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St. Paul vote hailed as endorsement of city’s direction

DFL Election Party
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
From left to right: Council Member Rebecca Noeker, Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, Mayor Melvin Carter, School Board Member Steve Marchese and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi shown during last night's DFL party at Black Hart in St. Paul.

For St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, the 2019 election was unlike anything he’s ever experienced. As a politician who ran successful campaigns for the city’s top job and City Council — twice — he said the run-up to Tuesday’s general election was different because of its main talking point. 

“I have never campaigned so hard for something I didn’t even want to talk about,” he said to a crowd of DFL supporters at Black Hart of St. Paul Tuesday night, while some of them chanted: “Trash, trash, trash!”

On Tuesday, St. Paul voters affirmed the city’s coordinated trash system by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, following a months-long campaign to overturn the law by a group of homeowners that had successfully sued to put the measure up for a vote. Supporters of the current system, including Carter, said the vote marks a pivot in St. Paul politics; city leaders can now stop wasting time on the debate and shift their focus toward solving the city’s income and social disparities, he said. 

“Tonight was a referendum on the direction of our city,” he said. “Well, let me tell you, that message was heard.”

In addition to voting on the trash pickup system, St. Paul residents on Tuesday re-elected five City Council incumbents to serve until 2024: Rebecca Noecker in Ward 2; Chris Tolbert in Ward 3; Mitra Jalali Nelson in Ward 4; Amy Brendmoen in Ward 5; and Jane Prince in Ward 7. Those candidates had campaigned with endorsements from the city’s DFL Party, a huge advantage in the heavily DFL city, and will serve four-year terms beginning in January 2020.

In two other council races — in Wards 1 and 6 no candidates received more than 50 percent of voters’ first choice under the city’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, which means elections officials will continue counting ballots and announce those winners in the coming days. 

In Ward 1, which includes the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, incumbent Dai Thao was leading, with about 42 percent of first-place votes. Meanwhile, challenger Anika Bowie, a Minneapolis NAACP executive board member, was in second place, with roughly 30 percent of the vote. 

More than 54,000 people cast ballots with first-choice council selections, a significant increase from the previous council election in 2015, when elections officials counted 26,660 first-choice votes.

Yang leads in Ward 6

In the race to represent Ward 6, which covers the city’s east side, community activist Nelsie Yang was in first place, with 44 percent of the vote, while former St. Paul planning commissioner Terri Thao was in second, with 28 percent of first-choice voices. Current Ward 6 Council Member Kassim Bursi was in fourth place, with just over 7 percent of first-place votes. 

The seat had been held by Council Member Dan Bostrom for 22 years until his retirement last year. In January, Busuri was appointed to fill the remainder of the term — on the promise that he would not join the 2019 race for council. He went back on that vow and launched his Ward 6 campaign this spring. 

On Friday, as part of the RCV process, elections officials will start the process of eliminating candidates who received the least number of votes in each race. Votes from the eliminated candidate will then be reallocated to the remaining candidates based on the voter’s next highest choice. The counting and reallocation will continue until one candidate receives a majority of votes, a process that could take several days. (Check MinnPost’s 2019 Election Results Dashboard for a full list of Tuesday’s winners.)

A bad night for ‘Vote No’

For decades, St. Paul residents of single-family homes or small multifamily complexes hired their own trash haulers or coordinated with neighbors for pickup. But since the launch of St. Paul’s coordinated trash program in October 2018, various aspects of the system made some St. Paul residents upset. Some environmental activists don’t like the mandatory trash bills and containers, since they don’t accumulate any waste. Other property owners were upset up over higher bills, or had poor experiences with their newly assigned haulers. 

Shortly after the new program’s launch, more than 6,400 residents signed a petition asking that the system go before voters as a ballot referendum. The St. Paul City Council denied that request, so a group of property owners under the name “St. Paul Trash” sued the city. A judge ruled in the activists’ favor, which is how question got on Tuesday’s ballot. In advance of the election, St. Paul Trash’s political committee spent more than $20,900 on ‘Vote No’ campaign materials and legal fees.

“It’s a bad plan and I think it was emblematic of so many things that really ailled the city, bad leadership,” said attorney Patty Hartmann, who had launched a run for City Council on the issue, challenging Tolbert, whose Ward 3 includes Highland Park and most of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Tolbert garnered almost 61 percent of voters’ top choice selections.

