pointed out that Mayor Hodges did not support fifteen dollars even up until January, and then she was saying, “if we pass anything, it needs to be the same for tipped and untipped workers” — and that’s a nice sentiment, and we ultimately did succeed in doing that, but the mayor still couldn’t say fifteen dollars. It’s crazy to me. It’s been in the Democrats’ platform in Minnesota for a couple of years now and nationally since last year.

To me, the Democratic Party establishment is not the vehicle for being able to win these types of victories. It came from building up a massive base of support. More than 60 percent of the city supported putting it on the ballot and said that they would support the exact ballot language that we had. That’s huge.

SG

What are the major planks in your program? What are you pushing for?

GJ

Our district is really at a crossroads for what will happen in the rest of the city. There’s a lot of working- and middle-class home ownership, and it’s one of the places where some of the fastest development is happening throughout the city, a lot of which is done by these for-profit, big developers who have been given basically free rein. They’re making a whole lot of money out of it.

At the other end of the ward, we have the Vikings’ stadium, which was undemocratically pushed through by the previous council. We have the Super Bowl coming in 2018, and what we’re seeing throughout the ward in talking to people is that they’re connecting the increased for-profit development and the type of work that Inquilinxs Unidxs is doing against slumlords like Stephen Frenz — they’re associating that with the Vikings’ stadium being at the end of the ward.

The city will sell municipal bonds to make a Vikings stadium, but they won’t answer the question of how to create affordable, below-market-rate housing for people. And so a lot of what we’re trying to talk about is basically affordable housing.

The city needs all possible tools at its disposal to make this happen. We need big developers to pay, there needs to be an increase in taxes on them. The city needs to use its leverage to put more on them — you can’t just expect the market to do it, clearly the market has not helped create more units of affordable housing. It’s about selling municipal bonds to beef up the affordable housing trust fund and really use that for union-built, affordable housing.

And rent control — we should absolutely have that debate. Right now, rent control is illegal at the state level and we’re working with Inquilinxs Unidxs and others to push for the recognition of tenants unions and rent control. I think we can also work to ensure that many existing laws are enforced and ensure that various slumlords are not relicensed.

SG

Police killings in Minneapolis have grabbed national and international headlines. What should the city council be doing around policing and the carceral state and, relatedly, racial justice?

GJ

The police murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castille sparked important mass protests, but there have been no fundamental changes implemented to the Minneapolis Police Department. Militarized and racist policing is used to protect the interests of the 1 percent and terrorize communities of color.

There’s a lot we can do right now to reduce the violence and destruction we see in policing and the criminal justice system today. End “stop-and-frisk”-style policing, which amounts to profiling people of color and immigrants, and fueling mass incarceration and Trump’s deportation machine. Decriminalize marijuana and other nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Implement restorative justice practices and avoid arrests for minor crimes, instead referring people directly to social programs, mental health services, or shelters. Robustly fund social services by taxing the rich and big developers.

Empower the communities who are the most harmed by racist policing by creating a democratically elected oversight board with real powers over the Minneapolis Police Department, including setting policy, amending budgets, launching independent investigations, setting department priorities, and with the right to subpoena officers.

We need policies to end the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration, and remove militarized School Resource Officers from schools. This should include fully funded public schools, quality affordable housing and green jobs programs, as well as a movement against racist policing, laws, and sentencing.

Decades of pro–big business and pro-developers policies are at the foundation of our state’s worst-in-the-nation racial equity issues, at the root of systematic oppression and disenfranchisement of communities of color. Passing 15 was a huge step in addressing racial inequality in Minneapolis, but there’s far more to be done.

We can’t have a sanctuary city if immigrants can’t afford to live here. Our sanctuary city laws at present provide very few real protections. As a start, we should end the racist practice of stop-and-frisk policing. Anyone who is suspected of a crime that ends up in the Hennepin County Jail or in the court system still risks being deported by ICE agents.

The city and police should fully commit to safeguarding personal information gathered by city agencies that can be used by ICE to identify targets. Sever all ties with the FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism program, which feeds into racism and Islamophobia. We need to build a movement to defend DACA, provide full citizenship and voting rights for all immigrants starting at the city and county level. Beyond these policies, we need to address the ongoing crisis of affordability.

SG

Can you give us more of a sense of the demographics and the makeup of your ward and how that’s shaped your campaign? What kind of coalition are you trying to assemble?

GJ

So again, there’s a lot of working- and middle-class homeowners who have been in this part of the city, the northeast, for a long time. They feel a real connection to it. They’re very open to the question of increased affordable housing, and I think that’s part of why we’re seeing so much anger at developers who are coming in, changing the ward, and not even building affordable units.

There’s also a strong base of students. A lot of profitable developments are going up around the campus, and it’s increasingly making it difficult for students to live in this part of the city, and many are moving further away. Students and young people are so often discounted in the political conversation, and I think we want to be working with young people and those around the University of Minnesota and discuss how we can win things that will benefit students. Like, there was just another tuition increase — how can we fight these things?

