Student-run mayoral forum draws accusations of bias from some candidates

UMN student group Women for Political Change hosted the discussion Thursday.

Women for Political Change, a UMN student group leads their mayoral forum, in the Molecular Cell Biology Building on East Bank on Thursday, Oct. 5. The group asked their own questions as well as questions tweeted in from audience members. 

Courtney Deutz

Women for Political Change, a UMN student group leads their mayoral forum, in the Molecular Cell Biology Building on East Bank on Thursday, Oct. 5. The group asked their own questions as well as questions tweeted in from audience members. 

Madeline Deninger

At a student-run mayoral forum held at the University of Minnesota Thursday night, concerns of fairness arose over questions posed to the candidates. 

The forum, hosted by University student group Women For Political Change, allowed students to engage with five Minneapolis mayoral candidates: incumbent Betsy Hodges, Ward 3 Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey, small business owner Aswar Rahman, former Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds and State Rep. Raymond Dehn. The discussion was held at the University’s Molecular and Cellular Biology Building.

The second round of questions, which WFPC tailored to each candidate, drew concern, with both Levy-Pounds and Rahman asking whether questions for Dehn were structured differently than those asked of themselves and Frey. 

Levy-Pounds said while she, Rahman and Frey were asked to justify why they could be trusted on certain issues like minimum wage and affordable housing, Dehn was asked for his thoughts on rent control. Rahman argued that Dehn was given a “softball” question after he was done answering. Hodges had left after the first round of questions to attend the Lynx parade.

“It just struck me as odd that three candidates had a question that was structured very similarly, asking how can we trust you, which put us all on the defensive. Then to have a fourth candidate have a question that was structured totally differently, it just seemed very inequitable,” Levy-Pounds said. “But I do want to commend the people who put the forum on, I thought it was fantastic overall.” 

Following the bias concerns, the panel presented Dehn with another question — which asked how he could be the most progressive candidate as a straight white man. That question also drew exasperation from the candidates.

WFPC’s co-founder and political director, Sonia Neculescu, is one of Dehn’s campus directors.

“We worked really hard to make [the questions] as fair as possible,” Neculescu said in a texted statement. “Folks involved in campaigns, like myself, did not have a role in determining or editing the questions for that candidate.”

Aurin Chowdhury, WFPC’s president, said the group collaborated with students from the Minnesota Student Association’s government relations team for around a month to research and choose what questions the candidates would be asked.

Chowdhury said this method allowed the questions to be better researched than the student-submitted questions used at previous forums. Max Hurst, MSA’s government and legislative affairs director, moderated the forum. Chowdhury said it was important that the moderator was not involved in any mayoral campaign.

Chowdhury acknowledged the questions may not have been impartial. 

“The honest to God truth is we spent a lot of time scrutinizing our questions and trying to figure out what the best one is, and when that first question came up as biased, I did the only question we had in our back pocket, and I guess that sounded biased as well,” she said. “That always happens, especially in a room with one specific type of constituency with one specific type of following. It’s hard to cover up, and that’s what we’ve learned. It’s hard not to be biased.”

Candidates were also asked about topics like police accountability, affordable housing and sexual assault. 

Levy-Pounds was critical of the current state of the Minneapolis Police Department under Hodges. 

“We still don’t have a strong community policing model. We still don’t feel safe when we call 911 and encounter police officers who unfortunately do not always value the lives of the people who live in this city,” she said.

All candidates were asked about affordable housing and their views on rent control. Dehn said while he supports rent control — which other candidates said they disagree with — he doesn’t think a rent ceiling is the right solution. Instead, he said capping the rate of rent increases would help address the issue of affordable housing.

“We know that many people are being priced out of where they live. Students are especially hard-hit,” he said. “We also know that in some of our neighborhoods, developers are coming in and buying whole buildings and sometimes increasing the rent by 60, 70 percent.”

Frey addressed the issue of campus sexual assault during the forum, and said he believes community involvement and collaboration from law enforcement are key to addressing the problem.

“In terms of protecting victims and survivors, the vast majority of it includes collaboration between the MPD and the UMPD,” he said. “I have worked with several people on campus around the issue. Recognizing that I have a lot to learn I think really comes first.”

According to WFPC’s Facebook event, 107 people reported attending the two-hour forum.

The mayoral election will take place on Nov 7.

Correction: A previous version of this article misclassified Neculescu’s involvement with WFPC. She is the co-founder and political director.