By Mike Kaszuba
Almost exactly a year ago, a controversy over whether the City of Saint Louis Park should continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before City Council meetings brought out everything: Red-white-and-blue clad protesters, claims that the pledge made immigrants uncomfortable, and even criticism of the city from President Trump.
In the end – after just 28 days – the Minneapolis suburb reversed its decision and voted to begin reciting the Pledge of Allegiance once again.
The public debate captured the attention of the national media – and, for some, reflected the current political divide in the United States. The behind-the-scenes acrimony among city officials, which took place out of the public eye, was likewise divisive.
Internal city documents obtained by Public Record Media, a non- profit based in Saint Paul, show that City Council members and city staff engaged in finger-pointing and arguments over who was to blame for putting the 49,000-resident suburb under an unwelcome microscope.
“[A]m I nuts to think that we need bullet proof vests?” Jake Spano, the city’s mayor, wrote in an e-mail before a critical public meeting on the topic in early July 2019.
Documents reveal strife between mayor, council
Among other things, the documents highlighted the role of Mayor Spano, who was absent when the City Council initially voted to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and who subsequently tried to distance himself from the decision. In at least one e-mail, Spano also wondered whether the controversy would be tied to his work as a top aide to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, one of the highest profile leaders of the state’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.
City e-mails meanwhile showed that Spano faced internal criticism from some of his colleagues. “I think if you can find a way to own this a little more than you have, you’d make some people happy,” City Council member Margaret Rog wrote in an e-mail message to the mayor on July 9, 2019.
As the controversy erupted, the mayor stated that he was trying to ease the emotions that were dividing the City Council. “I’m also trying to avoid any more frustration about end arounds and power grabs so I’m not really inclined to further chatter before the meeting,” Spano said in a June 30, 2019 e-mail to a City Council member. “This has the makings of a wild one.”
Tension without; tension within
After the City Council’s unanimous decision to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance spread across newspapers, television and social media, angry phone calls and e-mails flooded into City Hall – many of them from outside the city’s boundaries.
When one woman asked whether the entire City Council could be recalled, the city’s attorney responded that no such procedure existed. The city also requested extra police patrols at the home of City Council members, including Anne Mavity, who led the push to stop reciting the pledge.
Inside city hall, tension built. “This was not my doing – driven by the council entirely. Didn’t even ask my opinion or for some research,” Saint Louis Park’s City Manager Tom Harmening wrote in a June 27, 2019 e-mail, as media coverage of the decision began to spread both locally and nationally.
Almost immediately, Harmening began exchanging correspondence with Spano about having the City Council reinstate the pledge.
“That makes 4 wanting to discuss this on July 8 – you, Steve [Hallfin], Margaret [Rog] and Rachel [Harris]. Thom [Miller] and Anne [Mavity] are no. Have not heard from Tim [Brausen],” the city manager wrote to the mayor on June 27, 2019.
(In city elections that took place in November 2019, four months after the controversy, Spano was re-elected mayor by a wide margin. Hallfin meanwhile was defeated for re-election and Nadia Mohamed, the City Council’s first Muslim member, replaced Miller, who did not seek re-election).
Harmening and Mavity meanwhile began trading pointed e-mails, with the city manager claiming that Mavity had rushed through the initial vote and had not followed normal procedures. “The decision [that should have been made] at that time is whether the council wanted to discuss the topic at a future meeting – not make a decision that evening,” Harmening told Mavity.
“The over-reaction [by] the public, does not require an over-reaction by us,” Mavity told Harmening and others the same day.
Beginnings of the pledge discussion
The debate on whether to rescind saying the pledge had begun without fanfare in mid-May. On May 13, 2019 – more than a month before the initial vote – Mavity had first alerted her City Council colleagues in writing that she wanted to discuss eliminating the pledge at meetings. “Because [President] Eisenhower added ‘under [G]od’ to the pledge during the communist scare in the 50s it strikes many people as unwelcoming and against the principles of [the Saint Louis Park] charter,” she wrote in an explanation of her “Study Session Topic Proposal” for the City Council.
“We are all extremely patriotic and love our city, our state and our country. Constantly pledging to this is unnecessary,” Mavity wrote.
