The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the city where George Floyd was killed, the mayor fights to keep his job in a tough reelection race

Mayor Jacob Frey has become a punching bag for frustrated residents who say he hasn’t done enough to reform the police or address the city’s violent crime spike.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks to his constituents at his “Mayor on the Block” event on Oct. 26 in Minneapolis. (Christian Monterrosa/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — Mayor Jacob Frey had barely begun his event on public safety when a woman confronted him about the violence that has erupted across the city in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd.

The day before, a boy had been grazed by a stray bullet that pierced his bedroom wall while he was sleeping — one of more than 575 people injured by gunfire across Minneapolis this year.

Why wasn’t Frey talking about the wounding of another child, demanded Angela Williams, a Black anti-violence activist who clutched a handout from the mayor’s campaign listing community safety priorities. What was he doing to stop this? Did he even care?

“I don’t appreciate you coming here in front of Shiloh Temple trying to finesse the Black community once again,” Williams told Frey, who stood silently outside the historic Black church in North Minneapolis as the woman unloaded on him in front of a bank of local television cameras. “I don’t care about none of those words you just said. That’s finesse to me. Those are words to get reelected the best way you know how to do it.”

It was a scene remarkably similar to others that have played out in the 17 months since Floyd’s murder. In a state where people take pride in being “Minnesota nice,” Frey has become a frequent punching bag for angry and frustrated residents who have blamed him for the city’s violent crime spike, flailing police department and deep, roiling racial inequalities.

Frey, who is up for reelection Tuesday, has been booed and heckled by activists demanding he defund the police, instead of merely reform the department as he has proposed. In the days after Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020, hundreds of protesters marched to Frey’s apartment near downtown Minneapolis to demand sweeping changes to policing in the city. When Frey, who had stepped outside to address the group, refused to commit to abolishing the police department, the crowd erupted in anger. “Shame! Shame!” they chanted.

Others argue that Frey, who has sole oversight of the police department as mayor, has done little to stem the city’s wave of violent crime. Frey has been confronted during public appearances by residents who have demanded to know why there are not more police on the streets and why there have not been more arrests in response to the rising number of shootings and homicides.

“What you’re doing isn’t working,” a Black man told Frey last spring, interrupting a news conference where the mayor sought to pressure the city council to increase funding for the police.

At a recent street fair in South Minneapolis, a male passerby silently gave Frey the middle finger as the mayor walked with his baby daughter, offering no explanation at all. Frey, whom is said by those who know him to be extremely sensitive to criticism, generally offers no emotional reaction to such scenes even as he acknowledges that being the subject of people’s anger is not always easy.

“This pendulum has been swinging back and forth between defunding and abolishing the police on one side and like a militarized presence on the other, neither of which are the right decision, and I’m staying at 6 o’clock,” Frey said in an interview. “And that gets you subjected to a whole lot of wrath from both sides, but I stand by it.”

Frey is hopeful that his willingness to engage with those who disagree with him will be interpreted by voters as a sign of strength. “You lean into that debate, as uncomfortable as it might be,” Frey said. “And maybe people will say, ‘He’s willing to stand up for what’s right.’”

On Tuesday, the city will also vote on a controversial ballot measure that would replace the police department with a new department of public safety with an undetermined number of officers — a proposal that has residents torn between wanting a new approach and taking a risk on a strategy that many fear could make the city’s problems worse. Frey opposes the measure, further infuriating some voters.

Sixteen people — mostly Democrats — are challenging Frey in a mayoral election that will be determined by ranked-choice voting. Some yards across the city are decorated with signs urging residents to support anyone but the incumbent, including one with the message “Jacob Must Go!”

In recent days, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) joined a group of Democratic state lawmakers who represent Minneapolis in urging voters not to “rank” Frey on their ballots. Omar threw her support to Frey’s top two challengers — activist Sheila Nezhad, who helped write a ballot question on policing, and Kate Knuth, a former state representative and climate activist — pressing supporters to rank them as their first and second choice on the ballot.

Knuth and Nezhad, in turn, have pledged to rank each other and asked their voters to do the same, a partnership they hope will deprive Frey of enough votes to win. Both support the ballot measure on policing — though Knuth has pledged to keep existing police staffing levels for at least two years during the transition.

“We are unified that the status quo on police and public safety is not acceptable,” Knuth said.

Frey has been endorsed by other Democratic leaders in the state, including Gov. Tim Walz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, though they haven’t publicly campaigned with him. He said he is unconcerned about what some call the “Don’t Rank Frey” movement. He has pointed to his popularity among Black residents on the north side of the city and in the Somali community — two constituencies that have been hit hard by the uptick in violence and where many have been especially skeptical of the effort to replace the police department.

He has blamed political attacks for his declining approval rating — in a September poll of Minneapolis likely voters, 35 percent of those polled viewed Frey favorably, down 15 percentage points since August 2020. And Frey also argues there is a “massive disjoint” between the political commentary on social media and what he sees on the ground.

