Divisiveness in the interest of democracy
Former Minneapolis City Councilmember Don Samuels has his sights set on Congress after gaining national recognition for his stance on public safety. The longtime North Minneapolis resident spoke to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) about his bid for Congress and why he believes that the current incumbent is no longer qualified to represent the 5th Congressional District.
Samuels, 73, served on the Minneapolis City Council from 2003 to 2014 representing the city’s 5th Ward. The Jamaican-born businessman-turned-politician also made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2013 and served one at-large term on the city’s school board.
Through relationships, experience and innovation, Samuels says he hopes to bring change to CD 5 and address the inequities faced by the district’s diverse communities. He currently serves as the CEO of MicroGrants, a nonprofit that awards grants to Minneapolis entrepreneurs. He also initiated the “Lights On!” program after the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, which allows police to give free car-lightbulb repair vouchers at traffic stops.
Here he speaks on his time as a council member, his views on where police belong in society, and the criticism folks have for him in entering this race.
MSR: How did your immigrant upbringing inform your experience in the United States?
DS: I was born in Jamaica and my dad was a Pentecostal preacher and my mom was a seamstress. We lived in a low-income community, and I attended school in an upper-income community. So the trip back and forth to school from 10 to 18 was always a class journey, every day, for all of those years. That had a big impact on me in terms of relationships in the neighborhood and relationships in the school.
MSR: What did you see and learn from your parents who were working to provide a life for you and did it motivate you?
DS: When I was a young boy high school was not free. You had to get a scholarship at 10, 11,12. Out of my entire elementary school, only five kids got scholarships to high school and that happened because my dad took us out of school close to the exam time and we had basic math and reading ability. He didn’t have a degree or anything, but he was successful in elementary school and took a couple of classes that were equivalent to a GED and so he taught us and we passed the exam.
I have a deep sense of opportunity and the difference it can make in one’s life.
MSR: What of your experience and knowledge from being on the Minneapolis City Council would you bring to Congress if elected?
DS: I made a commitment to always live in a low-income community. I’m going to still live in the neighborhood while I’m in Congress, and I’m going to be driven by the concerns and sensibilities, the priorities and needs here that are considered to be part and parcel of just life in the big city in America.
I feel that they’re totally changeable and fixable. The disparities in our city and our country around class and race can be solved.
I discovered that in order to get people to change you have to have been in a relationship with them. It makes a big difference. I’ve seen council members who had good ideas isolate themselves by being vitriolic and mean.
Having good relationships with your peers is primary and essential. You need concessions from people and work to change their minds.
When I was on the council, I held vigils every time someone was killed, from morning till night, even if it was zero degrees outside. But then I also had people fill out a book with their feelings on how this murder impacted them. I’d take it back to the office and I’d have my aide type it up and send them in a document to every city council member, the mayor, the police chief, and many times the governor. What I discovered was that there was a distance that was created looking the other way.
MSR What is your stance on gun laws in light of the recent shootings in Uvalde, TX, and Buffalo, NY?
DS: You can imagine because I was holding vigils every time someone was killed. I was very concerned about the gun issue. I felt that Congress was kind of lazy on the issue and scared of the big monster, the NRA. People were dying in my neighborhood, and I realized they weren’t feeling our pain.
I think we have to ban assault weapons. I know we’re picking away at it and sometimes we compromise to make some progress, but I’m not going to be ashamed or careful to not say we need to ban assault weapons.
We need to make sensible gun laws. I’m going to talk about our humanity in a big way and about our responsibility to the highest right of all rights, which is the right to life.
MSR: You’ve stated that you support a women’s right to choose when it comes to abortion. What do you hope to do in Congress to protect that right?
DS: As with gun laws where 90% of the people agree to sensible gun laws, while Congress is being held hostage in their election process by the funders—mainly the NRA—so they can’t do what most of the people want.
It’s the same thing with a woman’s right to choose. Over 70% of Americans support a woman’s right to choose, but somehow or the other it can’t become law. I think it should become law, and I’m going to Congress to make that work towards that goal.
MSR: You’ve gained a national profile due to your stance on public safety in the city of Minneapolis. Can you clarify your stance on where you see police in our society?
DS: On the issue of public safety, this is actually the straw that broke the back of my nonparticipation in government. When I saw how my opponent really dealt with this issue, I said, “Ok, Ilhan Omar does not understand the realities on the ground, and in fact was out of touch with 78% of African Americans who did not want to reduce the police. And of course, 56% of the city voted to not cut the police.
So it was clear that I was with the majority of the city in saying we don’t need less police.
Eight of us filed a lawsuit to bring the number up to the minimum, which was 740, not the norm that was 880. Living where I live, you have to have police. You can’t not have that. People say don’t prevent crime but, well, you saw what happened recently when we lost 300 cops.
MSR: Although a majority of people voted “no” on Question 2, there is still significant support for police reform. What types of police reforms would you favor for law enforcement?
DS: Sondra [Don’s wife] and I stated, “Both-and”—that came out of our living room. It wasn’t either-or, but both-and, and that was a simple encapsulation that we weren’t choosing a side.
I believe we should hire more from the communities that are represented in the population. That we should not stop until we have representational numbers.
I believe we should then have people who are supervising on the streets to be exemplary in those qualities, and that any time that leader or any cop is going out of line, that any cop in their presence has the ability to restrain them. And that person’s job won’t be jeopardized by that.
MSR: What are your criticisms of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and where would you improve?
DS: In Congress, she takes a stance where she’s also in the minority. She was one of two Democrats to vote against the bill to shore up the security at the Capitol after January 6. She was one of six Democrats to vote against the infrastructure bill that was probably going to bring $8 billion dollars to the state of Minnesota.
She was one of four Democrats I think to vote against Russian oil sanctions and against the sanctions of Russian oligarchs. She constantly finds herself on the other side of the Democratic Party on these key issues, and when that happens you have to say to yourself, is she really a Democrat? I’m going to Congress to work with the team.
MSR: What do you have to say to those who feel you are being divisive as a Democrat running against an incumbent Democrat?
DS: Well, the divisiveness that I defined to you is policy-making. The divisiveness of running against someone in a campaign, that’s democracy.
If you are doing a lot, making changes, and are popular, you don’t have to worry about anything because 98% of incumbents are reelected.
MSR: Recently you apologized for a tweet that referenced a tragedy in which a child lost their life while in your care. Do you have regrets about that tweet or any other that you feel detracts from your message?
DS: Well, let me first say that this instance was devastating. My wife and I took five kids on a bike ride along the river. They wanted to get their feet wet in this beach-like area, but we didn’t know there was a 25-foot drop-off.
Two of the kids went just about six feet out. Sondra [Don’s wife] was able to save one, and went after the other one. I couldn’t swim so I had to stand there. She tried valiantly and after a long struggle, she lost him. She herself started to drown and was rescued.
That was the worst possible day of my life. Nothing comes close. I’m sure it was worse for the family. One of the biggest aspects of our pain is that we caused so much pain. We can’t undo it. We had to be in therapy for a year to stay functional. We think about them all the time.