Ray Dehn is not the kind of politician you meet every day. The Minneapolis mayoral candidate is calling for policies that would disarm and de-militarize the Minneapolis police force, work to eliminate systematic inequities and generate community wealth. He’s running against establishment incumbent Betsy Hodges, who has made national headlines for her out-of-touch response to multiple Minneapolis police shootings, including the killings of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and Justine Damond.
Dehn grew up working-class just north of Minneapolis. He experienced the criminal justice system first-hand when he was convicted of a felony for a burglary offense in 1976. This conviction meant he could not vote even after he was released, so in 1982, he asked for — and received — a full pardon so he could vote again. He went to architecture school, graduated in 1993 at the age of 39 (at 60, he’s still paying off his student loans, according to his campaign website), and from there became president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, a “student-run organization dedicated to providing unmatched progressive programs … critical to architecture and the experience of education,” where he learned grassroots organizing.
During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, as part of the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition, he went door to door to hundreds of homes in Minneapolis neighborhoods with a high number of foreclosures, and helped people find the resources to keep their homes.
He later did volunteer work for Minnesota political legends Paul Wellstone and Keith Ellison.
Then, in 2012, he ran for state rep. And won.
Ever since, he’s taken his experience and progressive ideas and injected them into Minnesota law, starting with the passing of his bill to Ban the Box, removing the question about criminal backgrounds from job applications.
“Every morning when I shave I see a white man who has privilege, who can do many things because I’m white,” he tells In These Times over coffee at the Mall of America in late September. “The people I left behind in prison … that’s why I run for office.”
Now, he’s using his platform to raise awareness of solutions to police brutality and gross inequality, among other issues.
“I don’t believe all cops should carry guns all the time,” he says. “One, it’s not necessary. Maybe people in the community would be safer, and then maybe the officers would be safer. In no way should an unarmed person be shot. We have people in our community who won’t call the cops because they are afraid, afraid for themselves and afraid for the person committing the crime.”
Dehn points to the War on Drugs and how it changed policing. “Excess military hardware passed down to police. It’s created a wall between officers and the community.” Dehn doesn’t expect local police to be enthusiastic about demilitarization, at least at first. Still, he says, “We have officers who are afraid to patrol their communities, and I don’t think that’s unique to Minneapolis.” He says some officers do question the efficacy of their current strategies, and training will be key to rehabilitating community-police relationships and restoring trust in the police department — and to insuring no more unarmed citizens are shot by police.
Dehn’s perspective and sincerity resonates in communities across Minneapolis and across color lines. Kelly Chatman, an African-American pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, says Dehn is “a conscientious representative of Minneapolis. I see him treat people with high regard regardless of social economic background. And he’s been a strong advocate for restorative justice — an uncommon commitment in that regard.”
Dehn is also passionate about generating community wealth. “I think of economic opportunity generally, how small employers can create more cooperatives, where the actual worker is given some power or say or is able to be engaged in the process of that business. I think of how in poor communities, money gets extracted by payday lending. But there are ways we can bank differently,” he says, pointing to a soon-to-open black-owned credit union that he is looking forward to banking with.
“I believe that when people in the community do well, and the small businesses do well, it lifts the whole community, and those people stay in the community as it does better,” he says. Their personal wealth, he says, rises with the community. “It keeps them in their homes,” he says, and prevents displacement and gentrification.
For many accustomed to politics as usual, Dehn’s campaign may seem unconventional — but he doesn’t see it that way. To him, these ideas seem “like what elected officials should be fighting for,” he says. “We have many people that struggle, and … the only way that we’re gonna have an impact is actually to begin to address these issues at a systemic level, and be bold enough to say that we need to put resources where they’re going to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s more about, what is an individual’s need, and how can we begin to address that? That includes everything from housing to police accountability, and to considerations around issues related to climate change and environmental justice.”
Dehn is endorsed by Our Revolution , and he received more delegate votes than any other candidate at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (the state’s Dems) convention last summer. That he received significantly more votes than incumbent Betsy Hodges gives Dehn a boost over his challengers and the incumbent, especially in the eyes of local political observers and the general public. He also did it with a campaign chest of just over $50,000, a paltry sum in today’s dark money political landscape.
Dehn says he’s being outraised around five to one, even more by some candidates. “My campaign has been leading all the way by raising and spending less than a fifth of what the other candidates have been spending. They’re running traditional campaigns. We’re knocking on peoples doors and we’re having conversations … engaging them in a campaign that’s about substance.”
He’d rather talk about policy than about Hodges, or the other contenders for the office, including Hennepin Theater Trust leader Tom Hoch and city council member Jacob Frey. That’s partly because the city’s ranked-choice voting system — in which voters rank their picks by marking on a paper ballot their first, second and third choice — encourages campaigns to focus on the issues, says Dehn. Besides, Dehn’s “not an attack kind of guy. You win with dignity by talking about your campaign,” he says.
For many, talk like this might seem like just that: talk. But Chatman says with Dehn, it’s more than that when looking at his record as a state representative. “What he says he’s gonna do, he does,” says Chatman. “He’s a steady leader. He leads with integrity. That’s how he’s known in the community.”
The election is Tuesday, November 7.