Who The Folk?! Mayor-Elect Jacob Frey

Jacob Frey first came to Minneapolis to run the 2006 Twin Cities Marathon when he had an epiphany: This might be a city he could move to. The East Coast native did just that two years later, and last week was elected as the second Jewish mayor of Minneapolis. Less than 24 hours after being named mayor-elect, Frey talks with TC Jewfolk about his political rise, community organizing, and its connection to his Judaism in this week’s Who The Folk?!

How did a marathon lead you to move here?

I was running the Twin Cities Marathon for two reasons: 1) Money. I was running professionally, attempting to run for Team USA. The Twin Cities Marathon was a qualifier for the World Championships and the Pan Am Games. It was during law school and I was travelling around the country to pay for living expenses. Somewhere around mile 15 I was running with Scott DeFilippis and he turns to me as we’re crossing over a bridge and said, ‘this city is extraordinary.’ And I thought to myself, ‘yeah, I could live here.’

I qualified for the (2007) Pan American Games, and while I was there I met a girl there named Cac Farrell, and her father’s a real estate attorney out of Minneapolis. I gave Charlie Farrell a call, got an interview, and got a job. The day after graduating law school I packed my bags and moved here.

Where did being a community activist and organizer come from in your background? I know starting the Big Gay Race was a significant accomplishment.

My relationship with the gay community, in particular, came from my parents. My parents were both professional modern ballet dancers. Almost 100 percent of their male friends were gay. It was part of how I grew up. I was gradually getting more and more interested in social justice causes. After undergrad, I got a contract with a shoe company to try and make the Olympics, so I moved out to the training center north of Detroit. I ran there for a couple years and while I was there, I started reading up on social justice causes. I realized the people I wanted to help, I couldn’t because I didn’t understand the law, so then I went to law school. After I became a lawyer, the interest continued. I represented an individual on death row, I was involved with victims following the North Minneapolis tornado. I’ve done work with Jewish Community Action and the Jewish Community Relations Council. [Editor’s note: Mayor-Elect Frey serves on the board of the JCRC.]

How do you make the leap from social justice work to running for office?

It was a gradual realization that my passion didn’t sit with legal advocacy, but more with coalition building. That was my talent and skill, to rally a wide coalition of support to present a clear vision and get a result. The whole principle I live my life by is: Everyone has the obligation to do the best that benefits society the most. That could be painting, it could be serving, it could be a rabbi.

How much of the social justice work did you find connecting back to your Jewish upbringing?

A lot. The Jewish heritage is strongly rooted in the idea of community. My great aunt got out [of Europe] just before, as Kristallnacht was happening and just recently passed away. She would talk about being ‘keenly aware.’ Be keenly aware of the plight of others and what others are going through. In other words, have some empathy. That was always front and center in any mentality or conversation in my family. There’s no doubt in my mind that came from Judaism.

I have many friends who voted in your race and there was a broad spectrum of support across the DFL candidates. What did you learn from this in being keenly aware of the ideas of others and how they presented themselves or painted you? And how do you bridge the division?

We were getting hit from all sides in this race. It was kind of crazy that we were able to pull it off with such a wide margin. We won by a lot. We were hit by activists; I’m not an ideological purist. We were hit by businesses that were frustrated by my support of a $15 minimum wage. We were hit by a lot. A couple things became apparent: Rather than pander to one side or the other or try to delegitimize, we leaned into it, and said, ‘You’re damned right.’ We’re in favor of creating complex and thoughtful policies that help people, and there’s no room for purity when you’re doing that. City issues are, by their very nature, nuanced and complex, and when you simplify it to a hashtag or catchphrase, you aren’t fully recognizing the natural complexity.

Far too often, people get lost in the headline or hashtag and there are these bubbles created. On social media, you pick your friends, you pick your hashtag, you pick who to follow or not, and in the end, you don’t understand you’re talking to a 2,000-person bubble with hundreds of thousands who don’t agree with you. In Minneapolis, we don’t have a lot of Republicans, but there are different points of view. It’s important to realize a deviation in strategy does not equate to a deviation from morality.

One of the interesting things I found when interviewing Dean Phillips was just how anti-Semitic Minneapolis was.

It was bad.

You’re the second Jewish mayor Minneapolis has had…

Arthur Naftalin was the first (1961-69). I don’t know how he got elected back then.

How does it feel given the not-very-distant past of anti-Semitism?

