Meet Janne Flisrand, Challenger for Ward 7’s City Council Seat

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It’s 2017 and that means off-year municipal elections are heating up here in Minneapolis. After a stunning 2013, in which numerous new candidates were elected to the City Council and Ward 13 CM Betsy Hodges won election as Mayor, an unbelievable amount of change has happened in our fair city. From minimum wage protests to police shootings to stirring defenses of immigrant rights, Minneapolis residents and public officials have seen their share of outcry and engagement. This casts the 2017 elections in stark relief, which once more finds nearly every seat on the Council in a contested race. While other outlets haven taken a look at the amazing number of LGBTQ and African-American candidates running for seats this year, I wanted to focus on the ward I reside in with my wife.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with the challenger in the Council race, Janne Flisrand.

We have lived in the Ward 7 for almost two years, and despite earlier pledges that I was done with this stuff (covering politics), I find it’s not so easy to escape. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the challenger in the Council race, Janne Flisrand. I first read about her candidacy in the Southwest Journal, and recently spoke with Ms. Flisrand at Dunn Bros Coffee on Hennepin Avenue about a few of the many topics of importance involving our neighborhood.

According to her website bio, Flisrand is “a small-business owner with 15 years of experience in bringing people together to make progressive change in Minneapolis.” A calm demeanor and plain-spoken manner inhabit her remarkably incisive mind, and I found myself impressed with her ideas. Flisrand told me she understood the nature of local politics twenty years ago at the level of basic maintenance, sidewalk repair, and water works. Through advocacy work, such as getting bicycle racks in various locations, she now feels she can “make a real difference.” After a sabbatical last spring, Flisrand called a few friends to ask for advice, but ultimately felt she could draw on all of her previous experience what felt like to her as “the next step.”

Flisrand has the advocacy chops to back up her run. She’s a co-founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Commission, her consulting firm has won several environmental awards, and she’s a board member of the phenomenal MPLS urban/transpo blog streets.mn.

Flisrand said during one of her first jobs, an after school program tutoring underprivileged kids, the children would keep “disappearing.” She came to understand the problem as one of “housing instability.”

I began the conversation with a major issue in the ward: housing. Flisrand said during one of her first jobs, an after school program tutoring underprivileged kids, the children would keep “disappearing.” She came to understand the problem as one of “housing instability,” and after doing some first-hand research in the way of homeless activism in the Nineties she tells me that “simplistic answers are not enough” in this realm. The city is losing almost a thousand housing units every year, and has not been keeping up building with demand over the past twenty. Flisrand is running on a platform of affordable housing, and her campaign ideas run the gamut from finance options to rezoning. She also has a message for the public: if you have ideas to help with this major problem, tell her!

We moved on to a broader environmental perspective. Flisrand said that even in a place with “obvious values” about the climate (i.e. it is changing rapidly and humanity is the cause – agreed to by 97% of the scientific community) the challenges to address it are staggering, including how to both prepare for and mitigate the coming deluge. She said it will be important to focus on infrastructure and on helping with utility bills, but also on how to reduce emissions at the city level.

Flisrand said that Minneapolis, through making decisions on “city enterprise,” can set goals for buildings it owns. She cited the Hiawatha maintenance building as one example, but also described her work with the Clean Energy Partnership, a group that was formed out of the campaign for a publicly owned utility that caused a stir during the 2013 elections. She stated that only through a coalition such as this can emissions be lowered for everyone. Flisrand also spoke of her concern that residents have access to utility programs, and also that many buildings in Minneapolis are still not energy efficient.

Flisrand is for the $15 wage and while she said although the impacts of such a raise should be measured, that is not an excuse to forgo it. “Unintended consequences are a real thing,” she warns, but also that “organization is critical” to this fight.

We pivoted from the environment to social justice. More pointedly, the recent fight over the minimum wage and the protest movement that is turning even hard-liners into ameliable subjects as the landscape for economic justice takes on a darker sheen these days. Flisrand is for the $15 wage and while she said although the impacts of such a raise should be measured, that is not an excuse to forgo it. “Unintended consequences are a real thing,” she warns, but also that “organization is critical” to this fight. As far as those unintended consequences? Flisrand said a key goal in raising the minimum wage is to support “the economic base” of Minneapolis residents, and she’s concerned if not done correctly it could incentivize people to commute from the suburbs.

I then brought up something Flisrand has been talking about for a number of years: safe streets. Since it has taken around fifty years to build our current system, she says we need to be constantly “thinking ahead” when we build today’s infrastructure. The important questions are: do people feel safe walking and driving in their neighborhoods? When the answer is yes, that will help “increase the tax base” in these areas. Flisrand also spoke about Level of Service, or as she described it a car-centric policy that has led to the current unsafe situation here in our own area. She also wants to look at what California is doing, which is to measure how to get people to places rather than how fast cars can move through an area.

No Ward 7 political conversation would be complete without discussing the monumental SWLRT project. Flisrand began by saying the way Minnesota plans out major transportation projects is not great. Transit should be located in dense neighborhoods, she argues, serving the people. The focus needs to be on shifting people from their cars and making sure other alternatives are “faster than driving.” (That includes remedying what she calls “infrequent” bus service in some parts of the city.) While she “can’t wait” for improved transit to come through growing parts of the community, she believes the cost measurements used to figure out the light rail route from a decade ago are not applicable to today’s situation, particularly the cost of tunneling through Uptown rather than Kenilworth. As a result, she says “we have an excessively expensive train that will serve far fewer residents, and not the ones who desire better transit options.”

Finally I had to ask about the last portion of her “Issues” page: a “customer service model” for local government. Flisrand she has heard too many times that the city is dealing with people “like they’re bad actors” from the start, hectoring them into an “expectation of compliance” that doesn’t always work for either party. People who want to start a small business in this city have to go through a series of permit hurdles just to begin, and Flisrand feels the city may be worried more about regulations than what those businesses may bring into an area. She mentioned that for some issues brought up through 311, Minneapolis’ free service to report problems, aren’t available for follow-up. Overall, the city needs to maintain an “assumption of good intent” on the part of its residents.

We wrapped up our conversation as Flisrand had to bicycle off to another meeting. I’d be remiss in stating that the current Council Member in the 7th Ward is Lisa Goodman, who has held that seat since 1997. This year’s Democratic precinct caucuses will be held on April 4th, and the Ward 7 convention will be held April 22nd. Check out the Minneapolis DFL page for more information.

John Abraham-Watne About John Abraham-Watne
John Abraham-Watne is a published author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. He is the author of two novels published by North Star Press. John conducts freelance journalism on local government issues for the news/entertainment website MinnyApple. His work has also appeared in the Southwest Journal and the Hill & Lake Press.