Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, musician, artist and service industry champion Gabe Barnett is running to be Northeast’s next state house representative in 60A
First popularized by Caesar and Napoleon, “divide and conquer” is the political and military tactic used by existing power structures to prevent smaller power groups from coming together and affecting change. Never before in American politics has “divide and conquer” been deployed more effectively than this year, collectively by the existing power structure of the Republican and Democratic parties, who have divided the country, families and friends by monolithically forcing voters to choose between two mainstream presidential candidates no matter what their hearts say.
Gabe Barnett is having none of it.
“I think that America is obsessed with presidential politics and almost completely ignores down-ballot politics,” said Barnett, sitting in the back patio of the Matchbox Coffeeshop on 13th Avenue, where he works three mornings a week and where, in June, he held a launch party for his candidacy for state representative in district 60A. “Whether it’s gay marriage, or smoking bans, or medical marijuana, these things happen when this city does it, then that state does it, then that county does it, then this city does it, and all of a sudden it’s a national movement.
“Things happen from the bottom up, and Bernie [Sander]’s inspiration has been he took these sparks and turned them into big flames on a lower level. Progressive politics is in a good place, and we’re in a good position to move forward, and if we can ward off the conservatives and their plundering of social services and basic human rights, and we can hold moderate Democrats accountable to the progressive ideas they claim to champion, then this movement will continue forward.”
Thus far, Barnett’s campaign is decidedly bare bones. Last Monday he picked up his “Gabe for Northeast” lawn signs, loaded them into his bike trailer and delivered them to supporters throughout Northeast’s arts district and beyond.
“The response has been really positive,” he said. “I’m running as an independent. I was endorsed by the Green Party, but I’m not a member of any political party. I’m here to represent my community, not a political party. I haven’t been putting on big, splashy events, I’ve just been going out and engaging with the community. I’ve been out canvassing during community events, I’ve been out door-knocking, and I try to be visible and open to communication and encourage people to talk to their neighbors and friends, and to involve themselves in their community, and if they’re ready for a progressive alternative in local politics, then tell a friend about it.”
The positive response in Barnett’s decidedly funky neighborhood is typified by this afternoon’s interaction with his neighbor, Jason Lund, who, upon spotting the candidate outside the Matchbox, supportively holds up his phone and proudly displays a “Gabe For Northeast” poster. In addition to working as a barista, songwriter, bandleader, writer and visual artist, Barnett works part-time at Eat My Words used bookstore, and his time spent behind the counter there and at Matchbox provide the sort of old-timey town square platform he believes are the lifeblood of local politics.
“If I’m walking down 13th Avenue here, or grocery shopping, or if I stop and get a beer at Grumpy’s or the 331, people wave from across the street, people pull over to chat with me, and it’s a 100 percent positive response,” he said. “I’m out and about in this neighborhood, pretty much all day, every day, and I’m not only engaging with the community, the community’s engaging with me, and people have been downright excited.
“Social media’s a great tool, and yard signs are a good tool, but again, local politics should be about community engagement, and even when I wasn’t running for office, even when it wasn’t even on my mind, I was engaged in my community. I’ve lived here for a long time, I’ve had family here for a long time, and it’s important for me to have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in my community. I’m shopping at the co-op every day and I’m seriously addicted to coffee so you can catch me at four different coffee shops a day. I’m just trying to be available to chat with people.”
In 60A, Barnett’s main opponent in the November 8 election is DFL incumbent Diane Loeffler, who has held the office for the last 12 years.
“I don’t consider this running against her, I consider this running for my community,” said Barnett, 35, who grew up in North Minneapolis and Forest Lake and has made his home in Northeast for 15 years. “I don’t have anything against her, or anything strongly against her politics, I just think that this community is more progressive than what most Democrats have to offer. For as progressive as this community is, and as progressive as the Twin Cities are, we have a lot of really moderate politicians making decisions for us. And I think that a community this progressive should have progressive voices.
“Whether it’s the incumbent I’m running against or people all over, there’s a lot of kowtowing to corporatism. There are real solutions, and there are some progressive Democrats in Minnesota, and I want to get in there and champion those solutions. For example, Senator John Marty from Roseville has been fighting for his Minnesota health plan for years now.
“The bill has been written, and passed through committees, and I’m sure it needs a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but we need people in the House and the Senate here in Minnesota that are going to champion a real single-payer system. Colorado’s about to vote on a single-payer system. They’ve changed the discussion on medical marijuana and recreational marijuana and now they’re going to be changing the discussion on single-payer health care and Minnesota should be right behind them. If this really is the best state to live in, then let’s do better.”
Much of Barnett’s inspiration to run came from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ wildly successful presidential bid, which officially ended when Hillary Clinton won the nomination in June — the same month Barnett launched his campaign.
“Bernie Sanders was pretty inspiring, just in the sense that his politics and my politics are very aligned as far as our positions on the issues go,” he said. “For years and years now, it’s been like a pat on the back: ‘Those are nice ideas, but those are fringe. That’s not mainstream.’ And the fact that somebody with those positions made it to the mainstream, he’s considered now the most influential politician in America with these ‘fringe’ alternative ideas of equity and equality and sustainability — it’s absurd that those are ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe.’
