By Cam Gordon, Green Party of Minnesota and 4 term Minneapolis City Council Member
This January I concluded a 16-year run as the sole Green Party City Council Member in Minneapolis. As I did so, I also ended my experiment in Green governance.
When I took to the campaign trail in the early 2000s, I was convinced that Green values provided a solid foundation for governing. As a founding member of the Green Party of Minnesota, I was already familiar with the Green Party. In 2005 in my campaign for City Council I told the voters, “Our values of social and economic justice, grassroots democracy, nonviolence and ecological wisdom offer a clear compass to help strengthen what works in our city and lead us to creative solutions for the future.” That November, once elected, I had the opportunity to test my theory.
For the next four terms I relied on the 10 key values to guide my work. While it was often an uphill journey with mixed results, using them, and working with others, met with some success.
Our work on Grassroots Democracy led to Minneapolis being the first city in Minnesota to successfully pass and implement Ranked Choice Voting. It helped expand early voting and improve and diversify neighborhood groups. It led to expanded representation on city advisory boards, and the creation of new ones including the Housing Advisory Committee, the Bicycle Advisory Committee, the Energy Vision Advisory Committee, the Food Council, and the Green Zones Task Forces.
Our focus on Social and Economic Justice helped pass the state’s first local minimum wage law, the wage theft ordinance, and requirements for safe and sick time off. It helped repeal New Jim Crow laws like “lurking,” and pass a resolution calling out institutional racism and committing to end it. It resulted in a Racial Equity Action plan, a new Office of Race and Equity and a required Racial Equity Assessment for all Council Actions.
To prioritize Ecological Wisdom, we declared a climate emergency, adopted a Social Cost of Carbon, and designated environmental justice Green Zones. We invested in clean energy, green roofs, trees, and pollinator-friendly landscaping practices. We expanded recycling and composting and approved a Zero Waste Plan. We passed a Complete Streets policy and transportation plan resulting in a network of protected bikeways, dedicated bus lanes and an array of pedestrian safety improvements.
The value of Nonviolence helped the City take a public health approach to violence prevention, the development of a Youth Violence Prevention Plan, the creation of an Office of Violence Prevention, and the use of mobile behavioral crisis teams as an alternative response to 911 calls.
Green values influenced the well-publicized passage of the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan in 2019, prior to the pandemic and police murder of George Floyd. This was a high point for a “progressive” surge in Minneapolis politics that peaked with the election of a clear progressive majority to the Council in 2017. During that time, the Council approved a new mission statement and goals that, like the 2040 Plan, had racial equity, social and economic justice and environmental sustainability front and center. The City’s mission statement we passed that term begins with, “Our City government takes strategic action to address climate change, dismantle institutional injustice and close disparities in health, housing, public safety and economic opportunities…”
One of the biggest lessons I learned along the way, however, is that the values are not only useful in determining what I worked on and why, but also in guiding the way I worked.
First was the need to be Future Focused. Especially in the early years, even as I was on the end of losing votes, I needed to keep long term goals in mind. I was constantly planting seeds, articulating my hopes, making my intentions and goals known, and thinking about how some small action today could be laying the track for moving us in a better direction. This might take the form of a brief comment, or a small question during a staff report. Later it might mean building that into a staff direction to get a report, that might initiate a study session, then a pilot program and ultimately (sometimes years later as in the case of Rent Stabilization) a new city law or the creation of a new program.
As an elected official it was also my obligation to represent all the people in my ward. To do that I had to place my faith in grassroots democracy. I worked to be accessible, and share my views and reasons for supporting and opposing things. I listened, talked, and sometimes argued my points. I brought people together and was open to delaying action to get more input and address concerns. Increasing public participation and working to be accountable was key to winning acceptance and support.
A challenging value to put into practice was Respect for Diversity. As an elected official I often faced political diversity. The diversity of views and approaches in community, among staff and among elected colleagues can be significant. There is both diversity of style and substance, and as you learn to appreciate each person’s priorities and perspectives it becomes easier to adjust one’s own approach to working with them. By respecting the diversity of concerns, a policy proposal may be improved as well as more likely be implemented in the end. Sometimes respect for diversity meant just accepting the difference, respecting the individual and the relationship.
The value of nonviolence helped me stay calm and rational even when being passionate. It reminded me to separate the issue or the policy from the person, and be willing to cooperate and be compassionate even with adversaries. The value of Feminism helped me to resist the tendency towards using power and domination and remember the benefits of sharing power with others and letting others lead. Finding myself in a government body with protocols clearly inherited from a social system based on domination and control of others, it was a challenge to forge more humane and cooperative ways to work. The value of decentralization helped me to conserve my influence and energy, to be willing to yield to, trust, step aside or join community members, staff, neighborhood associations and other colleagues – especially when their efforts didn’t conflict with, or supported, my values.
If there is a Green way of governing, for me, it was based on fully and publicly owning, using and relying on our key values proudly and openly both on the campaign and at work when I was in office. It was based on using them to guide not only what I did and why I did it, but also, mindfully, to guide how I did it.