Supporters of the system, which included most of the DFL-endorsed City Council candidates, said it leveled the playing field from household-to-household in terms of bill costs and pickup schedules, as well as mitigate the number of garbage trucks on the streets each day. And though every council race included at least one ‘Vote No’ candidate, none of those candidates prevailed.

Attorney and Ward 3 city council candidate Patty Hartmann
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Attorney and Ward 3 City Council candidate Patty Hartmann: "It's a bad plan and I think it was emblematic of so many things that really ailed the city, bad leadership."
“I was told that the story of tonight was going to be about whether or not a small group of people was going to speak on behalf of what the whole city thinks,” Carter said, emphasizing the roughly 13,700-vote difference between supporters and opponents on the trash ballot measure. “What I heard was that tonight we would have a definitive declaration of what our city voters think about the direction St. Paul is moving in, and St. Paul voted ‘yes.’”

Tuesday night, donning pink signs and T-shirts, dozens of Mitra Jalali Nelson supporters and DFL activists gathered at the LGBTQ soccer bar near Allianz Field to celebrate the election. Nelson, who was first elected to the City Council in a special election last year, secured a full four-year term with more than 59 percent of first-choice votes (5,896), time in office she said she’ll use to lift up the voices that have been historically left out of conversations at City Hall.

Across the ballot, incumbents have made similar campaign statements to address the city’s widening disparities, especially around housing and economic inclusion, as well as highlighted long-term solutions to public safety amid a rash of gun violence that’s killed 28 people this year — all topics expected to be at the center of 2020 budget hearings in coming weeks. 

MinnPost reporter Greta Kaul also contributed to this story. 

Comments (39)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/06/2019 - 10:34 am.

    Great message, Mayor Carter. So now the trash haulers have a free pass to continue with their bad service. And the City Council won’t feel any need to do anything about it.

    I bet they’ve never failed to pick up the trash in front of your house just because it snowed . . . . . .

  2. Submitted by Tim Smith on 11/06/2019 - 10:54 am.

    The direction of the city? Trash pickup vs high crime and the worst roads ever?

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 11/06/2019 - 11:33 am.

      The is definitely room to grow. However, without a federal lead on effective gun laws, there are limited options currently available. Do you live in the city? What are your solutions?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/06/2019 - 11:53 am.

      Hmm, seems folks don’t agree. After all, politicians who think as you do continue to lose, again and again and again and again.

  3. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 11/06/2019 - 11:15 am.

    Let the gloating stop! If the roll out of the garbage change had been better executed this whole thing would not have gotten as far as it did. This was a vote against an increase in property taxes not an endorsement of any ‘direction’. Let’s get to fixing the darn roads now or the next election might not be so good for the mayor and those elected this year.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/06/2019 - 11:52 am.

      So what, they’ll only sweep by 8 points instead of 10? I wonder if anyone’s done a welfare check on Joe Soucheray?

    • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 11/06/2019 - 12:29 pm.

      I don’t agree it’s gloating to take pleasure in winning an election you worked hard to win. However, I agree that in four years voters will have the right to expect some results of the mayor and city council.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/06/2019 - 12:31 pm.

      My yes vote was an endorsement of the direction of the city under Mayor Carter. He’s gonna be mayor as long as he wants the job.

    • Submitted by cory johnson on 11/07/2019 - 11:42 am.

      You must be joking. The reason this kind of mismanagement and arrogant leadership occurs is precisely because of single party dominance. They know they don’t have to be accountable to voters. Carter would have to add 10 more cabinet level administrators and stop even pretending to control crime before he faced a primary challenger. Until then he can continue driving off the middle class families.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/07/2019 - 11:54 pm.

        Strange then, while such malfeasance is occurring, that conservatives can put forth nary an even marginal challenge. Seems the majority is doing quite well thank you very much.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/07/2019 - 08:06 am.

    “Tonight was a referendum on the direction of our city,” he said. “Well, let me tell you, that message was heard.”

    This is not the lesson to take away from the referendum, Mr. Carter. The lesson that should be learned is that the City must respect the right of the people to petition for redress, not by order of the Minnesota Supreme Court, but as a matter of course. You and the Council also should walk away from your victory knowing that public input should never be limited to how an action is implemented but whether to act at all.