We have a couple parts of downtown too, which can be a tricky section. It’s a lot more businesses and restaurants in that part of the city. But again, I think with the question of rent control, even if maybe some businesses aren’t so happy with the fifteen-dollar minimum wage, there are a lot of other costs that go into running a business in the city of Minneapolis.

Big corporations get a lot of tax breaks and have significant political influence, but a lot of these smaller businesses or restaurants that incur a ton of costs and don’t get that kind of influence, could we talk about commercial rent control? I think that’s how we’re thinking of doing outreach in downtown.

SG

What does your campaign look like? Lots of door-to-door stuff? Community events?

GJ

So I think that it’s really exciting that in our first finance report, there’s these sort of Bernie Sanders–style small donations.

I’ve pledged not to take any corporate money or any anti-15 business interest money and if elected, I would accept the average wage of a worker, like Kshama does in Seattle. Even with that, we’ve still out-raised our Democratic Party opponent three to one — and so, three times as much money as someone who hasn’t pledged not to take corporate or big developer money. To me, that’s exciting because we’re really building a base of people and we can organize around whatever issues we all want to move forward with with people in the ward.

It’s a lot of door knocking, and we’ve done a number of issue-based events. We’ve been endorsed by the Minnesota Nurses Association, and we did an event where we discussed how to fight for Medicare for All with a nurse from the MNA and with a mental health specialist from one of the community hospitals in Minneapolis where a number of people were set to be fired.

So yeah, it’s been a lot of issue-based stuff, organizing with folks who caucused for the Democratic Party but who are also very excited about our campaign. We want to show that they can be excited about this program that we’re fighting for. In many ways, these are based on socialist policies, but you don’t have to be a socialist to vote for this program.

We’re going to hit the campus hard in September and October. These are young people who often don’t feel empowered through voting, so we want to show the power of a movement and the importance of getting someone elected to the city council. We want to connect those two ideas as much as possible.

SG

For any leftist who wants to run for office, there’s always the question of how to stay connected with your base once you’re elected. Obviously, your politics are quite different from Betsy Hodges’ but, as you mentioned, she came into the mayor’s office on the strength of a lot of progressive support, on the strength of union support, and drifted pretty quickly to the center and into the arms of business. How do you avoid that same sort of dynamic?

GJ

It’s critical to stay materially connected with the folks who are constantly dealing with the pressures of daily struggles — they’re trying to make ends meet, they’re facing issues with housing and all these day-to-day problems. I think taking the average wage of a worker in the ward is one key way that a representative of working people can remain accountable.

You cannot be taking money from big developers and say that you will be able to just easily vote against their interests. You cannot be taking money from the Downtown Council or slumlords like Stephen Frenz and have working people still believe that you’re going to have their best interests in mind or be able to really fight and organize with them.

As a member of Socialist Alternative, we have a lot of discussion and make very conscious political decisions about where and when we get involved in different movements or run candidates. We need to maintain accountability to the democratic structures of our organization as well. How we interact with and build up community power in the ward sort of flows from having a structure, base, and membership that is able to get out there and really build something.

SG

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed you locally, SA endorsed the DSA-backed city council candidate Jabari Brisport in New York — so there is some interaction between DSA and SA these days. Can you talk about SA’s relationship with DSA and the broader left?

GJ

I’m really proud to have DSA’s local and national endorsement. I think it was the work we’ve done with folks locally, and I think they really helped get the national endorsement. That says a lot about how exciting and urgent our tasks are to build a strong socialist movement in the US after decades where labor has really been pushed back and socialism was a dirty word. I think a lot of that has been facilitated by the Bernie Sanders campaign and having a democratic socialist run on such a strong program.

We’ve been endorsed by the Communications Workers of America locally, the nurses locally, DSA, the International Socialist Organization has endorsed the campaign nationally, and Socialist Action locally as well. The unions that supported Bernie Sanders are supporting us.

Of course, Socialist Alternative, we see this as part of a larger project and as a stepping stone toward building a new party to the left of the Democrats. I think Bernie Sanders could play a major role in that. Having debates on what that might look like will be a healthy part of how that would happen — what it would look like to build a strong opposition to the establishment of the Democratic Party, with a socialist vein in that broader party.

SG

If you were elected, you’d be the only socialist on the city council. Obviously, you’d have allies on certain issues, but how do you avoid basically just being an ineffective voice of dissent?

GJ

We can’t rely on a traditional, status quo style of politics that is usually based on relationships and is usually based entirely on conversations that most people don’t see. We need to be clear on the highly political decisions being made and how we turn those into something for people to mobilize around.

How do we have bigger call-outs for community meetings where necessary? So when the police chief stepped down, one of the things we were talking about was how we get people involved in deciding what’s next. There should be city resources put to outreach throughout every ward that could have some power over the decision of who would be the next police chief, or about what the problems are with policing in the city of Minneapolis.

A lot of this relates to how we set the agenda around 15. We can do that same kind of thing but with an organizing seat in city hall. We can bring people into city hall and open the doors in a way that we don’t see even voices of dissent and some left Democrats using their positions. They’re generally not thinking about mobilizing people and building power and support for whatever they want to push.

The types of things that are pushed in city council should come more from movements than from someone just one day dreaming up something and deciding it’s an issue.