This Far-Left Activist Was Too Woke for Minneapolis—But Not Obama's Foundation

Former president hires one-term city council member who was ousted for supporting defund police initiative

Former Minneapolis council member Phillipe Cunningham (L) and former president Barack Obama (R) / YouTube and Getty Images
June 28, 2022

Former president Barack Obama has a new top staffer at his foundation—a far-left activist who was ousted from the Minneapolis City Council for supporting an initiative to defund police.

On Monday, former Minneapolis council member Phillipe Cunningham thanked Obama after starting a "new role at the Obama Foundation as the deputy director - U.S. lead of global leadership programs." The move comes just months after voters ousted Cunningham, who backed a failed measure to defund city police, from the Minneapolis City Council in November. Cunningham in June 2020 also spoke at a defund-the-police rally, where the activist and nine other council members pledged to "end policing as we know it." Cunningham's opponent, LaTrisha Vetaw, said that pledge made her feel "silenced" and called public safety "the only issue" in the race.

Obama's decision to ignore voters in deep-blue Minneapolis and hire Cunningham for a top position contradicts the former president's rhetoric on the defund-the-police movement. Obama in November 2020 said he would not defund police and criticized activists who use the phrase. But Obama appeared alongside Cunningham at a virtual town hall when the activist was openly calling to defund police—during that June 2020 event, Cunningham stressed the need to "completely transform our public safety system."

President Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, claimed last year that those who say Democrats want to defund police are "lying."

As part of the Obama Foundation, Cunningham will head the U.S. branch of the group's global leadership programs, which aims to provide "emerging leaders'' with "values-based leadership development frameworks to help build their skills and scale their work across public, private, and nonprofit sectors." It's unclear how Cunningham's values align with the program—the Obama Foundation did not return a request for comment on the hire and whether the group agrees with Cunningham's position on defunding police.

Republican National Committee spokesman Nathan Brand said Obama's new hire shows "there is no daylight between the looney left and the Democratic Party establishment."

"With radical defund-the-police leaders like this in charge, it is no wonder Democrats are alienating more and more Americans and are set to lose in November," Brand told the Washington Free Beacon. "From that perspective, Dems couldn't have picked a better person to lead these efforts."

Cunningham, a biological woman who transitioned as a college junior, became the first transgender man of color to be elected to public office in the United States in 2017. Roughly three years later, following George Floyd's death in the summer of 2020, the then-councilmember stood behind a giant "DEFUND POLICE" sign at a Minneapolis rally and argued that the city's residents could "keep our own community safe" without police. Cunningham also praised those who "threw the first bricks at police officers" during the Stonewall Riots in New York City.

One year later, as the defund police movement lost popularity, Cunningham did not back down. In 2021, Cunningham backed an unprecedented amendment to dismantle the city's police department. The measure, which Minneapolis voters rejected by double digits, would have replaced the city's police department with a "Department of Public Safety" and called to abolish the city's minimum funding requirements for police.

Cunningham's decision to back that amendment came as Minneapolis experienced a surge in violence. In the last week of 2021, the city notched its 96th homicide, just one murder shy of its record level seen in 1995. That trend has continued into this year—in late April, Minneapolis had 9 murders in 10 days, putting the city on track to surpass its 1995 numbers.

Obama has worked with far-left activists beyond Cunningham. Defund-the-police organizer and MSNBC contributor Brittany Packnett Cunningham served on the former president's policing task force. She later argued that rising crime rates are the police's fault.

"This rise in crime is not the fault of the movement, it's actually the fault of the police," Packnett Cunningham said during a June 2021 MSNBC appearance. "This has been our point all along—why should we keep funding systems and institutions that keep rendering themselves ineffective?"