MINNEAPOLIS – Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was the face of the city through some of its darkest days — the death of George Floyd under an officer's knee last year and rioting that marred the ensuing protests, including the burning of a police precinct after Frey ordered officers to abandon it.
Frey, a Democrat, is now in a tough fight to keep his job as the city tries to rebuild since Floyd's death in May 2020 sparked the most widespread unrest in the U.S. since the Rodney King riots. Tuesday's election will likely turn on how voters view Frey's efforts to find a middle road in a city sharply divided by questions on racism, policing and crime.
Frey has positioned himself as a defender of keeping the police department — and against the most liberal and vocal progressives seeking a symbolic victory in Floyd's city.
“There’s not a mayor in the country that is content with the pace of change, and count me in on that vote,” Frey, 40, said in an interview. “But we have passed a litany of reforms and changes, more than any mayor in the history of this city.”
During the worst of the unrest following the death of Floyd, a Black man, under white Officer Derek Chauvin's knee, conservatives accused Frey of failing to stem the riots or crack down on soaring crime and gun violence.
But he has also been pilloried by many on the left for not doing enough to overhaul Minneapolis police. Most of his serious challengers in a 17-candidate field are more liberal than Frey in a city that last elected a Republican mayor 64 years ago. Some have made a mantra of the slogan “Don't Rank Frey” — a plea for voters to leave him off their ballot in the city's ranked-choice voting system, thus increasing the chances someone else will win.
Frey's fate may well be tied to a ballot question that asks voters whether they want to replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety. The ballot question would drop a requirement that the city have a police department and a minimum number of officers. Opponents have said that could mean too few officers; supporters have dismissed that as fear-mongering.
The mayor opposes the ballot question. He notes it doesn't include a clear plan for whatever would replace it, and that it would shift sole oversight of police from the mayor's office to a system that gives the 13-member City Council more input.
Two top challengers, Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth, both support replacing the current department. Nezhad was a leader of the campaign behind the ballot question. Knuth is a former state representative and environmental justice activist.
Progressive groups have united around the two women and the “Don't Rank Frey” strategy, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents the Minneapolis area in Congress. In an appearance with both candidates in mid-October, Omar blasted “four years of failed leadership” in the city, and Nezhad and Knuth sounded similar notes.
“Our path forward does not require us to choose among safety, justice and police accountability,” Knuth said.
Frey, a lawyer by training and a Virginia transplant, first won a City Council seat in 2013. He ascended to the mayor's office in 2017 by ousting incumbent Betsy Hodges in a race also roiled by police accountability issues, including the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark, a Black man, in a struggle with white officers and the 2017 shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman, by a Black officer.
The divisions in the campaign in the wake of Floyd's death don't break down cleanly along racial lines. Frey said his strongest support comes from the Black and Somali communities, which have been hit hard by crime and where support for defunding police is not universal. He said there's a “massive disjoint” between what he's hearing from those communities compared to what white progressive activists are saying.
Frey said he has made substantial progress in overhauling policing. As examples, the mayor said police compliance with rules on using body cameras was just 55% when he took office. Penalties that he and Medaria Arradondo, the city's first Black police chief, imposed after Floyd's death brought it to 95%. The department banned “warrior-style" training. They overhauled use-of-force rules including a ban on choke holds. They banned pretext stops for low-level offenses such as air fresheners hanging from mirrors and expired license plate tabs.
Frey said Minnesota law requires changes to do more to hold bad cops accountable. He said the department has terminated or disciplined more officers in 2020 and 2021 than the previous four years combined: final disciplinary decisions in 73 cases last year and this year, compared to 63 between 2015 and 2019. But Frey said it's hard to make those decisions stick.
“Right now when Chief Arradondo or I fire or discipline an officer, 55% of the time that decision is overturned by mandatory arbitration, which is required under state law," he said. "Fifty percent of the time they’re returned and they go back to violate trust with the community.”
Frey said he wants to continue working on public safety and police accountability in a second term, and on a “strong and inclusive recovery” from both the pandemic and last year's destruction. He'd also like to revisit affordable housing, an issue where he had some early successes.
“For all these issues, public safety, police accountability, affordable housing, economic inclusion and recovery, there are no magic wand fixes," he said. "There are no hashtags that lead to utopia. You gotta do the work."
Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a former City Council member, said Frey has staked out a strong position of wanting to work with Arradondo to reform the police department as it is.
“I think that stance is popular with a big chunk of voters in the city, including many in the African American community, but there’s also a cohort of young people who don’t see it that way,” Cramer said.