Matthias Leyrer is a long-time Strong Towns member and regular contributor to our web content. This summer, he decided to run for city council in his town of North Mankato, MN, inspired in no small part, by his involvement with Strong Towns. I recently had the chance to chat with him and ask why he's running for city council and what he hopes to accomplish if he wins.

A commercial street in North Mankato

A commercial street in North Mankato

Rachel: What made you decide to run for city council?

Matthias: I decided to run for city council for a few different reasons. I didn’t think that our current council was acting in a very “Strong Towns” fashion—spending money on low-returning projects, advocating for even more low-returning projects and refusing to amend arbitrary codes and ordinances while adding others on top. The smallest new lot you’re allowed to build on has to be 75ft wide and that’s the “small” lot (regular R1 is a minimum of 90ft). They are pricing out people from the community. I had to come to three or four meetings just for the planning commission to reduce the commercial setback from a mandatory 40ft to 20ft.

On top of that, [the council] passed a “rental cap” where only 10% of any given block could be rental property and in that same policy, they raised the minimum parking requirements for new rentals! It’s just insane! I understand where they are coming from, but they have essentially buried their heads in the sand when it comes to real housing problems in the community.

Finally, there is obviously wisdom with age, but no one on the council is under the age of 50. The majority of them are upper-middle class business owners. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but if you don’t seek diversity of ideas on your council, then you’re bound to end up with confirmation bias and ignore the people that you work for.

Rachel: What has the campaign experience been like so far?

Matthias: Thus far, it’s been pretty innocuous. I’ve been door knocking and people have been pretty receptive, or they literally don’t care. Some people want to make it partisan, which obviously I steer clear of—it’s just a city council race. Right now, I’m a one-man show just going out on nights and weekends when I have time between fixing my disaster of a house and work.

There are two things that really kind of stink about this race: 1.) Every city council seat is at large. That means you have to convince the whole city (13,000 people) to vote for you, instead of just running against someone in your ward. 2.) The city council is pretty unpopular this year. 12 people are running for two open seats. In a city of 13,000, that’s pretty crazy. Apparently it’s the most there’s ever been. I’m confident that I can win though; I’m fairly active in the community and people know who I am.

Rachel: How has Strong Towns influenced your run for city council?

Matthias: I’ve always wanted to run for some form of public office, but I guess I never really thought I would have substance to run on; I just figured I could get by on my wit and dashing good looks… Strong Towns gave me the knowledge I needed to run.

Being involved with Strong Towns is really like someone gave me the cheat sheet on cities and now here I am, sitting in the audience at meetings with my hand waving around like a restless pupil that’s got the answer, but no one will call on me.

One of my favorite quotes about politics came from Ron Paul: “Once you’ve become knowledgeable, you have an obligation to do something about it.” Which is right where I am now. How can I call myself a strong citizen if I just sit back and watch us bankrupt our future on quick returns? Or hinder individual wealth development? Or fail to provide affordable, attractive places for people to live?

Being involved with Strong Towns is really like someone gave me the cheat sheet on cities and now here I am, sitting in the audience at meetings with my hand waving around like a restless pupil that’s got the answer, but no one will call on me.

Rachel: What are your biggest goals if you are elected?

Matthias: My biggest goals would be:

1. Amend our freaking land use and zoning codes. Some of them are just ridiculous and no one knows where they came from, but they’ve been chugging along acting like nothing has changed, like 2008 didn’t happen and we will be able to build 90ft wide single family housing on the edge of town forever.

2. Amend the rental density cap. It just passed and is really no good for anyone. I want to address the concerns of the people that are for it, but a blanket arbitrary cap is not the way to go. We’re trying to take an incredibly complex problem and dump a very simplistic code on top of it hoping it will fix the problem. It’s not going to happen.

3. Make our infrastructure work to a higher standard. Right now we totally underutilize our infrastructure, sometimes laughably low. It could be so much more and service so many more people, but that’s not the way we’ve decided to move. We just twiddle our thumbs and hope that it works out.

4. Fiscal Sanity. We have, in my opinion, just made some really bad decisions with how we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars. We tore down two houses and spent $500k to build a surface parking lot in our central business district—two houses that were being rented out and were providing somewhat affordable housing.

There are really simple things we could do to make this place great—incremental things—and I think that’s what really fires me up.

We could be so much more, we have this really great traditional grid neighborhood that is totally flat and great for biking and walking, but we seem to ignore the idea of turning it into something really, really phenomenal. I should say too, it’s always easier to come up with the bad stuff, the negatives that push you to run for office. I do love it here. It’s why I live here and it’s why I want to run for office: To make North Mankato better for everyone, especially for the next generation.

There are really simple things we could do to make this place great—incremental things—and I think that’s what really fires me up. There’s always talk of the next greatest, humungous thing to come to town that “surely will solve all our problems” but it’s the often ignored, often far simpler things that need a champion. That’s why I’m running.

Check out Matthias' campaign website to learn more.

(Interview edited for length and clarity. Photos courtesy of Matthias Leyrer.)