Speaking out

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August 27, 2002 // UPDATED 1:29 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

As the City Council's only African American member, Natalie Johnson Lee has been thrust into the spotlight after a summer of racial tension. But the Downtown leader is about more than race.

It was perhaps Natalie Johnson Lee's most public moment since her election.

In an e-mail to constituents, the 5th Ward City Councilmember saluted a slain Minneapolis Police officer, Melissa Schmidt. But she also made reference to the woman who allegedly killed her, Martha Donald. Schmidt, a white cop, and Donald, who was black, were killed in an Aug. 1 gun battle at the Horn Towers complex in the Lyndale neighborhood.

The letter was a flashpoint for police union officials who angrily called for her resignation, accusing Johnson Lee of equating the two deaths.

The incident stirred long-simmering animosities between police and the black community. Worse, it stemmed from what proved to be the first of three major shooting incidents involving Minneapolis police and African Americans during August, culminating Aug. 22 when police shot a boy -- an accidental ricochet, officers say -- and bystanders subsequently attacked reporters.

Such incidents are impossible to ignore. But they also tend to obscure an integral fact about Johnson Lee -- namely, that there is a good deal more to her than is reflected in controversy.

Johnson Lee is the lone African American councilmember at a time of growing racial strife in the city. But she also is a successful Green Party upstart who toppled a Minneapolis DFL powerhouse, Jackie Cherryhomes. She is an engaging, gregarious woman with a big smile, booming laugh and dazzling afro-centric wardrobe, and she has risen from single parenthood in Oklahoma to success in the private and public sectors in the Twin Cities. She has attained status as perhaps the most important African American leader in Minneapolis.

"The only"

Johnson Lee was born in Oklahoma City 38 years ago, the daughter of a housewife and a career military man.

"I didn't have what some people call 'the black experience,'" she said. "I was raised an only child, upper-middle-class, black family. My father had a corporate job once he retired from the military. I had a car when I was 16."

Such relative advantages did not dismiss race as a factor in her early life. "I was always 'the only' in a lot of my classes," she said, with one of her characteristic thunderclap laughs. "As a young African American, I had to forge my own way, fight my own battles, look out for my own self."

What she never has been is a follower, a characteristic she attributes to being raised without siblings. "I was more a trendsetter," she said. "Very independent."

She had two children as a single mom in Oklahoma, and worked in sales. "I was good, too," she said of her time hawking high-end home stereos. "I worked straight commission."

Eventually, Johnson Lee moved to Philadelphia to work as an account executive with General Mills; the company transferred her to the Twin Cities in 1992. Along the way she met and married Travis Lee. They settled in north Minneapolis, with Johnson Lee helping her husband raise his two small children and his little brother, along with her own two sons, now 18 and 21.

Johnson Lee left General Mills and eventually went to the Urban League, hoping to hook up with Northwest Airlines, which then was hiring. Instead, she started working for the Urban League as an employment facilitator under the tutelage of the organization's then-vice president Laura Scott-Williams. It became a kind of political proving ground.

"[Scott-Williams] introduced me to people and put me in places, talked to me and had me process what I saw, what I didn't see, all the things a good mentor does," Johnson Lee said. "She was probably one of the best mentors that I have ever had."

When Scott-Williams became the Urban League's interim director after the death of Gary Sudduth, Johnson Lee was named interim administrator of the league's employment training division.

Despite her Urban League experience, Johnson Lee did not immediately enter politics. When her husband announced in the late 1990s that he would run for the same council seat she now occupies, she was thunderstruck.

"I was mad," Johnson Lee recalled, laughing. "I was like, 'How dare you get us involved in politics? It's going to change our whole life.'"

She laughed again, clapped her hands. "I'm serious, I was really, really, really not happy with him," she said. "Life is funny."

Getting elected

Johnson Lee left the Urban League to start a new career as an executive employment coach; she even wrote a plan to help corporations train young welfare mothers. She began to rethink that path in December 2000, after receiving a letter from City Councilmember Jackie Cherryhomes to constituents.

