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Climate Justice Is Central to Kate Knuth’s Bid for Minneapolis Mayor

The former state legislator and resilience officer sees progressive economic policies as part and parcel of curbing climate change.

Kate Knuth, candidate for Minneapolis mayorKate for Minneapolis/Facebook

While most kids love parades, Kate Knuth despised them. Shy growing up, Knuth saw them largely as crowded political events she had to slog through: Her father, Daniel, was a hydrologist turned Minnesota state legislator, and she recalled many photo ops for which she refused to smile. “It’s funny that I now do politics, but what stuck with me is that a good life is a life with part of it in service of community,” she told The Appeal.

Knuth followed in her dad’s political footsteps when she served in the Minnesota State House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. She is now one of five Democratic challengers trying to oust incumbent Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. The crowd includes community organizer Sheila Nezhad; former Marine Philip Sturm; businessperson and attorney Mark Globus; and A.J. Awed, co-executive director of the community council of Cedar-Riverside, a predominantly Black neighborhood represented by Ilhan Omar in the U.S. House of Representatives. Knuth hopes to stand out by focusing on environmental justice as her touchstone issue.

“The thing that I bring is this really strong commitment to moving through the work of structural transformative change, particularly when it comes to public safety, particularly when it comes to climate change,” she said. “Pairing that with [my] experience in, and just liking working within, big public institutions and working with them and through them to make sure they’re serving what we deserve as a city is potentially really powerful and I think something people in this city would really value.”

The city coordinator appointed Knuth as Minneapolis’s first chief resilience officer, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded position intended to increase climate resilience in 100 cities across the U.S. She began her work in June 2017 and stepped down just seven months later. Knuth says her decision to leave came down to a lack of alignment with Frey after he took office in January 2018. Her vision for the role “was to work across the siloes of city government in collaboration with the community to get to the root of systemic challenges like systemic racism, dangerous wealth inequality, and inequitable climate impacts,” she said. “Mayor Frey wanted to focus narrowly on housing. I was also concerned about the lack of listening to staff and community I saw coming from the mayor, which I felt would negatively impact the success of the resilience work.”

For her, addressing climate change on the city level in Minneapolis is an equity issue. “As climate change ramps up, it increases risk and those risks show up in different ways,” Knuth said. “If we don’t take care of the inequality and the injustice, the people who are already marginalized are going to be even more vulnerable in the face of climate change.” Redlined neighborhoods—often majority-Black neighborhoods that were historically denied mortgages or loans and subsequently divested from—“are actually about 10 degrees hotter on the hottest days,” she said, citing a January 2020 study.

For Knuth, the answers lie in focusing on urban tree canopies, accessible green spaces, community cooling sites, and encouraging people to check on their neighbors. She would also like to see the city build a targeted wealth development program for the Black community to help people afford air conditioning and other heat mitigation strategies.

Climate change intersects with progressive economic policies for Knuth. “I think one of the best resilience strategies we could accomplish is if every family had $500 in the bank,” she said. “Whether it’s a car breaking down or the power going out and losing some food, they’re better able to handle that. Does that sound like a climate policy? No, but if climate change increases risks in the most vulnerable [communities] now or even more vulnerable [communities in the future], decreasing vulnerability overall is super important in terms of dealing with climate change.”

Knuth believes that Minneapolis needs a “full-throated climate justice champion” as mayor because “the moment calls for it.” She plans to be a mayor who focuses not only on climate resilience strategies, but on actually implementing them through departmental leadership, budget investments, and radical transparency around climate-focused decision-making in everything from housing to transportation.

Frey and the City Council have had an adversarial relationship, and Knuth believes the fissure is bad for the city. “I think it’s really important to push back on the narrative that the council is problematic,” she said. Knuth sees the City Council as trying to lead on key issues: In 2019, the council voted to declare a climate emergency, and it announced a commitment to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, a move that Frey has criticized.

Frey’s contentious relationship with the city’s elected representatives, among other issues, got Knuth thinking in January about running for mayor. “Especially in the last year, especially in the last six weeks, there has been an absence” on the part of Frey, she said. “I also haven’t seen as strong of an interest in the basic running of the city that I would like to see from my mayor.”

For Knuth, two of the central issues the city has to contend with are policing and homelessness, primarily how Minneapolis has dealt with the numerous homeless encampments in city parks by abruptly disbanding them.

Knuth sees the encampments as the result of multiple issues, including housing, mental health, and substance use. “It’s super important to meet people where they are and to put resources into moving people into homes and housing situations that work for them,” she says. “It’s not just a numbers game of this many units, this many people, problem solved.”

She sees unhoused neighbors as best served by mental health professionals rather than armed police. Pretextual stops, like the one that led to an officer shooting and killing Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center in April, are another area where Knuth believes the police shouldn’t be involved. She supports the City Council’s and the public’s efforts to amend Minneapolis’s charter in an effort to eliminate and replace the police department.

“I hope to get the opportunity to build a public safety department,” she says. “I want to help the city navigate through this time in a way that helps us turn towards a more just, sustainable, resilient future,” adding that she isn’t making any plans for what’ll happen if she doesn’t win.