Democrats see political peril in replacing Minneapolis Police Department

Steve Karnowski
Associated Press

Minneapolis — As activists mobilized this summer to ask Minneapolis voters to replace their police department, one of the first prominent Democrats to slam the plan was a moderate congresswoman who doesn’t even live in the city.

Angie Craig declared it “shortsighted, misguided and likely to harm the very communities that it seeks to protect." She warned that it could push out the city's popular Black police chief.

Craig's district covers a suburban-to-rural and politically divided region south of the city, but her willingness to jump into the fight next door highlights the political threat that Democrats like Craig see in the proposal.

As a city that has become synonymous with police abuse wrestles with police reform, the effort is sharply dividing Democrats along ideological lines. The state's best known progressives — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison — support the plan, which would replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety. Other top Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz, oppose it.

In this June 7, 2020, file photo, Alondra Cano, a city council member, speaks during "The Path Forward" meeting at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. The focus of the meeting was the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The debate is dominating the city's mayoral and City Council races, the first since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020 and sparked a global racial reckoning. Passing the amendment would be a major win for the reform movement — both in substance and symbolism. But many in the Democratic establishment believe calls to “dismantle” or “defund” police cost the party seats in statehouses and Congress last year. They're determined not to let that happen again next year. Defeating the Minneapolis measure has become a critical, high-profile test.

“If we talk about reforming the police, people are overwhelmingly in favor of it. When we say ‘defund,’ we lose the argument,” said Colin Strother, a Texas-based Democratic strategist. “Democrats that keep using ‘defund the police’ are only hurting themselves and the cause, quite frankly.”

The ballot proposal slated for the Nov. 2 election asks voters whether they want to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety that would take a “comprehensive public health approach” that “could include” police officers “if necessary.” It doesn’t use the word “defund,” and critics say that was a deliberate attempt by a majority of City Council members to conceal their aims.

Ellison, a strong supporter of the proposal, said in an interview that amendment supporters simply want “more tools to guarantee public safety, more than just a police-only model. They want other people who have expertise in mental health, housing, violence reduction and intervention” who are better trained to handle situations that armed police now face alone.

But he's wary of the phrase “defund the police,” which he called “a cry for reform” that comes from “young people who were absolutely outraged by what happened to George Floyd.”

Ellison said he avoids using it, calling it “hot rhetoric, not a policy, not a program” that doesn’t accurately describe what the amendment would do. And he downplayed the idea that Democrats should be afraid of supporting the amendment, saying Republicans will attack them no matter how the issue is framed.

Minister JaNaé Bates, a spokeswoman for the pro-amendment Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, said she’s frustrated by the divisions among Democrats. Those who depict the proposal as defunding the police are using “fear-based rhetoric” and a “right-wing dog whistle” as a distraction, she said. Police “most certainly” will be part of the proposed new agency along with professionals trained to handle situations for which armed officers are not suited, she said.

“The fact of the matter is Democrats, progressives, liberals all across the board want people to be safe and that is what this charter change does,” Bates said.

Omar, who represents Minneapolis, contends there's “nothing radical” in the amendment. What’s radical, she said in an opinion piece published in the Star Tribune, was how opponents fought to keep it off the ballot and, in her view, misrepresent what it will do.

The ballot question has attracted plenty of money, with glossy mailers showing up around the city and ads filling social media feeds since shortly before early voting began in early September.

The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign has raised over $1 million in cash and nearly $500,000 of in-kind donations from across the country, according to campaign finance reports filed in August. Its money included $500,000 in seed money from the Open Society Policy Center, which has ties to billionaire George Soros.

The group has stressed the need for change and sought to reassure voters that the new structure will make everyone safer. It has also disputed suggestions from opponents that passage would mean the departure of Medaria Arradondo, the city's popular Black chief, even though Arradondo said passage would put any law enforcement leader in a “wholly unbearable position.”

The much newer All of Mpls, which opposes the amendment, raised more than $100,000 in its first few weeks, mostly locally. It has been playing up the uncertainty over how the proposed new department would work, since the amendment leaves it up to the City Council and the mayor to figure out the details within a short timeframe after the election.

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs credited the “defund” issue with helping Republicans hold their own in Minnesota’s legislative races in 2020 despite Joe Biden winning statewide. He said it’s clear to Democrats that “defunding the police” was effective for Republicans then — and could be again.

U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, of New York, flipped a Staten Island seat in 2020 by running against defunding police. Moderate Democrat Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain, won New York's mayoral primary in July on a platform of rejecting activists’ calls to defund police.

U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, of New York, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has pushed back against the “defund” rhetoric, highlighting that the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill signed in March contains $350 billion to help support police departments.

“If this thing does pass, which a lot of people think and assume that it will, there’s going to be massive national blowback, not just in Minnesota,” said Republican strategist Billy Grant, whose clients include Craig’s likely opponent, former Marine Tyler Kistner.

“People are going to say they showed they can do this. That’s going to have a domino effect.”