“We would be more welcoming and inclusive without it [including] more welcoming for noncitizens who may live in our community,” she added.
A biography of Mavity listed on the city’s website stated that she had worked “to ensure the city is a leader in responding to the regional affordable housing crisis through creation of the city’s inclusionary housing policy.” The biography added that Mavity had worked for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, and in the 1990s had helped manage U.S. foreign assistance programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s office in Moscow. In addition, Mavity has served as executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership.
Taking the Vote
The pledge topic was scheduled to be discussed by the City Council at a May 28, 2019 informal study session. But records showed that the City Council agreed to move forward without a study session discussion, and instead placed it on the formal City Council agenda for its meeting on June 17, 2019 – a move that signaled a vote was imminent.
Two City Council members, the mayor and Miller, were absent at the June 17th meeting, and the proposal was adopted unanimously by a vote of 5 to 0.
When the City Council’s decision was first reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 27, 2019, the city almost immediately found itself on the defensive.
City Council member Harris was contacted by FOX News Channel’s “FOX & Friends” program to “discuss this with our anchors and viewers.” In an internal e-mail, Harris said: “Kyra of FOX and Friends sounds so friendly in her email. Alas, I will not reply.”
The mayor, meanwhile, wrote that his “phone, email and texts are blowing up”, as the decision gained media coverage.
Re-examining the vote
With city officials getting repeated requests for media interviews, Spano announced that St. Louis Park would be revisiting the Pledge of Allegiance decision.
“Really, Jake?” Mavity replied.
In a June 27, 2019 e-mail to the city manager, copying the mayor, Mavity wrote: “This feels like a power play[.]” Harmening tried to minimize his role to Mavity. “I’m the messenger,” he wrote that same day. He added: “Anne – you need to discuss this with Jake. [The city’s staff is] asking me what the heck is going on with the council[.]”
Though she voted initially to back Mavity’s push to eliminate the pledge, Rog was also changing course behind the scenes. “I could not agree with you more that [the initial vote] was a huge mistake,” Rog wrote in an e-mail to the mayor, also on June 27th. “I . . . didn’t have the energy to argue with Anne [that night].
“I don’t think disenfranchised people in our community really care about the pledge,” Rog told Spano. “[T]his is a good example of unintended consequences, and I own my part in not seeing that on the front side.”
The mayor agreed: “We just gave the far right nuts out there a whole bunch of organizing red meat that they will fund raise [sic] off of and rally voters around. They may beat us up but we don’t need to give them the stick to do it.”
In the meantime, others were backpedaling, or trying to stress what the vote meant – or did not mean.
Brausen, who likewise initially voted with Mavity, wrote in a late June 2019 e-mail that the vote was only intended to “suspend” reciting the pledge at every City Council meeting.
“We agreed that on certain occasions when desired we would recite the Pledge, but it did not need to be part of every meeting,” he added.
The president of Discover Saint Louis Park, a separate, local organization that promotes the city, told staff members to distance the group from the Pledge of Allegiance decision should critics call. “If asked about the topic, please do not comment. You can say that we are a separate, non-profit organization and operate independently of the City,” Becky Bakken, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Discover St. Louis Park, said in a June 27, 2019 e-mail to her staff.
President Trump weighs in
Critical letters, phone calls and e-mails kept coming in to
the city. “Are you people frickin’ nuts?? You should be out of America. This is America. Not Muslim Capitol,” one person e-mailed.
And when President Trump criticized the city’s decision on social media, the spotlight got even more intense. In a tweet on July 9, 2019, the president – who at the time had nearly 62 million Twitter followers — wrote that “outrage is growing in the Great State of Minnesota where our Patriots are now having to fight for the right to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I will be fighting with you!”
“It just keeps getting better every day,” Harmening, the city manager, said in an e-mail as Trump’s comments circulated.
Rog, the City Council member, complained to the mayor in a June 27, 2019 e-mail that the city’s controversy was likewise “further harming” U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, the freshman member of Congress from Minnesota whose district includes Saint Louis Park.
Representative Omar had become a frequent critic of President Trump – and he of her – over her views as a Muslim. Omar had faced separate criticism over other comments that were seen as anti-Semitic.
