She’s too young, too brown, too feminine, too feminist, and too inexperienced to be a councilmember. At least that’s what Aisha Chughtai’s opponents threw at her when she ran for, and won, the Ward 10 seat on the City Council in 2021. Chughtai is the first Muslim woman and youngest person ever to serve on Minneapolis City Council.

A map of City Council wards. Ward 10 is marked in red. (Source: City of Minneapolis).

Now that she’s in office, Chughtai represents a dense population in the East Bde Maka Ska, Lowry Hill East, South Uptown, Whittier, and East Harriet neighborhoods. Eighty percent of Chughtai’s constituents are renters, a demographic that she targeted during her campaigning. She self-identifies as a renter, first and foremost, on her campaign website and on the City of Minneapolis website.

“Aisha is committed to fiercely protecting and expanding tenants rights, worker protections, and transit access. Aisha is a renter, union organizer, and first-born daughter in a Muslim immigrant family,” Chughtai’s webpage reads.

Being a city councilmember encompasses a lot. Communicating with constituents is a major aspect of the job, be it through one-on-one meetings, attending neighborhood organization meetings, or reading emails constituents send about specific issues. Chughtai cites the thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls her office received around just one transit project in Ward 10.

City Council itself is a body made up of councilmembers that, in total, represent all Minneapolis residents. Councilmembers are assigned committees to serve on and attend those committee meetings roughly twice a month. City Council also meets roughly twice a month to approve actions that were voted on during committee work.

Chughtai serves on the Business, Inspections, Housing & Zoning and Public Works & Infrastructure committees. A lot of housing and transit work is done in these committees, which are major focuses for the first-term councilmember.

Shadowing a councilmember

When I started working for Southwest Voices, one of the first stories I pitched was to shadow all the councilmembers in our coverage area. It was a selfish ask–I was new on the job and needed to learn the ins and outs of City Council quickly. Given that Chughtai was smack dab in the middle of our coverage area and a new councilmember, I wanted to shadow her first.

I wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be a councilperson, but turns out, being a councilperson can be a lot heavier of a job than I anticipated. My initial questions rang shallow: What does a typical day look like? What are the tasks a councilperson is handed? What are the challenges of the job?

Since January, city leadership has dealt with waves of crises: the Omicron variant, a Minneapolis police officer killed a young Black man who was sleeping on a couch in a Minneapolis apartment, and the Minneapolis Public Schools educators went on a historic strike.

During Chughtai's first eight months on the job, she has organized community members around amending a rent control work group, tried to save 24/7 bus lanes from a last-minute change to the Hennepin Avenue South redesign plan, and spoke in support of city staff who recounted the racism and toxic work environment they faced at City Hall. She was also the only councilmember to ask the new public safety commissioner, Cedric Alexander, about past sexual harassment allegations during his public hearing. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment thanked Chughtai on social media and in personal messages for addressing the commissioner’s allegations.

Chughtai stands out as a vocal and highly energetic advocate for her constituents. For example, two hours into a Public Works & Infrastructure Committee meeting in May, I recorded her looking and sounding very fired up about maintaining bus infrastructure in Ward 10. Her vocal and advocacy-informed demeanor during City Council meetings is often matched by Councilmembers Robin Wonsley (Ward 2), Jason Chavez (Ward 9), Elliott Payne (Ward 1), and Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5). They also tend to vote in a block and vote more progressively than their fellow councilmembers. The Minneapolis Squad, if you will.

What follows is a chronological look into Chughtai’s work since January. This is not a complete record of her work but a mere snapshot of what I observed.

February 3: Juggling a Public Works meeting and Amir Locke’s death

I first shadowed Chughtai on February 3. It was the day after Minneapolis Police Department SWAT Officer Mark Hanneman killed Amir Locke during a no-knock raid. After the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he ended no-knock warrants outside of “exigent circumstances.” Body camera footage had not been immediately released after Locke’s killing and there was palpable tension in the city’s air.  

