CityPages: Phillipe Cunningham, staffer for Mayor Betsy Hodges, wants Barb Johnson's city council seat

Thursday, December 1, 2016 by Cory Zurowski in News

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Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson already knows she'll have at least one person vying for the seat she's held since 1998.

Phillipe Cunningham, a 29-year-old staffer for Mayor Betsy Hodges, will officially announce his candidacy to challenge the most powerful council member on Monday. Cunningham has served as the mayor's policy aid on youth development and racial equity since 2015.

Johnson has served council president since 2006. The two Democrats will be competing to represent the northwest ward, which includes the Folwell, Webber-Camden, and Shingle Creek neighborhoods.

"What I see is needed in the ward is someone who will lead in the community's best interests for everyone… so that the constituents know that the city has got their backs," says Cunningham, an Illinois native, who had been contemplating running for months. "Right now, I'd say there's a huge lack of progressive values on the city council.

"The ward has been changing. The community has been changing and it's time for it to be reconnected to city hall, and for the community to feel like city hall is accessible to everyone." 

Cunningham's book of work in Minneapolis government is thin, although he contends he's "been involved in a lot of things over a very short period of time."

He touts his involvement in expanding BUILD Leaders from a one-site pilot program to an ongoing initiative at multiple locations. BUILD is a youth violence prevention curriculum, in which 18- to 24-year-olds receive paid training in leadership and job skills. They take what they've learned to small classroom groups, talking to kids ages 9 through 12 years old.  

According to city documents, BUILD's "primary focus of this project is to build employment readiness, develop fundamental job skills, and provide a foundation to build healthier cycles and habits." 

"It was through my work inside the mayor's office, alongside the mayor to be able to bring [BUILD] to full life," Cunningham says.

Cunninghman couldn't say whether he will take a leave of absence from Hodges' staff during his campaign.

"We've been having conversations about that," he says. "Right now, I'm not sure right which direction I will take."  

Cunningham's candidacy adds another element to the curious local political landscape as it matures in the months leading to next fall's elections. 

Mayor Hodges, who already has one challenger in Black Lives Matter activist Nekima Levy-Pounds, has yet to be publicly endorsed by anyone on the council. (Other council members like Jacob Frey and Alondra Cano have been rumored as potential mayoral candidates.) Moreover, one of her staff challenging a standing member shows city hall is officially a house divided. 

Four years ago, Johnson was challenged by fellow Democrat Kris Brogan, a former restaurant owner and an affordable housing consultant. On Election Day, Johnson -- who had won the DFL Party endorsement -- took 57 percent of the vote to Brogan's 30 percent. (A Republican longshot collected 13 percent.) 

But Cunningham wouldn't need many votes to make it a closer contest: Known for relatively low turnout, Ward 4 had only 3,940 votes cast in 2013's general election, the second-lowest total out of the city's 13 precincts. Only Blong Yang's election in north Minneapolis had fewer ballots cast (3,622); successful candidates in some wards received twice as many votes as the 2,153 Johnson got in her reelection.

This bodes well for Cunningham's rookie political campaign.

He expects to ask Hodges for her endorsement sometime in the future, saying, "We'll cross that bridge when it's time."


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Lane Cunningham