The Minneapolis City Council will have a majority of BIPOC members starting when the newly elected members take their seats in January. Over the next few weeks the MSR will give our readers an opportunity to get to know them and their thoughts on the pressing issues in the city, especially as these relate to Communities of Color.
This week we talk with Elliott Payne, newly elected Ward 1 council member.
MSR: Tell our readers who you are, where you come from, and what makes you tick as a person?
Payne: I’m originally from Milwaukee, but I moved to Minnesota 20 years ago because of reciprocity to attend the University of Minnesota, where I got an MBA in engineering.
At the time of George Floyd’s murder, I was actually working on a project around developing alternative responses to police. I’d been working independently as a consultant for maybe about four years by that point, and the focus of my consulting practice was to do work that could create an impact, and had some purpose behind it.
I had a full-time salaried job when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was this life event that just kind of shifted my focus and trajectory towards work that felt like it had a little more substance and meaning behind it. And I was happily doing that for a while, not only working with the City but also with nonprofits and working for some start-ups that were doing work around health care. [I asked myself,] “Can I take my unique skill set and apply it to problems that are impacting people?”
That was kind of the context that I woke up to when I found out about George Floyd, and it crushed me. First of all, I was working in the institution that murdered him. And I felt some sense of responsibility, of being a part of the institution that led to that.
I actually froze for a while… In that very moment I just felt hopeless and like there was nothing I could do that would make a difference, that this was going to continue happening.
But then I realized, wait a minute, I’m on the team that could do something about this. It was our team that helped get the mental health response passed in council at the end of the year in 2020.
And it was actually sitting down and doing our project planning for implementing the mental health team that really inspired me to run, because I saw all the challenges of getting this new way of approaching safety done under our current system and then under our current leadership.
I recognized that somebody needed to step up and really be a champion for this. And you know, you look around and you go, “Wait a minute. That’s me. I have to step up.” So that’s what brought me into the race.
MSR: What makes you a good council member for your ward?
Payne: I have a really good capacity to listen. In working at the staff level in city hall, I have a really good understanding of how work gets done, how policy gets implemented. I think that by coming to this role via a perspective grounded in implementation, a life experience grounded in race inequity.
I think it’s been very difficult for some elected leaders to truly understand the issues around equity if you don’t come from a certain background where you’ve been marginalized. I think this brings a different level of understanding to have actually lived in a Black body, as we’re talking about racial equity and disparities that are disproportionately affecting Black and Brown folks.
And frankly, my professional experience, starting in manufacturing and supply chain as an engineer and enterprise software, the creative industry, marketing. I’ve got pretty deep expertise in the healthcare industry because of all the work I’ve done in that industry. I’ve got a pretty deep background in banking and finance through a lot of the work I’ve done historically. Most of my work has been innovation professionally, and I think that’s something that the city lags behind other parts of our society [on].
MSR: How long have you lived in your ward?
Payne: A little over 16 years. Although according to some of my neighbors that’s still a newbie. We have people that have lived in Northeast for multiple generations.
MSR: What do you see as the major issues currently facing your ward?
Payne: Public safety and police accountability are really high up there. The affordability crisis in housing is really high up there. When I was going door to door talking to my neighbors, those two topics dominated the conversation.
The thing that’s really important to me is to embed an equity lens in every single policy that we pursue. I think that’s the connective tissue that ties all of those different issues together.
MSR: What would you say your priority is for the coming term?
Payne: Public safety and police accountability.
MSR: What were your stances on all three of the ballot questions that came up in this election?
Payne: “No” on question one [the strong mayor amendment]. For me on question one, there were two ways of looking at it. One was kind of an academic way of what’s the political science theory behind the right structure of local government. It was clear to me given the context that we were in, the unelected body of the charter commission wanted to diminish the power of city council because they disagreed with the policies that city council was pursuing.
I supported question two. I saw the need for us to have a restructure of public safety so that we could work more closely together with the police department as partners and collaborators, rather than as almost like an oppositional force within city hall. I continue to be concerned about what it’s going to be like trying to explore alternatives to policing under the current system.
I supported the third question because the depth of the housing crisis and the scale of the housing crisis needs policy that matches that scale and urgency. It’s not just about establishing a rent stabilization policy.
I think we need to look at rent stabilization [as] a short-term relief and renter protection to make sure people aren’t getting displaced, but we also need to look at long-term, what kinds of either incentives or direct subsidies can we do to encourage more development. Because the foundational problem is we just don’t have enough [housing] inventory.
MSR: How do you plan to hold the police accountable?
Payne: One area that I’m really interested in exploring is the capacity of council to have oversight authority via the audit committee. And so one of the first things I want to do is explore what the powers of the audit committee are and what is the process for auditing the effectiveness of various policies.
What we saw in the lead-up to the question [two] was the mayor and the police announcing the reforms that they had in mind or had “implemented.” But what we also saw was, you know, when they said they were going to end no-knock warrants, we saw reporting that [showed] that never happened. So yeah, I think it was reported that over 90 no-knock warrants happened after they banned no-knock warrants.
And so, where we may be limited in creating a direct policy over the police department, what we could do as council, as an accountability body within the city, is do an audit… If the mayor says, “Here goes our formal policy on no-knock warrants,” we should be doing spot audits to bring to the public this level of transparency…
And via that type of transparency and accountability, we may discover that they are in fact continuing to conduct no-knock warrants. And then that’s going to create the condition, for at least the general public, to not look the other way and to just kind of trust that the police are acting in good faith.
MSR: In your opinion what is the cause of community violence and how can it be stopped?
Payne: I think it’s the gross inequities. People in Linden Hills are not committing crime because their basic needs are being met. And it’s not just having your basic needs met either, it’s about that bigger concept of the social contract.
We need to really address the fundamental root cause of inequality if we want to really take on the challenge of community violence.
MSR: What can be done in your opinion to stem the problem of youth violence and criminality?
Payne: The biggest thing that we can do is open the schools and get kids and students in person again. I think a lot of what happened in 2020 was a huge wave of unemployment creating a lot of stressors, and then a lot of young people not in school with no structure in their life.
It becomes… “How do we get more people vaccinated?” so that we can get back to some of the structures and routines of a healthy society. And it’s also, what investments are we doing in the community that can close some of these inequities and gaps?
RB King is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.