Despite what happened the day before, Chughtai had to focus on the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee meeting. The committee was holding a confirmation hearing for Margaret Anderson Kelliher to be the permanent Public Works director.

Chughtai and her staff moved into their City Hall office space in mid-January. The office has mauve carpet, dark wood doors, and no decorations. It looks like its last update was in the 1970s. Fluorescent overhead lights brighten the space, and the color mostly comes from the Post-it Notes scattered around a meeting desk. The Hennepin County Public Safety Facility building, which contains the county’s courthouse and jail, is directly across from her office.

The shadows of the City Hall building hit the Federal Court House building on a cold, sunny day in February.

Thirty minutes before the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee meeting, Chughtai sits at her desk and types out questions to ask the Public Works director (then-nominee). Chughtai quickly switches to her notebook, hand-writing her questions instead.

“I’m never without my notebook,” Chughtai said.

Chughtai takes notes during the February 3 nomination hearing of Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Chughtai’s nails are painted bright pink with large gold flecks. I know it’s uncouth to ask feminine-presenting politicians about their appearance, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is boldly feminine in her appearance, it seems like the second wave pants suit era is over. I push aside my concerns and compliment her nails.

Chughtai looks up from her notebook and says with a solemn face, “It’s the only joy I have.”

During the meeting, Chughtai's policy aide, LyLy Vang-Yang, brings in a note, written on a bright pink Post-it Note, with an urgent update about responding to Locke’s death. At the time, body camera footage of Locke’s killing had not been released. Some councilmembers were strategizing on how to put pressure on the police to release the footage.

“Family of Amir doesn’t want to do stuff until they have lawyers,” the note read, in part.

Chughtai returns her focus to the Public Works meeting.

She perks up when a resident calls in and asks Anderson Kelliher a question. “Thank you,” she exclaims, on mute, as the resident asks about the Open Streets programming.

After Chughtai returns from a brief break, she starts furiously typing. Something is going on, behind the scenes, outside of this Public Works hearing and I am not sure what it is.

The hearing seemed to have lost its importance to Chughtai as it went on, Chughtai was preoccupied with something else. She started the meeting taking copious notes. An hour into the meeting, Chughtai switches from her notebook to her laptop to take notes, or possibly, to communicate with people. Later, I confirmed with Chughtai that she was multi-tasking between the Public Works meeting and organizing around the killing of Amir Locke.

Prior to the meeting, Chughtai had an hour set aside to prepare for the hearing.

“I ask a lot of questions,” she told me during her prep time.

Two hours into the meeting, it’s her turn to ask questions.

Chughtai said she instinctively didn’t want to vote for Anderson Kelliher. In conversations with Anderson Kelliher prior to the February hearing, Chughtai told me the Public Works director nominee was committed to the bike lanes but not the 24/7 bus lanes.

Chughtai’s push for 24/7 bus lanes come from what her constituents have asked of her.

“I saw so many people from the community come in to testify today, many of whom were Ward 10 residents,” Chughtai said during the February meeting, as a smile came across her eyes.

“As I’ve told you in our conversations,” Chughtai said directly to Anderson Kelliher. “This is an issue that the community I represent cares very deeply about,” referring to the Hennepin Avenue redesign plan.

Chughtai speaks to the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, via video, on February 3.

“I have a set of questions for you,” Chughtai said as she began a 30 minute back-and-forth with the Public Works director nominee. Chughtai asked about a host of transit issues, including about green light prioritization for Metro Transit buses and, of course, the Hennepin Avenue South redesign plan.

“Do you support the staff’s current proposal?” Chughtai asks Anderson Kelliher.

“I do think that you and others are hearing from people who have some concerns, particularly about the issue of parking access,” Anderson Kelliher said.

