A new face in the mayor's race

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June 20, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Green Party-endorsed candidate Farheen Hakeem says she has the skills to run the city

Farheen Hakeem stood before 100-plus hip hop fans at the B-Girl Be Summit's open microphone session, prepared to read "First Writings Since," a post 9/11 poem by Palestinian American Suheir Hammad.

First, she introduced herself: "I am running for mayor of Minneapolis."

The words that drew a roar from the diverse and predominantly female crowd gathered in the parking lot next to Intermedia Arts. A man in the audience yelled: "I'll vote for you!"

"I am running as a woman of color," Hakeem said, adding that people such as her had no representation in government.

Hakeem, a 29-year-old Chicago native who now lives in Northeast, is a former math teacher turned Girl Scout membership coordinator. She is an antiwar activist, stand-up comedian and the Green Party endorsee for mayor. Hip hop events are a good place to reach young voters, she said in an interview.

If elected, she would be the youngest mayor in Minneapolis history, besting Hubert Humphrey, who was 34 when he won in 1945.

Unlike Mayor R.T. Rybak and DFL challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Hakeem does not support the county sales tax subsidy for a new Twins stadium; she wants voters to decide in a referendum.

While Rybak and McLaughlin have focused on adding more police officers, Hakeem said she is more concerned with creating a "cultural change" in the Police Department - an "antiracist approach."

She is concerned about Fire Department cuts, but bolstering the police force staff is not a top priority. "I am not going to perpetuate the culture of fear," she said. "If we are going to make people paranoid, we will not have a chance to address the real problems that exist out there."

She would prefer to use the mayor's bully pulpit to work on job creation and affordable housing targeted to the city's poorest families, she said.

"The number one issue that I hear when I talk to anyone: 'Jobs, jobs, jobs. Where are we going to get the jobs?'" Hakeem said.

Rybak and McLaughlin have political records and experience. Hakeem's challenges include convincing people she has the skills and vision for the job.

Rsum

Hakeem got her math degree from Oberlin College in 1997. She moved to Minneapolis in 1999 and worked at Normandale Community College as a math lab assistant, she said. From 2001 to 2003, she taught math at three schools - West St. Paul's Mexica Multicultural Charter School, Summit Academy OIC in North Minneapolis and St. Paul Intensive Day Treatment.

In October 2003, she began a one-year stint as a community organizer with Riverton Community Housing Cooperative, which provides housing for University of Minnesota students, staff and nontenured faculty. She left the following October to manage Jay Pond's unsuccessful Green Party run to unseat long-time Minneapolis Congressman Martin Sabo, a Democrat.

Hakeem now works for the Greater Minneapolis Girl Scouts on the Muslim girls initiative, she said. Herself a Muslim, she leads traditional school-based troops and troops for Islamic girls. That experience has reinforced her belief that a stadium subsidy is misplaced, she said.

"I go to the public schools every day, and I see how they are struggling," Hakeem said.

(The Girl Scouts declined comment; a spokesman said the organization could not get involved in politics.)

Hakeem has done stand-up comedy with a political bite, including a two-woman 2004 Fringe Festival show

called "Comedy Against Racism," poking fun at anti-

Muslim stereotypes.

(She is putting comedy on hold during the campaign, she said. Some people thought she was running just to get new material.)

She is active in the Antiwar Committee. Marie Braun, a member of the Twin Cities Peace Campaign-Focus on Iraq, has worked with Hakeem in organizing demonstrations, and called her a bright, competent woman; a strong peace advocate; and a good speaker. (Braun said she has not yet decided whom she would support for mayor.)

Hakeem has worked as a freelance writer. Asked about her proudest achievement, she pointed to her Aug. 11, 2004 PULSE newspaper cover story: "Activist guide to the Republican National Convention."

As a person of color and a Muslim woman, she gets lots of media attention, she said. When people commented on seeing her on TV or in the newspaper, it didn't mean much to her.

"But when people came up to me and said, 'I read your article,' it was so wonderful," she said. "It was about something I am passionate about. It had everything to do with my intellectual ability. It had nothing to do with my racial background."

(For the article, see www.pulsetc.com/article.php?sid=1262.)

Hakeem said she had an "inkling" for the last couple of years she wanted to run for mayor; she first verbalized her interest in December when talking to Pond.