Cherryhomes had pledged not to run for another term so that she could spend more time with her family, Johnson Lee recalled. But the letter said Cherryhomes intended to run for re-election. "And my response was, 'No,'" Johnson Lee said. "'We can't do another four years of this.'"

Johnson Lee said the 5th Ward, which includes part of north Minneapolis along with the Warehouse District, no longer was getting full representation under Cherryhomes. Instead, the incumbent seemed to be focusing on the moneyed Downtown sliver.

"That's what I was hearing," Johnson Lee said. "And if you looked at it, that's what you'd see. ... This just brought some questions to my mind. Why do we keep doing the same thing if we keep getting the same results?"

When Johnson Lee announced her candidacy eight months before the election, she promised to win. She studied hard, learning her opponent's voting patterns, absorbing her ward's social and political history, reading up on winning campaign strategies. She campaigned hard, knocking on doors in mostly black neighborhoods where the political sages said there were no voters to be found. She sent volunteers to Downtown clubs to leaflet hip-hop partiers.

"The assumption was those people don't vote. But I believe that they probably don't vote because no one has ever talked to them," she said.

She didn't ignore white neighborhoods either, Johnson Lee said.

Dwight Hobbes, an African American columnist for Insight News who has kept a close eye on Johnson Lee's tenure, said Johnson Lee could not have been elected without white voters, and said much of her appeal lies in a desire to help as many people as possible, regardless of ethnicity.

"She's a welcome change in leadership, which is to say that she authentically provides it," Hobbes said. "She's more looking to move into issues that truly make a difference. That's how she unseated Jackie Cherryhomes."

"There is such a thing as a Downtown culture, which is insulated: she knows that," said Mahmoud El-Kati, a Macalester College history professor who is well-known in the African American community. "She's known enough, been around enough, worked enough in the community on both sides of the street to know what that dynamic's like.

"When people are Downtown," El-Kati added, "there is a habit and a tradition of ignoring the African American community unless somebody raises hell."

Several City Council colleagues say they strongly approve of the hell-raiser in Johnson Lee. With her emphasis on social justice, she serves as chair of the council's Health and Human Services committee. She is an outspoken advocate for bringing balance to City Hall -- from elected offices on down -- by electing, appointing and hiring more blacks and others of color. She also has called for more minority hiring on city construction projects.

"Her voice is out there speaking out on issues that no one else is bringing up," said Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward). "And if she wouldn't bring them up, they just wouldn't be getting said."

Paul Zerby, the 2nd Ward councilmember, agrees. "If you look at council and mayor, you've got 14 faces up there and only one of them is of color," he said. "I think we ask her a little bit unfairly to carry more of those issues than one person ought to."

Invisible woman?

Some Downtown community privately suggest Johnson Lee lacks strong Downtown presence, that she may be more interested in representing North Side interests. The word "invisible" is uttered in several such conversations.

Dario Anselmo, owner of the Fine Line Caf, 318 1st Ave. N., comes closest to making a public critique. During Cherryhomes' tenure, he said, Warehouse District businesses felt more in the loop about such matters as street sweeping, new Downtown police initiatives and other issues. With Johnson Lee in office, that has disappeared, he said.

However, Anselmo added, "It's only eight months. My guess is it's going to take a year or two for that to happen."

He said Johnson Lee did attend the annual meeting of the Warehouse District Business Association.

Johnson Lee has defenders Downtown.

"I've seen Natalie Johnson Lee at our board meetings physically three times in the year that I have been on the board," said Dwayne Reed, a North Loop Neighborhood Association member. "I have not seen any other councilperson, even though they've been invited.

"I just think there's a few people who don't necessarily see that she's effective and are finding ways to criticize her," said Reed.

Sam Grabarski, the Minneapolis Downtown Council president and CEO, said he has had "several cordial conversations" with Johnson Lee.

"She seemed very interested in understanding how the economic well-being of the largest portion of her ward was tied to Downtown," he said.

