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.
“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.