She talked to other Green Party activists about who they could run. "My name kept popping up," she said.

Leading a city

Hakeem said she has gotten a number of questions about her perceived lack of political experience. "R.T. Rybak was in the same boat as me four years ago - and he had less political activism compared to me," she said, saying her antiwar volunteering equaled or surpassed his work with ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket.)

Rybak said prior to running for mayor he had worked as a Star Tribune reporter, Minneapolis Downtown Council development director, Twin Cities Reader publisher, Internet Broadcasting Systems vice president and had run his own marketing firm.

"I am proud of my work at ROAR, but I have done more in this community than ROAR," Rybak said.

Hakeem had worked as treasurer of the Women of Color Building Project, she said. (The Women of Color Building Project is a lesbian and bisexual women of color cultural organization.) Still, her upcoming campaign would probably be the largest budget she has ever managed, and her goal is to raise $60,000, she said.

How would she approach a $1 billion city budget?

She would work with the top city managers to make decisions, using similar skills she developed as a teacher, volunteer and organizer, she said.

"Do I have the qualifications to do a smaller budget? Yes. Why could I not have the potential to do a bigger budget?" she asked. "I have a degree in math. I don't know what else you need."

She is still developing specific plans for how the city could better support and promote housing and business co-ops through the city's development arm. She points to a December New York City press release announcing a $100 million initiative between the New York City Housing Development Corporation and Banc of America to build affordable cooperative developments as a model.

Hakeem described herself as a facilitator who would bring the city more community involvement. As one example, she said as mayor she would put youth representatives on the Youth Coordinating Board.

By state law, Youth Coordinating Board members are elected officials from the city, state, schools, park and other jurisdictions, Executive Director Judith Kahn said. Youth could serve on the board - but not vote, she said. The board has looked for other ways to involve youth in a meaningful way, such as a recent Youth Town Hall Summit.

Hakeem also criticized city involvement in MOSAIC, whose mission, according to its Web site, is to "showcase the rich diversity of arts and cultures of Minneapolis through a summer-long celebration."

Hakeem calls it a "waste of money" and "bad choice" for the city. "Traditionally, our city hasn't gotten involved in our arts scene," she said. "I am scared it [MOSAIC] will squash the underground art scene."

Rybak aide Laura Sether said the city gave $15,000 seed money in 2003, but nothing since. MOSAIC's $300,000 budget is privately funded. A mayoral staff member attends MOSAIC meetings, but it is a small part of his duties, she said. MOSAIC has a 43-member steering committee, including corporate and foundation representatives, public employees and local arts groups, the MOSAIC Web site said.

Hakeem counts among her political role models former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who became Cleveland's mayor at age 31 and City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward).

Johnson Lee, also a Green Party member, said she encouraged Hakeem to run, and has made a point to show up at events and offer encouragement.

"She is determined. She is persistent. And she doesn't mind speaking to the tough issues," Johnson Lee said.

Religion

Hakeem wears a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. She said people see it and assume she is submissive, soft-spoken and doesn't speak English well.

On a recent evening, she passed out literature at the Wedge Co-op, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., making first impressions with voters. Jay Pond, former Congressional candidate and now Hakeem's campaign manager, helped out. He said the Wedge's precinct gave him his best showing in 2004.

(He got 17 percent-plus in that precinct compared to 5.9 percent overall, according to the Hennepin County election Web site.)

Some passersby declined the literature. John Cearnal of Whittier accepted it and said in an interview that he "liked the contradiction" of a Muslim woman running for mayor but needed to learn more.

For some, Hakeem's background was a plus. Karen Meyer of CARAG called Hakeem "authentic" and someone she could support.

"I am so taken with diversity," she said. "I think the Muslim people have brought an element of compassion to this country. I find them to be genuine people."

Hakeem does not want voters to back her as a Muslim woman candidate, she said. She wants people to support her because of her ideas.

Still, her religion has shaped her and, spurred by 9/11's repercussions, she decided to get more political. What part - if any - of her religious background should be relevant to voters?

"Voters should look at that as one of the reasons why I left a math teaching career," she said. "I want to go back to it. I want our world, and our democracy, to be thriving and surviving. When I see representation of all people in Congress and the city level, then I know I can go back and teach math again."