“This is a Time that Changed Me Forever,”: Inside the Political Debut of Minneapolis’s Jacob Frey

Frey is quick to note that he did agree with “huge chunks” of the failed ballot measure, including integrating mental- health responders. “Not every 911 call requires a response from an officer with a gun,” he says, noting that mental-health workers are already joining police in some calls or responding without them at all. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, cities across the country have enacted police reforms ranging from banning choke holds to stricter rules on body cameras and use-of-force—Frey points to Minneapolis penalizing officers for not turning on body cameras, which he says has resulted in 95 percent cooperation, up from 55 percent; he was the first mayor in the country to ban violence-centered, “warrior-style training.” A new California law passed last October bars officers fired by one state police department from getting hired by another; the state of Washington created a new investigative agency to respond to officers using deadly force. But progress remains shaky: an often-overlooked hurdle to ridding police departments of toxic cops, according to Frey: the arbitration process (half the time he fires an officer, he says, the decision is overturned in arbitration, or disciplinary appeal). The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill aimed at curbing misconduct, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but did not garner a single Republican vote.

After MPD chief Medaria Arradondo announced his retirement in December when his contract expired, Frey launched a national search for a new chief. The departure of Arradondo, a veteran member of the MPD and the community, was a blow: “We lost the thread that held us all together,” Hill, the NAACP vice president, says. Frey appointed veteran officer Amelia Huffman as his interim replacement (“she was the smartest,” he says) and is seeking someone who can be “both incredibly soft and gentle and incredibly tough at the same time.”

If political heroes are a window to the soul, it’s hard not to read into Frey’s: Obama, an ambitious, moderate young organizer with roots in the Midwest who ascended to the highest of heights. Still, Frey claims: “I don’t know that I’m gonna do this forever. In fact, I’ll tell you I’m not gonna do this forever”—by “this,” he means politics, generally. (He only half-jokes that if he weren’t mayor, he’d want to be a camp director: “The impact you can have on a person’s life is nearly unrivaled,” says Frey, who worked as a camp counselor coaching track and field into his 20s.) Might he have senatorial, or gubernatorial goals? “The honest answer is, I don’t know,” he says. “Do I know where I’m gonna be in four years, where the city is gonna be? Nobody’s got a crystal ball.” So far, mayors have flamed out on the national stage; former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg is the rare city leader to get a glow-up to Transportation Secretary. Frey can’t see himself in Congress. “We’re relatively newly married,” he says of Clarke, “and we’ve got a baby, and I don’t want to be flying back and forth between D.C. constantly.”

If Frey were a 40-year-old woman who welcomed a baby while governing an embattled city during the pandemic, there would be much ink spilled about the notion of work-life balance. In the interest of parity, I ask Frey the same questions about juggling fatherhood and his high-profile job. “I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I show up every day to be a parent,” he tells me. Next to the standing desk in his office, there’s a wooden crib that Frida is outgrowing. “She’s been such a reprieve for everything else that’s happening in the world,” Frey says. (“Having a baby was probably one of the easier things I did in 2020,” Clarke jokes, “or at least the most normal.”)

Downtime for the couple is scarce. The two tote Frida to mayoral functions. “Frida is super extroverted, very much a people person,” Frey says. “I can walk into an event, hand her off at the beginning…she’s passed around the room and she will have a great time.” When Frey does steal a moment, it’s to watch professional running online (niche races few others care about, he says). Both parents playground-hop. And they rang in 2022 at home, watching Edward Scissorhands: “That’s New Year’s with a baby during a pandemic,” Frey jokes.

The two met more than a decade ago, when—Clarke turns to Frey—“you aggressively introduced yourself to my friend.” (Clarke told the friend she thought Frey was cute and urged her to call him.) Both were with other people at the time (Frey’s first marriage, a relationship from his running years, lasted from 2009 to 2013) but bonded through Democratic causes. They went on double dates—with other people—before getting together and marrying in 2016. His decision to run for reelection last year was one they made together. “You can’t quit,” Frey says. “You can’t back down—and I’m not judging anyone else, and I’m not saying that they quit,” he quickly self-edits. For all the minefields of mayorship, he says, “I want to be in the arena, in the mud, doing the work every day.”

In October, Frey ran the Twin Cities marathon again, in just under three hours, without much training. When he runs now, it’s in the very early mornings or at night. “I’m not that fast anymore,” he demurs. But then he recites the advice one of his childhood heroes, the Somali American runner Abdi Bile, once gave him: “It’s not important how fast you go, it’s only important that you go with purpose.” 

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