Editor’s note: The Journals have been profiling the self-declared candidates for mayor. This is the fourth profile in our series. We have profiled Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes and Don Samuels, and will be publishing stories in coming weeks on Gary Schiff, Jim Thomas and Cam Winton, an Independent candidate not seeking the DFL endorsement.
It’s often said that Minneapolis government is set up in a way in which the City Council holds more power than the mayor does.
While the power on the City Council is divided among 13 members, a select few are often the ones who pull most of the strings. As the chair of the city’s budget committee and tight ally of Mayor R.T. Rybak, Betsy Hodges is not running away from her record over the past eight years as she looks to succeed Rybak in the mayor’s office.
“I own every decision I have ever made,” Hodges said during a recent interview. “I own each and every one of them.”
The decisions Hodges, a two-term veteran on the City Council, has made come with much praise, but also some criticism.
Hodges, a 43-year-old Linden Hills resident, can point to several indicators of how the city is on a strong rebound following the 2008 recession.
For the first time since 2007, the city’s tax base is increasing, according to a recent financial report. Construction is booming in several areas, with two large apartment towers going up downtown, several mixed-use developments springing up in Uptown and housing developments underway near Dinkytown.
The city budget forecast is looking bright for the first time in several years. Minneapolis under spent by $7 million in 2012 and Hodges and her colleagues have socked that money away in an account she created to help hold the line on property taxes.
Rybak, Hodges and several other council members since 2001 have made votes to pay down debt left over from previous administrations and restored the city’s AAA bond rating.
Hodges took the lead as the city fought police and fire pension funds over what the city called overpayments to retirees and inflated management costs. Hodges says rolling those retirees into a state fund a year ago will save the city taxpayers $20 million, but it came with some political consequences.
“I am proud to be part of the team that was cleaning up the financial messes that were left to us,” Hodges said. “I have made a lot of tough choices as a City Council member, and people know what they are, because I made them out loud.”
Peter Wagenius is Rybak’s policy director and said Hodges was “central and essential to our efforts in stabilizing the city budget.” (Rybak has not endorsed a candidate in the race).
“We’ve had a broken pension system for decades, and decades of Minneapolis leaders took a pass on trying to fix it because they didn’t have the toughness to stand up to the special interests or middle men who benefited from the system,” Wagenius said.
While Hodges has won high praise for many of the moves she and Rybak made in dealing with the city budget, it hasn’t come without critics.
Mark Lakosky, president of the local firefighter union, has been an outspoken critic of Hodges, calling her budget decisions dangerous to residents and firefighters.
“She’s dangerously irresponsible in regards to the cuts they’ve made to the Fire Department,” Lakosky said.
Today there are 289 city firefighters in Minneapolis, down from 406 when Hodges took over the budget committee in early 2010.
Last year, city firefighters made it to the scene of an emergency within five minutes 81 percent of the time. That’s down from 86.1 percent in 2009. The National Fire Protection Association’s standard is 90 percent.
Hodges blames some of the increased response time on lagging 911 service, and she budgeted for two additional operators in 2013 to speed up that end of emergency response.
She also points out that over the past several years response times have suffered as a result of bridge closures that have re-routed fire trucks. Bridges closed include Lyndale Avenue at the Minnehaha Creek, the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and the Lowry Avenue Bridge, among others.
“The residents of Minneapolis are getting the same high quality service from their Fire Department that they have always gotten,” Hodges said.
Hodges has been chair of the budget committee for the past three years, in which property tax levies have increased by 4.7 percent payable in 2011, 0 percent in 2012 and 1.7 percent in 2013.
City leadership often blames Local Government Aid cuts under the Tim Pawlenty Administration for rising city property taxes, but the city has also struggled with large pension payouts for retired cops and firefighters, which Hodges can say she reformed.
Hodges has never enjoyed strong union support in her council races, and thus far two unions have endorsed other candidates for mayor: The fire union went for Gary Schiff and the building trades and construction union went for Mark Andrew.
Hodges notes that the SEIU endorsed her council campaign and she says there are still plenty of union endorsements to be had.
“There have only been two union endorsements so far, so I would just say stay tuned,” Hodges said.
UPDATE: The SEIU announced on May 23 that it has endorsed Hodges for mayor.
University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs called Hodges the frontrunner and establishment candidate in the race for mayor.
Jacobs said Rybak proved in 2005, when he beat out Peter McLaughlin, that union support is not a requisite like it once was to win a mayoral race.
“They’re not the kingmakers they used to be,” Jacobs said. “But they’re still the best friends to have.”
Before the age of 20, Hodges was living hard.
“I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, weighed over 200 pounds and I used to drink every day,” she said.
Hodges said she was lucky to have changed her life at a young age. She hasn’t had a drink in 23 years and no longer smokes. At the age of 40, while campaigning for re-election, she ran her first marathon.
