BY ED FELIEN
Lisa Bender changed the world.
There probably has never been anyone in Minneapolis politics (with the possible exception of Hubert Humphrey) who has had such a profound impact on the city, the state and the country.
She had a vision for the City of Minneapolis that she fiercely believed in, and she saw that vision through to its conclusion.
Armed with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of California at Berkeley, she became the communications director for a lobbying group in Manhattan advocating mass transit, bicycles and walking as an alternative to cars. After a stint as a city planner in San Francisco, she returned to Minneapolis, ran against Meg Tuthill for a seat on the City Council in 2013 and won.
She is the grand architect of the mammoth bike lanes in Minneapolis that seem to be forcing cars off the streets. She has lowered the speed limit on city streets to 20 mph. But Park and Portland Avenues, Cedar Avenue, 42nd Street, Lyndale Avenue, Lake Street and University Avenue are all county highways as well as city streets, and the city has no jurisdiction over speed limits on those roads. But, by increasing the width of bicycle lanes she has reduced those highways from four lanes to two, or (in the case of Park and Portland) from two to one.
When I was on the City Council, almost 50 years ago, I established bike lanes on Park and Portland Avenues—modest 6-foot lanes—but the traffic engineer told me I had wiped out six handicapped parking places, so I retreated and eliminated them. I was busy with other objectives: municipal ownership of the electric company, rent control and down-zoning neighborhoods, and I had no way to fight off the objections of city staff so I backed down. As a former city planner and chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee and then president of the council, Bender knew enough to simply hire more planners who agreed with her. When I was on the council, the city had three city planners. Today they have more than 200.
The great planning document to come out of the current City Council is the 2040 Plan. This document argues that in order to have racial equity we need to create more housing opportunities in the city, so, the plan calls for up-zoning the areas from Broadway in the north to 42nd Street in the south to allow construction of apartment buildings. This means that naturally occurring affordable housing in the inner city, small single-family homes that right now are owned or rented by communities of color, will be sold to developers to build expensive apartment buildings for young urban professionals. The areas of the city south of 42nd Street that had restrictive covenants prohibiting a property owner from selling their home to a person of color would be unaffected by these block-busting apartment buildings. And the city has the audacity to claim that wiping out affordable housing for communities of color and protecting historically white neighborhoods from gentrification is being done in the name of establishing racial equity.
Finally, Southside Pride argued in March of last year, when the city settled the Terrance Franklin lawsuit, that Lisa Bender was whistling in the dark when she said, “I think our policy changes in the police department, leadership changes, have really created a scenario where this is unlikely to happen again, so I think it’s time to move forward and really continue with the changes that we’re making in the police department to make sure this never happens again.” We said the police are not going to change unless they are held accountable. The city did not contest the plaintiff’s claim that Officer Lucas Peterson murdered Terrance Franklin while he was surrendering with his hands up. The city paid out more than a million dollars to end the matter without dealing with that essential question, and Lucas Peterson still works for the MPD.
Without holding Lucas Peterson accountable, what lessons did Lisa Bender believe the MPD had learned? The lesson they learned was that they could get away with murdering Black men.
So, it was easy for Derek Chauvin to put his knee to George Floyd’s neck and choke the life out of him three months later.
But this time the world saw what happened. And the world exploded in protest. Lake Street went up in flames. The Third Precinct burned to the ground.
On Sunday, June 7, Lisa Bender led eight other members of the City Council to Powderhorn Park and declared they would “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” This was the shout heard ’round the world. It became the mantra and campaign slogan for Trump and Republicans. It’s probably the main reason the DFL wasn’t able to win the State Senate, and it affected congressional and Senate races across the country. All a Republican candidate had to say was, “I’m not going to abolish the police,” and voters breathed a sigh of relief.
And this time the expert city planner didn’t have a plan. She had no idea how to go about dismantling the MPD. Later that year during final budget negotiations with the mayor, she could only quibble about where to spend an extra $500,000 out of an MPD budget of almost $200 million.
The Powderhorn Manifesto was probably the reason Democrats lost 13 seats in the House and didn’t pick up easy Senate seats in North Carolina and Iowa. And the Charter Commission is preparing a Charter Amendment to be voted on this fall to weaken the power of the City Council and strengthen the power of the mayor—making city government even less democratic.
The legacy of Lisa Bender will be a scorched earth.
But it didn’t have to be that way.
Yes, bicyclists need to be kept safe, but that doesn’t mean we have to force cars off the road. Maybe the solution is to keep bicycles off busy arterial streets and give them exclusive right of way on some side streets. Rather than have them compete for space on Park and Portland, maybe they should have Oakland Avenue with cars only able to drive one block without being diverted to Park or Portland.
Yes, we need more apartment buildings but not at the expense of single-family homes owned or rented by communities of color.
Yes, we need to change the manner of policing, but maybe we don’t have to abolish the police department. If the police chief won’t hold officers accountable, and the mayor doesn’t act, then maybe the City Council should act to hold hearings to hold MPD officers accountable for their actions.
It is understandable but regrettable that, in the absence of decisive action by the City Council, the Charter Commission would decide to try to move the city toward a Strong Mayor form of government. We have just seen, on the national level, what a government by a bully looks like. I don’t think we want that in Minneapolis.
But I think we do want a City Council that cares about the general welfare of all forms of transportation, that cares about affordable housing in the inner city, and that cares enough about justice to hold our police department accountable.