If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed Minnesota Rep. Ray Dehn’s announcement that he was running for mayor of Minneapolis. The Brooklyn Park native posted a letter on Facebook outlining his vision for the city. Dehn even acknowledges his campaign didn’t kick off with all the fanfare the other four candidates had.
“That’s not who I am as a person, and that’s not who I’d be as a mayor,” he told WCCO.
Dehn is serving his third term in the Minnesota legislature representing district 59B, which covers downtown Minneapolis, the North Loop and parts of the Northside. An architect by trade, Dehn says his training helped him think about how one’s environment affects their outlook and role in life.
“Broadway looks a lot different than the area around 50th and France, Linden Hills and even Lake Street,” he said. “People in Linden Hills often get up, walk out their door and feel like they have the ability to change the world, whereas people in East Phillips, North Minneapolis or other pockets of the city feel like the world doesn’t really care about them.”
Dehn was convicted of felony burglary as a young man in 1976, but ultimately received a pardon from the governor, which he says gave him a new lease on life. He went back to school at the University of Minnesota, and was eventually elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2012.
In an interview Friday morning, Dehn spoke about his outlook on some of the biggest issues facing the city of Minneapolis.
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Radwany: One of the most controversial issues in Minneapolis last year was the proposed charter amendment ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour that was ultimately blocked by the city council. What’s your stance on that?
Rep. Raymond Dehn: Minneapolis isn’t really a referendum city. We have pretty specific guidelines on those types of things. I haven’t looked in detail at the policy and what it actually says, but clearly there were enough signatures to meet the threshold to get it on the ballot. My understanding is that the city attorney determined that it fell outside the provisions for a referendum. I think the difficulty the city council has is that when the city attorney makes a recommendation — to go against that, you’re risking a lot.
So should they have let it go on? They could have, but I think it would have been the wrong way to do it, because then you jump into a PR campaign, putting advocates of $15 an hour against businesses who don’t want it. The worst thing we could do is have a PR campaign on both sides, as opposed to digging in and having real conversations about what $15 an hour means to employees and what it means to businesses. Both sides may have the potential to win if we do that.
Businesses, by nature, don’t like change, so their initial reaction will be to resist it. I think we really need to dig in with those businesses to understand not just philosophically how businesses will be impacted, but what that means, dollars-and-cents. If it’s a service component, do they have to raise the cost of their services? If it’s manufacturing, are they going to have to raise the cost of their products?
You’re one of the candidates who has publicly called for a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis. Some of the others haven’t specifically listed an amount. Why do you think $15 is a good number?
Well, $15 an hour is the working number for a livable wage in the city of Minneapolis right now. It’s actually a little bit lower than what you need in the city.
As a reminder, I’m the only one who has voted to raise the minimum wage — it’s a minimum wage that’s actually tied to the cost of living. So every other year that’s going to adjust.
Raising the minimum wage ultimately does two things for workers: You raise their standard of life, and they also go out and spend that money. Generally, people on the lower economic scale tend to spend more money at a higher rate than those on the upper end. I think [raising the minimum wage] is one of the things we’ve done in Minnesota that’s helped keep our economy strong, because we now have more purchasing power in the hands of the people.
But $15 an hour won’t just be blanket across the city. Just like the state, there will be some age exemptions, there will be some issues around length of employment and all those types of things. If someone’s just working a summer job, that would affect their wage. And the city guidelines would still have to adhere to the state guidelines, and we could change those too.
State legislatures across the country have passed “preemption” measures that would prevent cities from raising their wages. Would you push back if that were to happen in Minnesota?
I’ve developed some deep relationships in the legislature with Democrats and Republicans, and I would never say I could stop what they’re trying to do, but I could moderate.
Preemption is a double-edged sword. The GOP philosophy is that the best government is the closest to the people — and that’s local government — so I think that type of legislation is contrary to what they believe.
On affordable housing — there are a number of proposals on the table on how to create more affordable housing options on Minneapolis. Where do you stand?
Housing in the Twin Cities is a landlord’s market right now, not a renter’s market. That creates a difficult situation for people that can’t afford rent. We should be thinking about ways to incentivize what I call “naturally occurring” affordable housing. If you have a good landlord who takes care of his property and is charging his tenants reasonable rates, we should figure out a way to work with them. If they maintain that rent with slight adjustments for cost-of-living, we could hold their taxes steady. We should try to work with the county on that as well.
The city also ends up paying a lot of costs associated with homelessness. So what are the realities of how to affect that? At Hennepin County Medical Center, they’re in the process of looking at how to create housing for the homeless. They’ll spend $2,000 a day for a homeless person to be treated in the emergency room for an extended time — you can find a place for them to live for a lot less than that. Many other cities are starting to look at those types of things. We can also continue to advocate for money at the state level.
Right now, we have a 2 percent vacancy rate for housing in the city of Minneapolis. If a landlord is charging $900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, they can raise that to $1,100 after the tenants move out and they’ll have it rented within 30 days. Over a year, that’s $2,400 more.
Ultimately, this is a math problem and it speaks as to what values we hold as a city.
Republicans in the state legislature, Congress and the White House are threatening to withhold funding from cities who serve as “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants, which includes Minneapolis. How do you think the city should respond to that?
This ties back into affordable housing — being a sanctuary city is a great thing in theory, but if there’s no place to live in the sanctuary city, is it really a sanctuary? Philosophically, we need to say everybody’s welcome here. We know that not everybody has a legal status in the city, but I don’t think any city resources should be used to help immigration do their jobs.
In your campaign announcement on Facebook, you said you wanted to narrow achievement gaps, and that the city can be better than moving “from crisis to crisis.” What did you mean by that?
We tend to go where the fire is in the city government. One of the things we can do to close the achievement and opportunity gap is looking at this holistically.
We put a lot of expectation on our education system to solve problems that go far outside the classroom. If families don’t have stable employment, housing, a safe community and access to medical and mental health care, it’s really hard for kids to learn.
It’s one of the things that the Northside Achievement Zone is trying to do — surround a child with stability. Almost 10 percent of Minneapolis school children are homeless or highly mobile. When you don’t know where you’re going to live next month, it’s hard to learn. The stresses put on parents in those situations make it hard for them to be an educator in the kid’s life.
You also mentioned an effort focused on “community policing” in your letter. What specifically does that look like to you in this city?
We need to have officers interacting directly with the people in the neighborhood and community, not just responding to a crime.
Does that mean mandating some kind of new patrolling policy for the Minneapolis Police Department?
That’s one way. Right now, the former inspector of the 4th Precinct, Michael Friestleben, is in charge of community engagement for the officers. When he was at the 4th Precinct, he would have his officers bagging groceries, doing things out in the community — it’s almost like one of their responsibilities as an officer. We need to have more of that. A young man or young woman’s first interaction with an officer shouldn’t be “put your hands on the car.”
I often talk about an officer who’s patrolling a neighborhood and they see five or six people hanging out on a corner. He’s got two choices: He could pull up and say “what are you guys doing?” or he could get out of his car and say “Hi, I’m Officer Smith. I’m patrolling the neighborhood tonight and I’m hoping we’ll keep everything safe. If there’s anything you need, here’s my card.” It creates a different initial relationship.
Over the past couple decades, our police force has become a paramilitary organization, and in communities that have more incidences of crime reported, that creates an adversarial relationship. That’s not what’s best for the community or the officers.