Minneapolis, MN — As discussions over the newly instituted “strong mayor” system in Minneapolis are back in the news, local politicians, policy aides, activists, and pundits have been sharing their perspectives on the changeover. A month ago, Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley sat down with Unicorn Riot and discussed her thoughts on the government restructuring, corruption in the city and acts of political retaliation within the halls of power.
Wonsley said there’s a split within the council and a “massive pressure campaign” to oppose her and her colleagues that are trying to advance a working class agenda. She accused the mayor of jeopardizing public safety and withholding constituent services.
“The mayor will … do retaliatory shit. Be like … ‘I’ll limit cops in your ward.’ He’ll make threats to council members like that.”Robin Wonsley, Minneapolis City Council Member, Ward 2
Two years ago, Minneapolis voters approved a ballot referendum to restructure the city government and give more power to the executive branch, which Wonsley said is controlled by corporate interests. Unicorn Riot asked Wonsley about the new strong mayor system, an initiative that she and other activists campaigned against and lost, and her ability as a council member to move her agenda; as well as the city council’s ability to provide oversight after the power shift.
In November 2021, Wonsley became the first independent democratic socialist to get elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Before running for office, Wonsley was a labor organizer and a community organizer who co-founded the Seward Police Abolitionist Group, a multiracial coalition made up of neighbors who opposed rebuilding the 3rd Precinct police station and supported defunding the Minneapolis Police Department. The 3rd Precinct – which was located on E. Lake Street, a major thoroughfare in South Minneapolis – was torched by protestors three days after George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin.
Wonsley said the government restructure referendum was a calculated strategy by rich, white, corporate interests. “It was a shift to take power away from the legislative branch and to consolidate it amongst the mayor,” she stated, “which … in terms of voter base is often the most whitest and affluent residents of our city [who] vote and dictate the mayor.” She added, “So this was a tactic to consolidate power.”
The city council is the legislative branch, the most democratic and responsive part of city government, Wonsley said. “That’s where … the 460,000 residents…their needs can be manifested. It’s not through the mayor.”
Wonsley knew going into office that there were going to be efforts to undermine the productivity of the council, she said, but mayoral oversight has been her greatest struggle. She stated that the city council only has three responsibilities: policy making, budget and oversight. “You do oversight, make sure your government has the checks and balances and isn’t doing corrupt shit,” she said. “Oversight has been … the biggest fight, at least for my office, because under the Frey administration [the city is] perpetually doing sheisty shit.”
Council Member Wonsley railed against the mayor who she said threatened to pull back cops in the wards of his political opponents and withhold other constituent services. “‘Okay, well, let’s see how you like it or how your constituents like it if trash don’t get picked up for a couple of days,’” Wonsley stated, quoting the mayor’s staff who expect council members to be blamed and repudiated by residents at the ballot box this November.
A native Chicagoan, Wonsley said Minneapolis rivals Chicago in its corruption. Mayor Frey and many of his political backers including the people that run his political action committee All of Mpls are only one or two people removed from the largest pandemic related fraud scandal in the country. Last year, several men closely connected to Mayor Frey, including his senior policy aide Abdi Salah, were federally indicted, along with the non-profit Feeding Our Future (FOF) co-founder Aimee Bock and dozens of others, for allegedly stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal child nutrition program.
Mayor Frey and Council Member Jamal Osman, both Democrats, were also implicated in the scandal when a records request revealed that they hosted a meeting with state officials who were investigating FOF for fraud and advocated on behalf of Bock’s organization for the state to release frozen funds to the now-indicted parties. According to the Star Tribune, Mayor Frey was provided with a list of talking points for the meeting from Salah, his now-indicted aide, who got them directly from Bock, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy. No elected officials have been formally accused of wrongdoing or indicted for stealing funds from the child nutrition program.
[Click here to read ‘All We Know About Mayor Frey’s Connections to the $250 Million Food Aid Scandal‘]
Wonsley talked to Unicorn Riot about other council members using a coordinated campaign of “block and stall” tactics to prevent her and her colleagues’ policy proposals around public safety from advancing.
“So there has been … a massive pressure campaign to stop council members like myself.” She clarified, “Those who are coming in and putting a spotlight on the ways in which … City Hall wants to advance a hostile, exclusionary governmental response to working class people’s needs.” Adding, “And a lot of that is somewhat directly through the mayor.”
She reserved some of her harshest criticism for her fellow council members who do Mayor Frey’s bidding, calling them “the most useless.”
“I call them our ‘thoughts and prayers council’ because they literally will look at … someone burning in front of you,” she said, “and they can have a bucket of water next to them.” Instead of putting out the blaze and saving a person’s life her colleagues would say “‘I wish there was something I can do. Does it hurt? I’m sorry. I’m sending you my prayers,’” Wonsley stated tongue-in-cheek about a city that was actually on fire three years ago.
The Minneapolis City Council is as diverse as it has ever been. For the first time in its history, white city council members are in the minority with only five white councilors out of 13. There are six council members of African descent, one Latino council member and one council member of South Asian descent; and three of its 13 members are Muslims. Council President Andrea Jenkins is the first transgender city council president in U.S. history. Despite its historic diversity, the conservative wing of the legislative body has an eight person majority, including the president, who have allied with the corporate-backed mayor in blocking popular police reforms from advancing as well as shooting down a recent rent control proposal.
The sophomore city councilor went on about how according to her, city council leadership weaponizes staff to push the mayor’s agenda and undermine her and her allies as well as push back against the will of voters, “especially around rent control,” Wonsley added, after the city council recently blocked a rent control proposal from advancing to a referendum so voters can decide. “70,000 people voted for rent control, to say ‘Council, move forward with this policy.’” It took a year and a half for a staff report to come out – that she said looked like it was written by fifth graders – only for leadership to continue to gaslight voters. “‘No, actually that’s not a viable solution. What we’re doing is working,’” Wonsley said, mimicking an unconvincing senior city staff.
Despite losing the battle to restructure the government, Council Member Wonsley told Unicorn Riot that she continues to organize with her colleagues in the minority and work to advance an agenda that provides relief to working class people.
“It’s been a challenge to advance working class solutions under a hostile anti-working class political climate. But they got the right one,” she announced, referring to her own warrior spirit. “And I’m very proud of my colleagues,” she said of fellow council members Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai, Jeremiah Ellison and Elliot Payne. “The five of us who have continued to fight and continue to push, continue to cuss people out and advance all these things in spite of all of that fuckery that happens.”
Unicorn Riot reached out to council members Chavez, Chughtai, Ellison and Payne to confirm Council Member Wonsley’s claims that Mayor Frey has threatened revenge against political opponents on the council. Council Member Chavez was the only one to respond to Unicorn Riot’s inquiries and he said he has not experienced or witnessed any threats or actions of revenge by Mayor Frey.
About the author: Marjaan Sirdar is a South Minneapolis based freelance journalist. He is the host of the People Power Podcast and author of the investigative series, 21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City: How Target Corp., the City of Minneapolis, and Hennepin County, Created a Domestic Spy Program That Rolled Back Civil Rights On its Black Population, published by Unicorn Riot. You can follow him on Twitter @peoplepowerpod1.
Cover image of Minneapolis City Hall by Anubis Abyss – edited with oil paint feature.