From a small wooden table in a corner of Muddsuckers Coffee Shop in Southeast Como, Minneapolis City Councilman Cam Gordon sipped on a cup of coffee and waited to see if any of his constituents would show up for his Tuesday “office hours.”
It’s a typical Tuesday morning for Gordon.
At 55, he is in his second term as councilman for Ward 2 — one of the two city wards in Minneapolis that encompass the University of Minnesota community.
Consisting of a unique blend of students and permanent residents, Ward 2 has among the lowest voter turnouts in the city, in large part because students simply don’t vote.
Voter turnout in the 2009 city elections was dismal in student-dominated precincts of Gordon’s ward, from 10 percent in Southeast Como to just 2 percent in the Superblock area.
“It’s been a challenge,” Gordon said. “One of the challenges isn’t just the low voter turnout — it’s the temporary nature of the individuals here.”
Gordon said he strives to be accessible and open to his constituents, which is why he spends two hours every Tuesday morning at coffee shops in his ward. But this week no one showed up to Muddsuckers.
In an informal Minnesota Daily survey of 50 University students conducted on campus, just two said they knew who Gordon was.
Though he acknowledges that they may not be successful, the “office hours” are Gordon’s way of reaching out to students. But he said he makes it a point to consider student concerns in his work.
Gordon helped pass a commercial recycling ordinance earlier this year that made it mandatory for businesses to recycle — an idea he said came from a student. He’s also tried unsuccessfully to relax the maximum occupancy limits on houses near the University campus.
“It was packed last week [at Hard Times Café] so I’m not expecting a big turnout,” he said at Muddsuckers on Tuesday. “So I don’t know how you want to stage the photo. Maybe you can get one of me napping,” he joked.
Getting to the Council
A lifelong resident of Minneapolis, Gordon has lived in or near the ward he now represents since he graduated from the University in 1977.
After graduation, he took a job teaching at the Child Garden Montessori School and started playing bass guitar in an alternative rock band: The New Psychenauts. At their peak, the band opened at the 20-band, two-day Marathon 80 Music Festival, headlined by The Suburbs and Devo at the University Field House.
“[Being a teacher and musician] is not bad preparation for this work. It taught me to function as a team and to be a good listener,” Gordon said. “Mostly you have lawyers doing it, but having a teacher and musician on the council is actually a good thing.”
He had an interest in politics and social change since he was a teenager in the 60s, and joined the Green Party of Minnesota in the early 90s. He said that the values of the party really resonated with him.
“I don’t think it’s healthy if there is one party that dominates everything, so I wanted to have a more open system,” Gordon said.
Drawing from the 10 key values of the Green Party, Gordon developed his own four core values that shape his policies and work on the council: peace, grassroots democracy, social justice and ecological wisdom.
After joining the party, he became heavily involved in neighborhood organizations, which helped to spark his passion for politics. He first ran for the House of Representatives in 1996, but lost.
In 2001, he ran for the Minneapolis City Council but lost by 108 votes to challenger Paul Zerby, a Democrat.
Through that unsuccessful campaign, he met Robin Garwood, who managed his successful run for the council in 2005 and remains Gordon’s policy aide today.
“I think we kind of need each other,” Garwood said. “Without somebody urging him to be a little tougher sometimes, he might not be quite as effective, and I often need his calming influence so I don’t go too far.”
James De Sota, neighborhood director for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, called Gordon a “champion for a lot of the issues that the residents in Ward 2 have proposed.” He attributed much of Gordon’s success to his long-standing relationship with Garwood.
De Sota said that one of the two has been at every SECIA board meeting.
Relationship with students
Gordon’s ward contains the neighborhoods of Prospect Park, Seward, Cedar-Riverside, Southeast Como, University and Cooper.
This combination of neighborhoods has created a unique dynamic between the second ward’s residents.
While the relationship between students and permanent residents in the ward is relatively stable, there have been clashes.
Complicating matters is the fact that precincts with heavy student populations often have extremely low voter turnout.
“It makes it hard,” said Garwood. “I can see how policy makers in the past have come in and just found it easier to completely ignore the fact that there are tens of thousands of students living in the ward.”
Gordon wasted no time in addressing the relationship. In 2006 — his first year in office — he sponsored the Noisy or Unruly Assembly ordinance, which made it illegal for more than one person in a residential area between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to create excessive noise.
In 2010, Gordon sponsored the Social Host ordinance making it a misdemeanor to host a party with underage drinkers.
Although Gordon stated in a 2010 letter to the editor of the Minnesota Daily that the ordinances weren’t meant to target University students, their impacts were undoubtedly most heavily felt by students.
“You do look where voters come from, but I’m not going to say ‘If they don’t vote, who cares about them’ because that’s not right and I’m not going to do a good job if that’s my mindset,” Gordon said.
Gordon has been one of the most outspoken proponents for changing the current maximum occupancy ordinance. Despite being strong opposition from neighborhood organizations like SECIA and a lack of support from fellow council members, Gordon continues to promote a change that would help students. He described the current ordinance as “unfair.”
Gordon said he works closely with students and continues to push for initiatives and policies that benefit not only those who vote, but everyone that is affected by his decisions on the council.
This past fall, Gordon implemented a Commercial Recycling ordinance which made it mandatory for businesses to recycle.
The idea for the ordinance came from a University student who noticed large amounts of recyclables being thrown away at a local business.
Still, Gordon and his office wish that students realized more of the impact their office can have on them.
“One way I look at it is I want to be so good that even those people that fought hard against me and voted for my opponents will say, ‘Wow, he’s doing a good job, I think I’ll vote for him now!’ ” Gordon said. He applies the same rationale to students who have never voted.
“I try and challenge myself and win them all.”
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