    Your victory is tainted in a great many ways, ranging from your unwillingness to discuss the City’s options in the event of a NO vote, your unexplained threat that the City would have to resort to property taxes, the resort to a DFL endorsement in a non-partisan referendum closely tied to its endorsed candidates for the Council, and many other moves intended ot frighten and persuade a significant segment of the population to accept what they felt was a badly flawed system, in the hope that endorsing it would somehow magically bring change.

    You have lost my respect and my support in your next election. In the end, it seems, you are simply another party politician.

    • Submitted by Steve Subera on 11/07/2019 - 10:39 am.

      I agree with that sentiment. It also appears that after winning he felt the need to belittle the opposition by claiming that it was all a waste of his time. The no vote folks were the reason he couldn’t focus on income and social disparities:

      “Supporters of the current system, including Carter, said the vote marks a pivot in St. Paul politics; city leaders can now stop wasting time on the debate and shift their focus toward solving the city’s income and social disparities, he said.”

      I’m glad the mayor cleared up the reason why he couldn’t get anything important done. Everyone, please just go along with the mayor from now on and stop wasting his time by disagreeing with him.

      Income and social inequality are important. The city council could have prioritized other issues over rejecting the petition, knowing they were on shaky legal ground. The council and the mayor chose to waste time and money appealing the court’s decision to the supreme court.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/07/2019 - 11:07 am.

        Actually, the district court decision was so poorly written that they needed to appeal it. First, the appeal stayed the decision until after the election. Otherwise we would have had chaos for a couple of months until the voters came out and overwhelmingly rejected this nonsense. And while the Supreme Court came to the same result, it relied on a different rationale that ended undermining the whole point of the no campaign.

        And the idea that there was anything dubious about the idea that property taxes would have to pay the contract is nonsense. Mayor Carter told the truth. The No campaign did not. And the voters figured it out.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/07/2019 - 11:00 am.

      I’m afraid you’ve got it completely backwards.

      This election was a strong affirmation of the direction the mayor and the council have been taking, and a rejection of the backwards, NIMBY, boomer, oppose everything, dishonest and occasionally racist politics represented by the No campaign.

      The referendum was a blowout, and all the reps that voted in the garbage contract got re-elected easily. And one of the two “no” on the referendum members – Kasim Busari – got crushed and will be replaced by someone who vocally supported the yes side

      The election is two years away, by the reality is that Melvin Carter got re-elected as mayor last night. Your comment is just sour grapes.

    • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 11/08/2019 - 02:51 pm.

      Candidates who were for the new collection system won pretty much across St. Paul, often by 20 point margins. That in addition to the vote on the referendum make it crystal clear that St. Paul voters got what they wanted, and no amount of sour grapes is ever going to change.

      You live in a democracy. You don’t always get your way.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/07/2019 - 10:08 am.

    Forgive me for living in Minneapolis, where voter turnout seems fairly robust lately, but: Is it true that only 54,000 (Strib reported 56,000) people voted yesterday in St. Paul’s election of the entire city council and school board, plus that referendum?

    That’s abysmal. Unless the total population is something like 100,000. Which it isn’t.

    How doe we get people caring about their local government?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/07/2019 - 02:26 pm.

      Minneapolis was at 42 percent in 2017 for Mayor and council elections. This was just council and trash referendum and was 34 percent. In 2017 St. Paul was just under 40 percent turnout for mayor only.

      Don’t get too excited about Minneapolis.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/07/2019 - 04:26 pm.

      St. Paul should elect the mayor & city council in the same year, that would boost turn out.

      But then, a council member wishing to run for mayor would be required to give up a (likely) safe seat. So I guess we can’t do that.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/08/2019 - 07:40 am.

    The next sound you hear will be people voting with their feet. Actually, “escaping” would be a better description.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/08/2019 - 11:04 am.

      Weird, because thousands of people keep moving to St. Paul every year. Property values are going up and the population is growing.

      Maybe you are thinking of Republican-represented rural areas which are actually losing population.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/12/2019 - 08:14 am.

      Yeah, and here in SLP where we’ve had coordinated collection since the 1950’s we’re growing population like crazy cakes.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/09/2019 - 02:19 pm.

