Every Neighborhood Counts

Natalie Johnson Lee’s win shook up Minneapolis city politics. It was voters in poor neighborhoods who turned out on election day to put her over the top.

WHEN GREEN PARTY member Natalie Johnson Lee ran for the Minneapolis City Council in 2001 against a 12-year incumbent considered to be the most powerful politician in the city, she was such a long shot that her opponent barely bothered to campaign.

But then, nobody expected Lee to run a vigorous grassroots campaign that involved, as she puts it, “doing everything the political consultants told me not to do.” For her ward in north Minneapolis—a diverse mix of neighborhoods with $4 million homes just eight blocks from a homeless shelter that regularly turns people away—this meant visiting every single neighborhood regardless of historical voting patterns.

“I went everywhere they told me not to go,” Lee says. “I treated every district as if it were the wealthiest district, as if everyone votes.”

She knocked on doors in white, African-American, Somalian, and Hmong neighborhoods alike, visited every community group she could find, and showed inspirational videos about how blacks struggled for and won the right to vote.

Lee's opponent, the incumbent and council president who had the full support of the Democratic Farm Labor Party and the war chest to go with it, realized too late that she had better get out and start talking to voters. Lee squeaked by with a 72-vote margin to become the second Green Party member elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Lee's hard fought victory has not ended her struggles. The Democrats “are very very unhappy we're here,” Lee says. “Ever since I've been in they've been trying to get me out.” The opposition's bag of tricks has included a redistricting plan that would separate out the poor areas of Lee's district, creating a council seat to represent the ultra-wealthy, and an attempt to stagger terms that would force Lee to an early election. Both plans are being fought in court.

Lee, meanwhile, is going about the business of governing and continuing to inspire citizens to get involved in politics. As chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, she is pushing for ordinances to prevent predatory lending and to stop the police from acting on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Lee has also used the lessons of the campaign to fuel “Sisters in Power,” a new group that aims to empower women not only to run for office, but to become lobbyists, commission members, and vocal citizens. She currently is mentoring 25 women who are interested in getting involved in politics.

“As I door-knocked I realized that there are a lot of women out here, specifically women of color, who feel isolated from the political process,” Lee says. “You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be in office.”

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