The first all-woman city council in St. Paul’s history is inching closer to becoming a reality, though the results of races remained up in the air Tuesday night.
“I’m always in the business of making history,” Anika Bowie, who led in the crowded Ward 1 race, told MinnPost as election results continued to trickle in Tuesday night. “It’ll be amazing to have this slate of women to work alongside.”
Incumbents Rebecca Noecker in Ward 2, Mitra Jalali in Ward 4 and Nelsie Yang in Ward 6 all easily surpassed the 50% threshold of first choice votes needed to retain their seats, each of them beating their challengers by at least two dozen percentage points.
Hwa Jeong Kim in Ward 5 garnered just under 52% of the ward’s first choice votes, securing her the victory.
In Ward 3, Saura Jost received 49% of the first choice votes, and released a statement declaring victory early Wednesday.
“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work with everyone in the ward to build that future,” Jost said.
Her opponent, Isaac Russell, had called to concede the race and posted on X: “While we don’t agree on several issues, it is important that our community moves forward together. Her success is Ward 3’s and St. Paul’s success.”
But in the two remaining races – Bowie in Ward 1 at just under 40% and Cheniqua Johnson in Ward 7 at 41% – the winner will be decided by tallying second and third choice votes.
About 30% of St. Paul voters who were registered prior to Election Day cast ballots for City Council.
Who backed the candidates financially
In mid-August, five City Council candidates — incumbent Jalali (Ward 4), along with Bowie (Ward 1), Jost (Ward 3), Kim (Ward 5) and Johnson (Ward 7) — all filed for the ballot on the same day, earning headlines for their efforts to usher in the first all-woman council in St. Paul’s history.
These women are each ideologically distinct. For example, only two of the six — Kim and another incumbent, Nelsie Yang (Ward 6) — sought and won the endorsement of the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
But each of the six candidates in this coalition had the support of the organizing powerhouse TakeAction Minnesota Political Fund. As of late October, TakeAction — which has long rallied voters in local and statewide races around DFL and left-wing causes — had spent nearly $50,000 for outreach on these six candidates’ behalf, though most of that money went to support Johnson and Bowie.
Campaign staff, family and friends greeted Bowie with applause as she entered the Gnome Craft Pub on Selby Avenue after polls had closed Tuesday night. She expressed confidence that she’d pull out a victory even before the first batch of results had been reported.
“Four years ago, I made the decision to run,” she told the attendees. “Even though we did not get the result we wanted four years ago, we made it happen today.”
Andre Torkelson, a political consultant and Ward 1 resident, said he voted for Bowie due to her grassroots campaign that relied on community outreach, involved a lot of door knocking and met voters wherever they were. He said his stances on issues like rent control and public safety aligned with Bowie’s platform as well, and as the youngest candidate at age 31, he said she’ll bring a fresh perspective to City Hall.
“She stands for all of the things that I care about,” he said. “She’s willing to listen to every different viewpoint but also stand up for what she believes in, which I think is key.”
Concerned that these “activist” candidates would sweep into office, a coalition of labor unions and business interests formed their own PACs to support their preferred candidates.
In early October, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 49, the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters; and Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents residential landlords, all pooled more than $220,000 into a new PAC: Service Saint Paul.
The funders behind Service Saint Paul don’t agree on every issue, explained the IUOE’s Jason George, who chairs the PAC.
“But we agree that the city government should be focused on core services and not some of the ideological discussions that are happening,” George said. “We wanted to make sure that the public was educated about candidates focused on plowing the roads, fixing the potholes, making sure that we have adequately staffed police and fire, and that we’re building affordable housing in St. Paul.”
Service Saint Paul endorsed James Lo (Ward 1), Isaac Russell (Ward 3) and Gary Unger (Ward 6). They also said Yan Chen (Ward 1) was an acceptable choice. The PAC spent more than $121,000 backing these candidates through mid-October, and still had nearly $99,000 left to spend in the campaign’s final weeks.
Lo, who awaited results alongside supporters at King Thai restaurant on University Avenue, said during an interview that the funding allowed him to hire paid campaign staff and spend on ads.
“It gave us very good leverage, in terms of mailings, in terms of literature, in terms of our ability to do outreach in our campaign,” he said. “Money wasn’t really an issue so we could do all of the things that we planned to do – that’s a good feeling to have funding to be able to do these projects to promote our campaign.”
Each of the candidates endorsed by the PAC, however, failed to win their race.
Part of this coalition, Minnesota Multi Housing, also established its own smaller PAC called St. Paul Works, which spent just under $8,000 to support Pa Der Vang (Ward 7).