One former lawmaker close to Frey, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly about the campaign, said the mayor is counting on voters who may not want to admit they are casting a ballot for him. “Everything is so polarized, no one wants to say out loud that they might vote for the mayor or against this police question,” the former lawmaker said. “But Minneapolis has a way of surprising people.”

Frey grew up in Oakton, Va., in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — a factoid that has often been raised by detractors over the last year who have occasionally shouted at him to move back to Virginia. The son of former ballet dancers, Frey is a former competitive runner who said he fell in love with Minneapolis after running a marathon in the city. The 40-year-old civil rights lawyer moved to Minneapolis in 2009 and won a seat on the city council in 2013, where he represented a rapidly developing area of downtown Minneapolis.

In 2017, Frey ran and defeated then-Mayor Betsy Hodges (D) in a race that was driven by the debate over police accountability after two fatal police shootings: the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark, a Black man who was shot during an altercation with police investigating an alleged assault, and the 2017 killing of Justine Ruszcyk Damond, a White woman shot by a Black officer who had responded to Damond’s 911 call about a possible rape behind her home.

“We need massive reform, not tomorrow, not next week. We need it today,” Frey argued in the days after Damond’s death. “There’s a total lack of confidence in the mayor’s office and in the Minneapolis Police Department right now.” Frey arrived in office pledging not only to enact sweeping reforms but to fix the broken relationship between the community and police.

It is not lost on Frey that many of those same complaints about reform and public safety he voiced about his predecessor are now being said about him. He acknowledged that change has been harder than he expected — complicated recently by the dueling crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from Floyd’s killing.

But Frey pointed to series of reforms enacted during his term, including the increased use of body cameras and a ban on the kind of neck restraint used on Floyd by former officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering Floyd. More recently, the city banned pretextual stops for low-level offenses, such as air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors and expired license tabs, because police data showed Black drivers were pulled over more often than White ones.

Yet Frey insisted there is “much more to be done.”

“There is not a mayor in this country that is happy with the pace of change, including me,” Frey said. “There’s so much incentive to spout off a magic wand fix that doesn’t exist. These are issues that are systemic and can’t be solved with a hashtag or a catchphrase or even a single policy because the causes are so deeply rooted … It takes work and time.”

Frey has touted his close relationship with Medaria Arradondo, Minneapolis’s first Black police chief who is widely liked across the city. But Arradondo, whose contract is up in January, has repeatedly declined to say if he will stay on.

But Nezhad, an organizer with the racial-justice group Reclaim the Block, has criticized the mayor for standing in lockstep with police officers repeatedly accused of brutalizing the community, including residents of color.

In the days after Floyd’s death, Nezhad volunteered as a street medic as thousands of protesters hit the streets demanding justice. She was hit by rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas within minutes of arriving at the scene.

“The police murdered George Floyd, and then they targeted the people who went to the streets to mourn his death,” Nezhad said. She and others have criticized Frey for not immediately conducting an after-action report to examine the city’s response to the protests, a study that will be released next February, after the election concludes.

Nezhad also criticized the mayor for the lack of accountability for officers whose aggressive tactics were caught on camera. The election, she said, is an opportunity to remake the entire system of public safety and accountability. “We also need a mayor who really tries to listen to people who keep taking to the streets because they feel they aren’t being heard,” she said.

A ballot initiative on overhauling police after George Floyd’s death is tearing Minneapolis apart

In his bid for a second term, Frey has campaigned mostly out of sight — including a schedule of unpublicized backyard gatherings with small groups that Frey says helps him to connect one-on-one. In recent weeks, critics have occasionally stumbled on Frey during his backyard tour, taking the opportunity to confront him about his handling of the police.

Frey says he hopes the tense encounters prove to voters that he’s willing to take politically unpopular stands. Occasionally, he tries to win his critics over.

Outside Shiloh Temple, Frey allowed Williams to vent for several minutes — even as campaign aides standing nearby wore increasingly pained expressions. Williams spoke of the constant gunfire on the north side of the city and how police officers never seemed to be around.

“I don’t care if you’ve got one police officer, put his a-- out there and make him do something,” Williams said, her voice trembling with emotion. “I don’t see White folks getting killed like this. I see people that look like me getting killed everyday, and y’all still don’t have a plan.”

Frey thanked her for her “honest feedback” and paused slightly to consider his response. “You said these are just words. You’re right. They’re just words,” he said. “We are providing a vision for where we believe we need to go, but words in and of themselves is not action. You are absolutely right.”

The number of police officers has “depleted so significantly,” Frey continued. “But to your point, the officers we do have, the investigators that we do have, they should be doing everything possible to stop this senseless violence.”

But Frey argued that was why the police department should not be defunded and why there should be more officers on the ground, especially in communities hardest hit by the violence.

Williams nodded, not completely won over by the mayor’s response. Later, she took a place next to Frey as he posed for a photo with local residents — an image that his campaign staff later flagged for reporters in an email and that Frey himself brought up in an interview.

He wasn’t sure if he’d won her vote, Frey said, “but I tried.”