It is clear Johnson Lee is keenly interested in the Downtown slice of her ward. Political redistricting -- "a tainted process," Johnson Lee said -- threatens to remove the Warehouse District from her ward and hand all of Downtown to 7th Ward councilmember Lisa Goodman. Johnson Lee challenged that decision in federal court. She expects it to be heard next year.

"Let's say we do redistricting," Johnson Lee said. "What you do is you create pockets of haves and have-nots, and you don't create diversity of wards like you say you want. The wards need to be as much as possible diverse in ethnicity, but also diverse in income levels."

She takes issue with anyone disputing her Downtown representation. She said she is working hard to help Block E open and guide the way for the Reserve condominium complex, 360 N. 1st St.

She also introduced a development moratorium that temporarily put a halt on new construction in the North Loop and Downtown East, but joined other councilmembers two weeks later in reversing it after it became clear some projects already under way were being threatened.

"Downtown gets my ear a lot," she said.

Johnson Lee suggested race might motivate some of her detractors. "[Just] because I am giving a voice to an area that had not been heard, I'm not ignoring another voice," she said. "People say, 'She's a black woman, she cannot represent the Downtown interests or the Warehouse District interests. She can't represent the interests of wealthy folks with money.'"

Mark Moller, president of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, suggested that even if the councilmember is elevating North Side interests over Downtown concerns, she is only carrying out her campaign promises.

"She's the person she said she was going to be when she ran," Moller said. "That's not a judgment one way or the other, positively or negatively, on who she is. But I will say in a positive way that it shows a lot of integrity."

Speaking up

Johnson Lee complained after the letter incident that none of her council colleagues offered their support. Zimmermann now defends her Schmidt letter, but he also said there can be other occasions when Johnson Lee speaks a little too soon after forming a thought.

"She's blunt, she's going to tell you what she thinks right up front," he said, adding that the trait is refreshing, but has a flip side. "Sometimes, even though you know something to be true, it might be better just to be quiet at a certain point."

Arguably, one of those occasions happened Aug. 11, at a rally outside City Hall to support Johnson Lee after the police union blasted her. As it happened, a second police shooting -- this one involving an alleged gang member who police said was carrying a gun -- occurred the previous night, transforming the rally's purpose.

In a speech recorded by Minnesota Public Radio, Johnson Lee told the crowd she had spent a "lonely" week in City Hall after the letter debacle, then said, "Press for a full investigation of what happened, not only yesterday, but what happened in the bathroom," she said, referring to the killings. "Press for the investigation, call for a full investigation. And the only thing that we have always asked is for the answers, and we never get them."

El-Kati said Johnson Lee accurately reflected a prevailing mood among African Americans. "That's what makes her a good representative of the sentiment of the community," El-Kati said.

Tony Bouza, Minneapolis police chief from 1980 to 1988, agreed up to a point, saying that Johnson Lee's call for complete investigations is "the responsible thing to do."

But Johnson Lee's accusation that answers are "never" given after shooting incidents is "a definite failure," according to Bouza. He accused Johnson Lee of pandering to blacks who believ investigations of police shootings are always tainted.

"She's saying that 'we don't get the answers,' as if the system somehow keeps the black community in the dark," Bouza said. "I think that's a very inflammatory thing to say, and wrong in my opinion."

He said that Johnson Lee needs to be more aware that, as the city's key black leader, her words contain power.

"That statement will have a lot of credibility, even if it's wrong," he said. "It will carry a lot of weight. She's kind of new to the job; I don't know if she understands that what she says will be parsed very carefully. She's going to be directly quoted. That's probably never happened before in her life."

Johnson Lee is unapologetic, insisting she simply spoke the truth.

"People never come back and say 'this is what happened,'" Johnson Lee said. "They'll get maybe a news blurb. But what you'll find is that people maybe don't trust the media because of the way they spin or they change the way that the information is presented."

Johnson Lee said that her words are more measured than some imagine: "I'm thoughtful before I speak, but there are just certain things I'm not going to let go."