Noting the increasing spotlight on the city, the city manager wrote in another e-mail that: “[a]t the time [of the initial vote] I was a bit concerned this would happen. It’s kind of feeding on itself.”
Mayor in the spotlight
Throughout the controversy, much of the focus fell on Spano – who was not only the mayor, but also held another job as deputy secretary to Simon, Minnesota’s Secretary of State. Simon had previously represented Saint Louis Park in the Minnesota Legislature.
According to e-mails, Spano was concerned about conservatives linking the pledge controversy to Simon.
“I don’t know if you are familiar with the right wing activist Laura Loomer but she’s got a bee in her bonnet about our member of congress [Omar] and my boss. I have no idea if she’s made a connection between me and my boss, not that it matters, but I’ve seen messages she’s made saying that she’s coming to MN,” the mayor wrote in a July 1, 2019 e-mail as criticism of the city mounted.
As the City Council’s initial decision gathered media attention, Spano defended his own role in the vote. “I was out of town,” he wrote in an e-mail. The mayor added that he had told Mavity rescinding the pledge was not a big priority, and that “there are more substantive things we should be working on.”
And on the day the City Council voted to reinstate the pledge, the mayor was again adamant about his role. “[F]rom the start, I have not supported the removal of the” Pledge of Allegiance, he wrote in a July 15, 2019 email.
Spano also moved in other, more subtle ways to distance himself from the issue. “I’m wondering if I can ask a favor of you,” the mayor wrote in a June 28, 2019 e-mail message to a Star Tribune reporter. In the message, the mayor said that his picture accompanying the story on the City Council rescinding the pledge made it appear that “I was there [for the initial vote] because they see me in the photo.”
But, according to city documents, Spano was informed that a discussion on whether to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was coming and took no formal steps to block the move until the public backlash had begun.
Though he was absent from the City Council study session on May 28th, the mayor was sent an e-mail later that same night from the city that provided a recap of the meeting – including evidence the City Council was likely to move to amend its rules to eliminate the pledge.
In addition, Spano signed a resolution that acknowledged the City Council had voted on June 17, 2019 to amend its procedures to remove the requirement that the pledge be recited.
Moving to re-instate the pledge
As the controversy unfolded, the mayor began to move quickly.
“I’ve never asked my colleagues for something like this,” Spano wrote to his City Council colleagues on June 27, 2019, asking them to reconsider the decision to stop reciting the pledge. A day later, in defending his move, the mayor added: “I was just trying to move quickly.”
Not everyone on the City Council was happy. “[I feel] comfortable with the decision we have made already. . . I don’t want to have it brought up again,” Miller replied. Miller said that Spano’s move to overturn a unanimous City Council vote, and his attempt to do it so hurriedly, “would be an extraordinary power given to our mayor.”
Brausen, another City Council member, likewise was critical. “Mr. Mayor,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I strongly object.”
Spano – like the city manager — also sparred with Mavity over whether she had initially followed City Council procedures in pushing for an end to reciting the pledge. According to the minutes from a City Council work session on July 8, 2019, the mayor said “the [initial] vote was a missed step [sic]” and that the proposal should have been more fully discussed with the community before it moved forward.
But Mavity responded to the mayor in an e-mail on the same day of the work session, which was at times acrimonious. “I thought we discussed this by email previously and resolved that indeed the process had been followed and frankly was stunned when you raised this,” Mavity wrote.
In minutes from the July 8th meeting, Mavity also added: “[T]he Mayor missed all the meetings where it was discussed and voted on.”
The mayor’s claim that the City Council did not follow its procedures also drew a rebuke from Rog. “I encourage you to leave behind the ‘we didn’t follow normal protocols’ take because it makes us all look bad. And also it’s not true,” she told the mayor in a July 9, 2019 e-mail message.
On July 15, 2019, in front of a large crowd in its meeting chamber, the City Council voted unanimously – 7 to 0 – to begin reciting the pledge again.
Said Rog of her initial vote to rescind the pledge in an email to the mayor: “This is one of the stupidest things I’ve done in a long time. . . . I’m ashamed, not for the reasons people are saying we should be ashamed, but for being reckless with my power as an elected official. Worst day ever.”