    I’m not one to promote civic isolation or inactivity but anyone who assumes that low turnout necessarily renders elections invalid may be quite mistaken. In any given election it possible if not probable that those who vote are actually a representative sample of the population at large. You may get some under-representation of certain demographic groups like people of color, but when you see results this lopsided in a city like St. Paul it’s probably safe to assume that the result isn’t contrary to a majority of voters wishes.

    I’m sure those who are stuck with coordinated garbage collection and some other policies are disappointed, but there’s not necessarily a reason to cry “foul” as far as the election is concerned.

  8. Submitted by Gordon Everest on 11/10/2019 - 02:02 pm.

    I would not consider the vote as a referendum on the “direction of St. Paul” and how they handled the change. From a broader perspective, it was the right decision, and I believe that’s what the voters said. It does not suggest that the way the city handled it was great, because it wasn’t. Locking us in to a 5 year contract was not a good idea, since it was a major change that would likely mean some adjustment in the future. Sounds like the haulers did a better job of negotiating the arrangement than the City. That could have been improved with more input from the citizens. St. Paul now has the difficult task of getting to a better outcome. I don’t buy the argument that some people shared garbage bins. Every household benefits from a clean city, roads not beat up by multiple garbage haulers traveling every day, an orderly process, etc. So every household should bear some of the cost, regardless of how much trash they generate. In fact, you can get a smaller, lower cost bin if you generate less, but the service should not be free to anyone.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/11/2019 - 11:16 am.

      I don’t think anyone on the Yes side thinks the system is perfect. Its a big change and the kinks need to be worked out. Its just that voting no actually would have made it harder to get concessions from the haulers.

      There was plenty of citizen input, and that actually produced a worse contract. People wanted to keep the small haulers around (and they sold out anyway) but if they had simply bid it out, the cost would have been much less.

      • Submitted by Steve Subera on 11/12/2019 - 01:07 pm.

        “There was plenty of citizen input, and that actually produced a worse contract.”

        That would be a sign that the city wasn’t very good at determining customer needs. I hope the city takes time to figure out what didn’t work and improves the process.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/13/2019 - 09:10 am.

          Actually consumer models simply don’t work in some situations. This is a public utility/policy scenario, not a retail scenario. The problem your working here isn’t just about consumer demand and customer satisfaction, it’s about efficiency and cost effectiveness.

          Consumerism isn’t necessarily rational. In scenarios like this consumerism can actually sabotage results by elevating “choice” of some kind above analysis. For instance the idea that the option to “choose” among a large number of vendors is the most important feature of a garbage collection system isn’t necessarily rational. Consider for instance an office where everyone chooses a different operating system for their computers. Some “like” MAC, others “like” Linux, etc. etc. Giving everyone a “choice” or simply having options isn’t necessarily the best idea.

          In this scenario it looks like the demand for “choices” simply for the sake of having choices resulted in an inefficient result. We can talk about “choices” the governance is about the method of making community choices. Here, the demand for individual home owner choices collided with the choices other cities leave to their city councils, mayors, or city managers.

          Organized collected is usually organized by the city, not individual home owners.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/13/2019 - 10:34 am.

            This exactly.

          • Submitted by Steve Subera on 11/13/2019 - 11:36 am.

            I re-read the original citizen survey and Russ Stark’s letter to the council that mentions the RFP. From this information, I believe that the city did not fully investigate St. Paul taxpayers needs around the choice of RFP/Consortium of Haulers. For example if the city had recognized that the big haulers might start buying out the small ones, that information for taxpayers would have been valuable.

            The city sent out a survey. They were attempting to figure out user needs. Just because this is a public project doesn’t mean the methods used are radically different or don’t apply. Customer needs analysis in the private sector are often biased by office politics, personal preferences of people in power, etc.

            I’m fine if the current contract doesn’t change. My point is that the city needs to look at the process it used and figure out what needs to change for future projects when they ask for taxpayer input.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/12/2019 - 08:22 am.

      Looked to me like a minority of resistors gummed up the process with demands for competition and choice. The system they got was a funky compromise with residents who were afraid of co-ordination for some reason. That can be refined moving forward.

      The argument seemed to be: “We don’t like the compromise we ended up with so let’s just scrap the whole program.” It’s didn’t sell. Clearly everyone isn’t as dissatisfied as some assumed they were.

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