“I do think that we at this point with our lowest number of transit riders currently have some opportunity to take a look and phase into the 24/7 bus lanes. And that doesn't mean never and it doesn’t mean 10 years from now,” Anderson Kelliher said.

And with that, Anderson Kelliher had publicly stated that she did not support 24/7 bus lanes “on day one” in the Hennepin Avenue redesign plan.

Before the meeting started, Chughtai was scrambling on how to vote. She walked over to Councilmember Robin Wonsley’s office, asking how she was voting. Wonsley said she was planning on voting for her.

Chughtai called Sam Rockwell with Move Minnesota to ask for advice. “It’s just one no vote,” he told Chughtai. Chughtai didn’t have any support on the council and she said was concerned that her no vote would create artificial delays in Public Works projects in her ward down the line.

“I’ll be the only one” to vote against Anderson Kelliher, Chughtai said. Chughtai worries that Anderson Kelliher would hate her for “embarrassing her in this way.”

The motion to move Anderson Kelliher’s nomination to the full City Council passed unanimously.  

“I am so tired of losing,” Chughtai said to me as the meeting ended.

After hours of prepping, taking notes and attending a major committee meeting without a break, Chughtai was off to do more work. She still had to attend to the aftermath of Amir Locke’s killing and the unreleased body camera footage.

“The city attorney is ready to take our questions,” Chughtai told me. And with that, she walked out of her office.

Nuanced voting

Chughtai voted to confirm Anderson Kelliher on February 3, but it was a protective vote for her. A yes vote would address her concerns that Ward 10 would be unfairly targeted with project delays if she publicly opposed her. If she voted no, she would be alone in her vote, and Anderson Kelliher would still become the Public Works director. Chughtai would worry about what that would mean for her ward in the future.

At the end of the day, constituents see a councilmember’s vote in the yes/no binary, but voting can be much more nuanced than that.

As another example, Chughtai voted in late January to approve Lowry Hill’s police buy-back program. Chughtai’s vision when she ran for City Council explicitly called for the demilitarizing, defunding, and replacing of the police department with a community-led solution to public safety. She was also a strong proponent of Question 2, a community-led initiative on the 2021 ballot to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a department of public safety. The ballot measure did not pass, although the majority of Ward 10 voters voted in favor of the measure.

So, why would a councilmember who campaigned on replacing the Minneapolis Police Department, vote for a police program?

Chughtai boiled it down to another binary: it’s either the police or private security guards.

“We saw this in Uptown last year when the Seven Points Parking Garage hired CRG, a private armed security company largely made up of former military personnel, to secure their parking lot,” Chughtai wrote in a constituent newsletter sent out two weeks after the buyback vote.

In the summer of 2021, protests percolated around the Seven Points parking garage where Winston Smith was killed by police officers. During a subsequent protest and community gathering on Lake Street, a driver killed Deona Marie Knajdek after intentionally driving his car through the memorial.

In response to the chaos on Lake Street, CRG cleared out a memorial garden and other memorials for Smith and Knajdek, and erected large concrete barriers and wired fences around the lot that contained the Seven Points parking garage.

“I don’t believe armed officers patrolling a neighborhood makes it safer for anyone,” Chughtai continued in her email, “but I’d rather see MPD officers with body cameras on patrol than a private firm like CRG, armed, in plainclothes, with absolutely no oversight or method for accountability come into any neighborhood.”

Vang-Yang describes Chughtai’s voting process as couched within the limited choices that are given to residents regarding public safety.

“What if next time we have a different set of choices?” Vang-Yang asked me rhetorically. “As a city, we’ve only given them these choices,” she said, referring to the options of private security or police officers.

“On my tough votes, I explain why it matters,” Chughtai said. She is often transparent with her remarks during council meetings about why she is voting a particular way–which is not something that all councilmembers do.

“That transparency earned me the right to be here,” Chughtai said.

April 5: Ward Week & community organizing

I caught up with Chughtai again in early April as she was doing community hours at various coffee shops in her ward. It was “Ward Week” which meant no committee meetings and thus a lighter schedule.