A 1935 Minneapolis city planning map. (Photo courtesy of PropertyProf Blog)

We have old maps at City Hall that quite literally say the Blacks go to North Minneapolis. Immigrants in Northeast. Gold Coast in parts of South and Southwest. The sad reality is in much of this planning reality, the results remain today when you look at how segregated we are. How does it feel? I guess I don’t think of myself as ‘the Jewish mayor of Minneapolis’ – I’m barely thinking of myself as the mayor of Minneapolis. I was raised very culturally Jewish. Bagels and lox on Sunday wasn’t an option: we did it. My mom lived by it. We often lit Shabbat candles. My mother – the Jewish side of the family – is agnostic, but she believes so firmly in tradition. Doesn’t matter why. ‘We’ve done it for hundreds of years, you’re going to do it, too.’

Is your dad not Jewish?

He wasn’t born Jewish but he converted. My wife is talking about converting, due to no influence of mine. She’s interested in the culture.

In your political life, this feels fast after four years on council to this point.

That’s fair. This [interview] is about the longest I’ve sat down in a long time. I like to move and do things. The things I was passionate about when I ran for council have mostly happened: Affordable housing in middle- and upper-income areas at near-record levels; density and growth at near-record levels, small local business openings – we set a record. Don’t get me wrong: There’s still a lot to be done. I’m not one to want to keep a seat warm for the sake of holding a position. I’d rather someone with some passion. I’d rather follow a vision that wasn’t mine than none at all. In looking at the landscape, yes, a lot of what I wanted to do in the 3rd Ward has been accomplished, but there are some critical issues that need to be tackled, like yesterday, citywide.

The 3rd Ward has had a ton of growth – U.S. Bank Stadium is there – but how do you expand on those successes in other wards?

Every neighborhood has a unique character and perspective, and we need to account for that. So what worked in the 3rd Ward might not in others. But there are a couple things that clearly need to happen: Affordable housing: we have a dearth of it in the city and I believe that everyone has a right to live in a great city. With fast-rising rents and values going up, people are getting displaced from the communities they made wonderful to begin with and that’s not OK. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and my mouth is most definitely on affordable housing. And, I was mentioning the maps, we need to push back on this very intentional segregation that goes on in our city. For 100 years there’s been intentional redlining, restrictive covenants that run with the land that don’t allow blacks and Jews. There’s intentional separation of communities from vital assets like the riverfront, or the rest of the city by significant highways separating the communities. And there’s this practice of placing all the  affordable, low-income or Section 8 housing in one area of our city and that is North Minneapolis, and that isn’t OK. I believe in affordable housing in Southwest, in Northeast. I believe in affordable housing in every neighborhood. That was a clear vision I’ve been pitching for years and that’s something we’re going to do everything possible to get done.

How do you take the best ideas of your opponents and bring their supporters with you?

First we need to get on the same page in terms of values and goals. For the most part we share the same values and goals. There is often a deviation of strategy in getting there, and that’s OK. We need to stop villainizing one another over slight differences of strategy and policy. You want to disagree? Go for it. That’s great. But the villainizing and the personal attacks? They are counterproductive and will have no place in my administration. There has been a real push to divide and conquer. I’m biased, but I think I’ve been the brunt of it. The mayor has too. Everybody. It’s got to stop. It’s been really nasty.

Can time heal the wounds?

It’s time and it’s time for a change in narrative. We don’t have any Republicans. None.

The circular firing squad of Democratic politics.

It’s gotten substantially worse over the last four years. Some of it is social media, and some are independent bubbles.

What does your life look like between now and getting sworn in?

We’re getting a transition team together. This is a significant endeavor. We have to plan everything from internal staffing to department heads to inauguration party. Handling the press. I’m not exaggerating – I’ve had thousands of messages; I got texts down from over a thousand to about 200. I’m proud. I really love this city. In my opinion it’s the best job in the world. I’m going to work exceedingly hard at it, but also have a lot of fun.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Thanksgiving. And I know that’s not your typical Jewish holiday, but the way my family celebrates it – we often have a Jewish prayer and have music and dancing after. And everyone comes over. When you open the door for Elijah and Passover, chances are 20 of my friends are coming in as well. It’s a community-oriented event.

Favorite Jewish food?

Bagels. Most of family is from Queens. I grew up in D.C. but there’s a place in Queens called Bagel Oasis and it has the best bagels. One of the primary steps to knowing my wife was ‘the one,’ was on my birthday she called Uncle Louie – who was as stereotypical a New York Jew as you can find with the thick accent – and she had never talked to him before. She had him overnight bagels to our place. It was really good.

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About Lonny Goldsmith

Lonny Goldsmith is the editor of TC Jewfolk and Director of Communications for Jewfolk Media. He's an award-winning journalist who is involved in his third Jewish community after growing up in Michigan and spending a three-year stint in Chicago. He likes to write, cook and drink really good beer. He can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @lonny_goldsmith

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