Students Seek Answers in Mayoral Forum

Energetic atmosphere is undercut by moments of tension

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

With about a month left to go before Election Day, the Minneapolis mayoral race is heating up, and the forum held on Oct. 5 by Women for Political Change (WFPC) was no different. Candidates Nekima Levy-Pounds, the former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, Aswar Rahman, a local small business owner, Jacob Frey, the city council member for Ward 3, Raymond Dehn, the state representative for District 59B, and incumbent Betsy Hodges were present to sit in front of a mostly filled lecture hall to answer students’ questions. Other major contender Tom Hoch was not present.

The evening started at the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building, with booths teeming with enthusiastic student volunteers outside the lecture hall. Volunteers for Hodges and Dehn were represented, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group was available to help register voters, and information was available about ranked-choice voting. The air was friendly and conversational as students and community members filed into the hall, where Dehn, Rahman, and Frey mingled with constituents before the forum commenced. The candidates made a point of shaking hands, introducing themselves, and inquiring about issues that the students cared about.

While some students came in with a first choice of candidate already in mind, many entered the room undecided. Two such voters were freshmen Conner Kallsen and Sam Lett. “I’m undecided so far … my main concern is how they plan on improving the city,” Kallsen said. “I have a couple candidates I’m leaning towards. I definitely have an idea of who’s going to be my top three. I’m looking for clarification on whose policies I agree with most,” Lett added.

The evening started with all five candidates taking turns answering questions that were sent in beforehand by students via a WFPC Google Form. Topics discussed ranged from affordable housing to police accountability, from biking accessibility to municipal equity. Since Hodges has spent the past four years as mayor, she focused much of her time on explaining how she would build upon all she has done thus far in office. Levy-Pounds related much of her policy ideas to her time as a law professor and in the NAACP. Frey and Dehn expounded upon their current experiences as public servants, and Rahman made a point to call out his disapproval of Hodges’ time in office. Hodges left at 7 p.m. due to an appearance she had to make at the Minnesota Lynx celebration parade. Other than this, the forum was relatively tame, at least until the candidate-specific questions started.

Topics discussed ranged from affordable housing to police accountability, from biking accessibility to municipal equity.

Each of the remaining candidates was given a question specific to a previous statement or action they made that may be questionable to voters, and what they could say to assuage voter apprehension. Levy-Pounds was asked about previous comments on teacher tenure, which she turned into a critique on the state of how low-income and high-minority schools are given teachers with the least experience. Frey was questioned on housing price hikes in his ward and said that if he were mayor he would focus on promoting urban density to lower housing prices. Rahman was asked about his fiscal policies that were deemed “too conservative” by the panel, to which he countered that his policies would “invest intelligently in economic reform.” Dehn, however, did not receive a question of this nature. Rather, he was asked about his arguments against the case that rent control is not a viable option in Minneapolis. He stated that “landlords will eventually comply to rent control.” After his segment ended, Levy-Pounds was the first to point out Dehn’s question was different from the other candidates’. The WFPC board recognized this and subsequently asked Dehn a second question on how he could be the most progressive candidate as a cisgender, heterosexual, white man. Dehn obliged, saying that his views have nothing to do with his identity, but Rahman argued that Dehn was given “two softballs in a row.”

After the bias of the candidate-specific questions, the aura of the room became tense. Before the conclusion of the forum, a rapid-fire Q&A was conducted using questions sent to WFPC on Twitter. The candidates’ answers were limited to 60 seconds, but many of their answers went over. However, when the time came for Dehn to answer, the moderators became much more strict about his allotted time. In the middle of a thought on creating a municipal ID for undocumented residents, the state representative was interrupted and told to “wrap up [his] sentence.” Dehn became flustered and took a seat.

While the question bias and further attempts to cover up any favoritism added a sense of unease to the forum, the evening ended without any catastrophes. When checked in with at the end, Kallsen and Lett had new thoughts to share. “I like Aswar … he convinced me because he’s well-thought-out, he seems rational … he knows what people are actually struggling with,” Kallsen said. Lett was still not fully decided, but got a better sense of who the candidates were. “I’m leaning more towards Ray … [he] stumbled a bit in the second half. That was the fault of the people who came up with the questions. All the candidates did well. It’s more than what they say, it’s how they execute. At the end of the day, Ray represents that best. I believe in his ability to lead the city, and that’s what it comes down to.”