Vang-Yang, her policy aide, is also with her. It is Ramadan so Yasmin Hirsi, Chughtai’s policy associate, is working from home. Chughtai, who is Muslim, is also fasting.

During Ward Week, there are no council meetings and councilmembers can take time to rest, catch up on council work, and meet with constituents. These weeks usually align with the Minneapolis Public School breaks, such as spring break in this case.

Chughtai dedicated the week to community events, which, I learned, isn’t the norm during Ward Week. When she was Ilhan Omar’s 2018 campaign manager, Omar’s district work week would be dedicated to campaigning in the community.

Chughtai also worked at Take Action where she helped with numerous political campaigns, specifically focusing on electing women of color to office such as St. Paul Councilmember Nelsie Yang. When Chughtai was elected as Ward 10’s councilmember, she was working as a political organizer for Service Employees International Union. Her work at SEIU focused on encouraging workers in the union to work for the union, which led to more “holistic” union elections. In other words, workers talking to other workers about joining a union. It is a tactic that the Amazon workers Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer used to organize their coworkers (although their overall campaign was very unorthodox).

Chughtai initially met Vang-Yang at Take Action and they bonded over being the eldest daughters from immigrant families. Prior to Take Action, Vang-Yang was St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s policy associate.

Vang-Yang said Chughtai preps hard for every meeting because “shenanigans happen in the details.”

“We show up ready to be taken seriously,” Vang-Yang said. As young women of color working in politics, hard work seems to be a necessity to be taken seriously.

At Espresso Cafe, Chughtai speaks with a handful of constituents, privately. She leans in when listening to people, resting her chin on her closed hand. She maintains eye contact even during conversations with constituents who are upset.  

After two hours of conversations, she is off to the next coffee shop for more constituent meetings.

August 8: The Hennepin Project is done

It’s now August and Chughtai has been in office for 8 months. Her nails are bare and cut short. We sit on her porch and she tells me that the green tea cigarettes I was inspecting are not hers. We talk about smoking cigarettes and the joys of American Spirits. She asks if she can smoke around me. She smokes menthol. I used to smoke American Spirit yellows.

We met up to debrief after Mayor Frey signed the Hennepin Avenue redesign agreement. We’ve now come full circle from our shadow day on February 3. The Public Works director that Chughtai was nervous about nominating continued to push for “dynamic” bus lanes that allow for vehicle parking. The 24/7 bus lanes were not written into the agreement. Chughtai’s spidey sense was spot on.

“The final Hennepin deal happened on this porch,” Chughtai said. She shows me where she talked to Frey on the phone, smoking American Spirit greens.

Mayor Jacob Frey signs the Hennepin Avenue Redesign plan agreement with Councilmember Aisha Chughtai on August 4.

“It took me eight months for Hennepin,” Chughtai said. She compares the Hennepin project’s timeline to street blockades that were put up “right away” in Councilmember Michael Rainville’s downtown ward after a raucous July 4 evening without any discussion about parking or access issues.

Chughtai has been very clear in committee meetings and in front of the full City Council about the precedent being set with the Hennepin Avenue redesign plan.

“We walked back,” she said, referring to the Public Works Department’s last-minute removal of 24/7 bus lanes in the plan. The plan, to her, doesn’t meet “community expectations.” But, Chughtai is proud of how she redirected a Public Works project conversation to be about racial and economic justice.

“We changed what a Public Works project can be about,” Chughtai said.

None of what I witnessed alongside Chughtai was surprising to me. She’s been transparent about the type of councilmember she aims to be and finds support from the more progressive councilmembers.

On her City of Minneapolis webpage, it reads, “[Chughtai] is committed to standing by the needs and values of the Ward 10 community regardless of political pressure, expediency, and what’s deemed passable or palatable.”

“I am who I am,” she said to me on her Whittier porch.