Here’s some election news that’s not related to the White House: Some 20 people are campaigning right now for St. Paul City Council.
That’s an unusually crowded field for a municipal election that happens every four years and, historically, gives incumbents an easy path to re-election. Less than 13 percent of eligible voters voted in St. Paul’s last election for City Council in 2015, compared to almost 55 percent in last year’s midterm election for congressional seats and governor. All seats on the council are up for election in November.
Those contests include the race for an open seat in Ward 6 and two other races in which first-time candidates are challenging long-time incumbents.
The newcomers say it’s time that the council better represent the neighborhoods it serves and that new energy is needed to solve the city’s widening racial disparities, especially around housing and economic inclusion. “Our city is at a pivotal moment, and we need really engaged, thoughtful leadership to take us to the next chapter,” said Mitra Jalali Nelson, who voters elected in a special election last November to represent Ward 4. “We are bringing new energy to old problems.”
The process for winnowing the field will start Sunday, when St. Paul DFL activists take the first step toward endorsing candidates at ward caucuses. City council races are technically non-partisan, but in heavily Democratic St. Paul — Tim Walz got almost 80 percent of the votes cast for governor in the fall of 2018 — the DFL endorsement can be a significant advantage.
Five DFL candidates in Ward 6
Several races could prove contentious, particularly the open contest in Ward 6, which represents much of St. Paul’s East Side. The ward’s former council member, Dan Bostrom, retired last fall after 22 years, and Kassim Busuri was appointed to finish Bostrom’s term. As one of the conditions for securing the interim job, Busuri promised not to launch a campaign for the seat.
A group of five candidates will be vying for DFLers’ support at the ward caucus at Hazel Park Prep Academy Sunday, and many have offered similar promises about revitalizing the ward’s economy by bringing new attention and investments to the area.
Candidate Nelsie Yang, 23, said she is running to lift the voices of historically-underrepresented residents of the ward. “As a young person, I want to see myself living in the East Side long term,” she said. Yang has worked on campaigns for state and congressional candidates, as well as rallied support for St. Paul’s minimum wage increase and criminal justice reform with TakeAction Minnesota. She also chairs an advocacy nonprofit called Hmong Americans for Justice.
Also campaigning for the seat is Terri Thao, a former member of the St. Paul Planning Commission who has worked for several nonprofits on the East Side. Right now, she is program director for the nonprofit Nexus Community Partners, which aims to foster wealth and leadership among communities of color. Though she said she brings the most community experience to the race, she also thinks a crowded field of candidates is good news for area residents who feel left behind amid an economic boom happening elsewhere in the city. “It’s great choice,” Thao said. “We didn’t have choice for 20 years.”
Other candidates in the Ward 6 race are community activist and former city park ranger Tony Her; community activist Danielle Swift; and Alexander Bourne, a former business owner who has made news for his criminal history. There will not be a primary since St. Paul uses ranked-choice voting.
Thao faces challengers in Ward 1
Beth Commers, who chairs the city’s DFL party, thinks other races could prove unusually lively Sunday.
Those races include the campaign to represent Ward 7 — which includes Dayton’s Bluff, Mounds Park, Swede Hollow, and Battle Creek neighborhoods — and is currently held by Jane Prince. An attorney and former St. Paul City Council aid, Prince first won election in 2015. She is being challenged for the DFL endorsement by Mary Anne Quiroz, an arts activist and founder of St. Paul’s Indigenous Roots Cultural Center, among other candidates.
Another potentially heated race is to represent Ward 1, which covers Frogtown and Summit-University. Currently, council member Dai Thao represents it, and he is eager for another term after facing controversy last year, when he faced criminal charges for helping an elderly resident vote. A judge ruled he acted legally.
Liz De La Torre, a sexual assault advocate in Ramsey County and former staffer for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, and Minneapolis NAACP executive board member Anika Bowie are both leading serious challenges to Thao. Both tout their experiences as women of color as key for helping St. Paul identify disparities around race and gender.
De La Torre and Bowie are part of what Nelson calls the most diverse candidate pool in city history. Before voters elected her last year as the council’s first female member of color, Nelson said she often felt “like I was the only one of me in the room. …I now feel like I find myself at the center of new political era in our local context.”
The caucuses will take place at various schools across the city beginning at 2:30 p.m. Candidates will give speeches and answer questions before attendees vote on delegates. Those people will go to ward conventions, where delegates can decide if they want to give a DFL endorsement and, if so, to whom. For races with only one DFL candidate, delegates will make those decisions Sunday. All other races (Wards 1, 5, 6 and 7) will have ward conventions in April and May.
Commers called the neighborhood caucuses candidates’ “first test” to show voters their values and priorities.
Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker, who is running for another term without a DFL challenger, said she hopes the neighborhood caucuses and subsequent events before the fall election inspire new people to care about politics — and that that interest carries over to the 2020 presidential election. “Every campaign is a conversation and an opportunity to bring new people in,” she said.