In Ward 1, the most crowded of the St. Paul council races with eight candidates vying for the seat, Bowie has more than twice as many votes as the next closest candidate, James Lo. In third place was Omar Syed who, along with Lo, was one of three candidates to raise more than $100,000 through late October. Bowie was on her way to defeating each of them despite raising just over half that amount at $51,000.
One big issue: rent control
In stark contrast to Minneapolis — where City Hall legislative fights are frequently boisterous and acrimonious — the St. Paul City Council has garnered a reputation for being less rancorous and more collegial. This has been especially the case since late 2022, when four St. Paul council incumbents announced their intentions to retire at the end of their terms.
But St. Paul’s new-look council will likely take on some big — and potentially divisive — debates in 2024.
For starters: rent control. Both proponents and skeptics of the ordinance have promised to revisit the city’s rent stabilization ordinance — for different reasons.
St. Paul voters passed limits on rent increases two years ago, but in September 2022, the City Council subsequently watered down the ordinance to exempt newly-constructed properties and allow landlords to apply for exceptions. Kim, Jalali, Yang and Johnson have all expressed interest in restoring parts of the stricter policy that voters initially approved.
In a Pioneer Press op-ed, Jalali said the future council “must work to uphold, strengthen and improve [the rent stabilization ordinance] as we would with any other policy.”
“This ordinance, I think, personally needs to be reworked,” Johnson said at a League of Women Voters forum in September. “It’s not necessarily, right now, working for the people it was supposed to.”
RELATED: St. Paul voters pass sales tax hike
In her DSA candidate questionnaire, Kim said she supported restoring the stricter policy originally approved by the voters, but was also interested in a compromise that made gains for renters without undermining the policy altogether.
By contrast, Russell had said he would have loosened the city’s limits on rent control, extending the current exemption for new construction from 20 years to 30 years — in hopes of spurring development.
The rent control issue was among the many motivating Service Saint Paul’s backers to spend heavily on the race. George said the policy has been “a disaster for the city” — and that the City Council could have done more than it did in 2022 to exempt more properties from rent control.
“The exemptions that [the council] tried to put in place didn’t go far enough,” said George. “If you actually roll those back … you’re going to do more damage.”
Other candidates had also expressed a more general interest in revisiting the ordinance. Lo said he’d want to ensure the city’s striking a proper balance between the goals of renters and property owners.
“I will continue to fight for tenants here so they have rights and responsibilities, and they feel empowered to go against a bad landlord,” Lo said in an interview before results had come in. “But these small family-owned properties, they also need resources and support as well.”
“Ever since rent stabilization was put in place, development slowed down,” Ward 7 candidate Vang noted at a September forum. “That’s hurting our housing stock.”
But during the campaign, other candidates said the ordinance is fine as it stands now — or are at least withholding judgment until more data is available.
“We only have like 10 months of data at this time,” said Jost in an interview with MinnPost, adding later that rent control is a “very complex issue with a lot of moving parts.”
Other issues to watch
Rent control isn’t the only issue the new council is likely to tackle.
Service Saint Paul formed partially out of concern that funding for the St. Paul Police Department could be threatened. Some candidates the PAC opposed have called for — as Yang put in her MinnPost candidate questionnaire — a more “restorative justice approach to public safety.” That approach could involve shifting funds away from the department and toward emerging alternative responses to public safety or mental health calls.
In August, the St. Paul City Council overrode a veto from Mayor Melvin Carter to send a proposed $20 million property tax increase to voters in November 2024. The proposal, authored by Yang and Noecker (Ward 2), would use the funds to cover child care costs for children under age 5. The money would be prioritized for low-income families.
However, many of the proposal’s details have yet to be hashed out — and the new council will likely play a role. (Jalali was one of the two council members to vote against the ballot measure.)
In interviews with MinnPost, Jost said she’d monitor the city’s newly-approved zoning rules — which allow for duplexes and triplexes on almost any residential lot in the city — for unintended consequences.
Candidates had their eyes on St. Paul’s sales tax increase, which would generate nearly $1 billion for road and parks improvements. Now that the measure passed — raising the city’s sales tax to the highest rate in Minnesota — the new council will supervise the spending of those funds.
Among the projects the sales tax would likely fund? The Summit Avenue reconstruction and bike trail project, which cleared the City Council easily last spring, but has continued to inspire opposition from well-funded and well-organized neighbors determined to keep the issue on the front burner.
And then, of course, there’s garbage collection — an issue that has inspired debate in St. Paul for the last half-decade. When the current trash contract expires in spring 2025, city staff have said they’d like to attempt to explore adding a municipally-run garbage collection service to the mix of private companies that currently pick up the city’s trash. That issue will likely land in the new City Council’s bin, too.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct some instances of misspellings of Mitra Jalali’s name.