“I’ve followed Bernie for years, and just to see him rise to this point of influence was inspiring. It’s like he says so often: ‘Real change doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up.’ That’s just a truism that he repeats a lot. I figured no matter who the president is, we now have a voice and a platform to be able to say, ‘These ideas are not on the fringe. Millions of Americans want this to happen. Millions of Americans are ready for single-payer health care, millions of Americans want a truly living minimum wage, and to extend public school all the way through the university level, and that we need to do everything we can to fight climate change.’
“It was disappointing to see the primaries end the way they ended, but I wouldn’t say that Bernie lost. When he started out, he was a virtual unknown and he won 22 states and was tied in many other states. He woke millions of people to these ideas. His campaign wasn’t a failure, it was a great success. And while we’re not seeing the perfect outcome with this current presidential race, he’s the inspiration for millions of people on down-ballot politics, which is where real change happens. You know, that’s a victory.”
The good news for Barnett is that in last March’s presidential Minnesota primary, Sanders won all eight of the state’s congressional districts, and tallied 84 percent of Minnesota votes, second only to Sanders’ home state of Vermont. South Minneapolis and Northeast Minneapolis, in particular, voted overwhelmingly for Sanders.
“The presidential primary was a great example of how progressive this district is,” said Barnett. “My district caucus was at Edison High School, and when the numbers were tallied, seeing that Sanders had 84 percent of the vote here as a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist — very progressive, civil rights activist, labor activist — over just your average moderate Democrat, that was really exciting to see. It was exciting to see that this community is all in for pro-social democracy, and things like racial equity and environmental sustainability that the mainstream wants to ignore because there’s not a lot of money in it.
“This is a community that has bucked that. There are not a lot of corporate chains here. There’s a real sense of community from restaurant to restaurant, from coffee shop to bar, from the co-op to the parks and playgrounds. I think this goes back before this was the arts district. I think the old community here fostered this really small town community-driven alternative to mainstream city living a long time ago. That runs really deep here — and not just in Northeast Minneapolis and Minneapolis, but statewide. We’ve got a strong labor rights history, a strong civil rights history here, and I think we’ve been an example of that bottom-up politics over and over again for how to do things better.
“We’re not perfect, that’s for damn sure. Minnesota is always named as one of the best places to live, and leaders in this and leaders in that, but the racial disparities are some of the worst in the country. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but at the same time, there’s a lot of us that are choosing alternative modes of living and alternative approaches to politics that can be and should be a shining example to the rest of the country. I mean, it’s difficult here, as a service industry worker, trying to make ends meet — and I’m a privileged white dude. I couldn’t imagine the struggle of people of color in this city; there’s so much room for improvement.”
No matter what happens with his run in 60A, the passionate, articulate and forward-thinking Barnett sounds like he’s just getting going with his political career. As for the presidential election?
“At this point, I’m trying to focus on local politics,” he reiterated. “At this point, there isn’t a presidential candidate that has won my vote yet — and that includes the two mainstream candidates and all of the third-party candidates. I’m not excited by any of them, but I am terrified of a Trump presidency, so if it’s a really close race, I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton. But only if it’s a really close race.
“If it’s not a close race in Minnesota because of the electoral college system, which I don’t think it will be, then I can vote third party as a quote-unquote protest vote, and feel comfortable with that. But the third party candidates, even as a protest vote, aren’t great selections. Presidential politics are a big disappointment this year, and that’s why I would rather focus on bottom-up politics. I would rather focus on the local level and start making changes where I can, or where my community can.”
For most of his adult life, Barnett has made his way as a musician and a songwriter, and his records and songs are peppered with the same philosophy of challenging the status quo, wanting to make change and celebrating his beloved hometown. Many artists avoid politics, but Barnett says his background is what makes “Gabe For Northeast” go.
“I think that in some ways makes me a prime candidate for representing this community,” he said. “This is the arts district, there’s a lot of restaurants and coffee shops and bars, a large percentage of the population here are renters, I’m a renter, I work in the service industry, and I’ve been a working artist for a long time.
“On top of that, I haven’t just been an artist. I’ve worked in factories, I’ve worked on a farm, I’ve experienced life from a lot of different perspectives. Because, as an artist, what I have pursued is a greater understanding of the human condition, and too often politicians are economists and lawyers and political scientists that see everything as numbers, not people.
“I’m coming at this from the perspective of seeing the human condition. I understand the struggle. My earliest memories are of being in a single parent household in North Minneapolis, and of my mom, a single mom, putting me on the seat on the back of her bike to take me to daycare while crying because she can barely make ends meet. I’ve been a working musician, but I also paint and write, and all of that, the creative side of me, is about gaining a better understanding and holding up a mirror to the human condition. And as a resident of the quote-unquote arts community in the arts district, I think that I’m in a prime place to represent the people of Northeast Minneapolis.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]