She didn’t think she would have time to run a marathon while on the campaign trail, so she never registered for one. By the time she realized she could do both, there were no spots open in any races.
“Then I realized, nothing was going to stop me from running 26.2 miles,” she said. “I could just run 26.2 miles.”
On her 40th birthday, Labor Day 2009, she set out on Minneapolis trails.
“Actually, I ran 27.4 miles,” Hodges said. “Various friends ran legs with me. My (then-) husband was on his bike with my water. Other friends came with their bikes and rode along with me. Other than that it was a one-woman marathon.”
She ran a second marathon the following year.
Hodges, who grew up in Minnetonka, graduated from Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia and later added a master’s degree in sociology from UW-Madison.
In 2011, she married Gary Cunningham, then a newly appointed member of the Met Council. Because they live in different political boundaries, the couple splits their time between their two homes.
Hodges, prior to her first election in 2005, had worked as an aide to Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman and as a development director for the Minnesota Justice Foundation.
In 1999, Hodges was appointed by then-City Council member Jim Niland to a commission charged with finding a site for a Twins ballpark that could be privately funded.
Chaired by Hodges, the commission recommended the site where Target Field now sits because of its proximity to transit and nearby parking. But the Twins weren’t interested in a ballpark that didn’t include public funding.
“It’s proven to be a great a site,” Hodges said. “I am very proud of getting to that recommendation, I just disagreed with the funding source when they eventually built it.”
Her first big city policy undertaking came after her 2005 election, when Hodges tackled the so-called McMansion housing issue that was getting under the skin of Southwest residents.
Developers were building huge houses on small lots, angering neighbors who wanted to keep the character of neighborhoods like Linden Hills in tact.
Hodges passed an ordinance that limited the size of a home developers could build on a lot — homes had to be less than half the size of their lot.
With the economy recovering, some neighbors and real estate types say developers are finding their way around the ordinance and it’s becoming a problem again.
“Yes, I think it would be worth revisiting, but overall I think it did a lot to stem the tide of oversized homes,” Hodges said. “The ones we see now are the exceptions to the rule and what they were before was the rule.”
State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) has been one of Hodges’s closest confidants over the years. Dibble encouraged Hodges to run for City Council in 2005 and is now co-chair of her campaign.
Dibble said both he and Hodges were motivated to take up progressive causes following the death of Paul Wellstone in 2002. When the marriage amendment was sent to the ballot in 2012, Dibble said he and Hodges sat in his living room for hours calling potential donors who would help defeat the amendment.
“I don’t know of any council member who worked harder than she did to defeat the amendment,” Dibble said.
Hodges points to Dibble and other high-level decision makers who have endorsed her campaign as proof that she can bring people together to get state and federal resources for things to improve Minneapolis, like transit.
Cunningham, her husband, is a member of the Met Council, the manager of transit in the metro. Dibble chairs the Senate’s transportation committee and Hodges supporter Rep. Frank Hornstein chairs the House transportation committee. Her old boss Dorfman is also a support.
“One of the skills you need as mayor is the ability to build relationships, which is what I have been doing for the last two terms on the City Council, but even before that,” Hodges said.
Hodges doesn’t mind being tied to the policies of Rybak, but she’s also not afraid to point out times when she has broken from him.
“If you like the way things are going in Minneapolis, she is your candidate,” Jacobs said.
Hodges did not support Rybak’s Vikings stadium proposal, which tapped city sales taxes for a $339 million public subsidy.
She also voted against the reappointment of former Police Chief Tim Dolan, who oversaw a large decrease in crime after he took over the reigns of the department in 2006.
“He was great at fighting crime. Crime went down under his watch and I think that is important to note,” Hodges said.
But Hodges and a few of her colleagues took issue with the way Dolan handled racial profiling, hiring of minorities and women, the Civilian Review Authority and overall community relations.
“If people don’t feel like they will be treated well when the police come, then they won’t call the police and that’s a detriment to everybody’s public safety, and that wasn’t Chief Dolan’s strong point,” Hodges said.
Jacobs described Hodges as cautious and strategic, which can be seen in the way she talks about how Minneapolis should position itself while the economy rebounds.
“I think that the next term will require the same amount of discipline, but I think there will be more opportunity and more choices and more good options than there have been in the last 10 years.”
At a Glance: Betsy Hodges
Neighborhood: Linden Hills
Profession: Ward 13 City Council Member
Community involvement: Former Linden Hills Neighborhood Council board member and co-chair; Co-founded the Legacy Project, Minnesota Justice Foundation, President of the League of Minnesota Cities; Member of Stadium Implementation Committee for new Vikings stadium; Heading Home Hennepin
Family: Husband is Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, two stepchildren
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr; master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Fun fact: Ran her first marathon at age 40.