On a recent rainy afternoon, Minneapolis mayoral candidate Sheila Nezhad cajoled voters into her booth at the Somali Independence Day Festival, hoping her central campaign message of radically transforming the city’s police system would resonate with East African voters.

“The current mayor is pro police and he stands with the police more than the community,” Nezhad told them, vowing to make “bold changes” if elected. “My greatest area of knowledge is public safety.”

Many who were meeting the mayoral hopeful for the first time peppered her with questions on much more than that. They wanted to know who Nezhad voted for in the last presidential election and whether she had any plans for boosting youth employment, increasing affordable housing and helping immigrant-owned businesses that were destroyed during the unrest following George Floyd’s death.

As the leading mayoral candidate in the city DFL endorsement convention, newcomer Nezhad is facing extra scrutiny as she tries to sway blocks of voters who helped boost incumbent Jacob Frey into office in 2018.

Nezhad, a community organizer who works as a policy analyst for a group that helped lead the push to cut police funding, is one of eight people challenging Frey. The 33-year-old is campaigning on her community organizing experience and knowledge of public safety as she strives for more name recognition.

At the festival, Abdikadir Mohamed, a Minneapolis resident for more than a decade, said he was unfamiliar with Nezhad and was unsure about lending her his support after talking to her for just a few minutes.

“Maybe I will vote for Jacob Frey,” Mohamed said. “I like Jacob because he helps Somalis a lot.”

Like Mohamed, Ilyas Hayuke, a father of five who grew up in Minneapolis, told Nezhad that the mayoral race was not a popularity contest and that the East African community would support candidates who prioritize their needs.

“The community is here in Minneapolis and a lot of things happen here,” Hayuke told Nezhad. “I’m going to Google you and learn more about you. If you are a good person to our community we will vote for you.”

Some voters have called Nezhad a “single issue candidate,” but Nezhad believes that police and public safety are tied to issues such as housing, youth programs and mental health services, and supports rent control and economic inclusion. As a staunch advocate for cutting police funding, Nezhad has helped lead that push through her work with Reclaim the Block, a partner organization of Yes4Minneapolis, a political committee that wants to replace the police department with a new community safety agency to prioritize violence prevention and other alternative approaches, such as mental health. The initiative is likely to appear on the November ballot.

Now, after a decade of doing advocacy work with different community groups and organizations in Minneapolis, Nezhad wants to lead the city.

“My motto is from the streets to the spreadsheet, because I do believe that it needs to start at the streets,” Nezhad said. “Minneapolis is at the beginning of a path to real change, to real justice right now.”

The Minneapolis DFL failed to endorse any candidate for mayor at its June endorsement convention. Nezhad won about 53% of delegate votes while Frey came in second with 40%.

With a ranked-choice election looming on Nov. 2, candidates have said they will remain in the race.

Some voters have been receptive to Nezhad’s ideas to defund the police and change the face of policing in Minneapolis, pouring money into her campaign. As of last week, Nezhad said she had raised $100,000.

Meanwhile, Frey wants to “properly fund” the police and has rejected calls from activists to defund or nix them. He supports the plan to create a public safety department, but opposes having the head of that department or the chief of police report to the mayor and a 13-member council.

“While the other candidates like Sheila Nezhad continue to push for defunding the police, Mayor Frey has outlined an honest path forward through deep structural reforms, safety beyond policing, and working with Chief [Medaria] Arradondo to recruit diverse, community-minded police officers,” Frey’s campaign manager Joe Radinovich said in an e-mailed statement. “The Mayor’s community safety plan applies a both-and-approach, addressing systemic causes of crime while simultaneously work[ing] to curb gun violence immediately.”

Asked what she thought about Democrats worrying that the “defund the police” message will push voters toward Republicans, Nezhad said she is skeptical of such arguments. She said the mayor’s safety plan of adding more police to the city has led to more violence by law enforcement. A big reason why she is running for mayor, Nezhad said, is to end the cycle of police violence against Black people and to create opportunities for Minneapolis residents to make decisions about how the city is run. If elected, Nezhad said, she plans to propose a census-style community outreach program to find out what safety means to city residents.

“If you look at history, the demands like we’re hearing right now to radically change the way that we do safety … are the only thing that’s going to push change,” Nezhad said. “If we try to be too moderate, we’re just going to keep ending up in the same place over and over again.”

Those “constant cycles of police violence” have also been Nezhad’s biggest challenge in the campaign. She had planned to launch her campaign on New Year’s Eve, but postponed it when Dolal Idd was shot and killed by Minneapolis police. She was supposed to have her first DFL mayoral forum in March, but that was also delayed after Brooklyn Center police killed Daunte Wright. Each time, Nezhad took to the streets as a medic and helped protesters in other ways.

“It’s really been a challenge to campaign in the midst of needing to show up for community over and over again, and people really being in crisis,” Nezhad said. “We had to figure out: How do we split our staff time between having some folks out supporting community and some folks keeping the campaign going, which just is horrible.”

Nezhad, who self-identifies as queer, was born in Fargo to an Iranian father and a Native American and Norwegian-Swedish mother. She spent her teen years in Woodbury. The Central neighborhood resident moved to Minneapolis 12 years ago to pursue a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Since then, Nezhad has been working in social justice and racial justice movements, getting her start in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health work for a group called Rainbow Health Initiative. In 2018, she helped co-found Reclaim the Block and served as board president of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.

“What makes me different is that my experience comes from building a movement led by Black and Indigenous and POC, and queer and trans and working class people,” Nezhad said. “And my experience has showed me that we can change things, we can change systems.”

Faiza Mahamud

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