In St. Paul, four candidates are vying for the Ward 3 City Council seat: Saura Jost, Isaac Russell, Patty Hartmann and Troy Barksdale.
On the last Saturday in October, MinnPost spent parts of the day canvassing with both Russell and Jost, the two leading fundraisers in the race – and in-between door-knocks in the Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods, the candidates discussed their views on a range of policy and political issues.
Here are some select questions and answers from MinnPost’s conversations with both Russell and Jost, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why are you running?
Russell: I’m running because what stabilized me in life was a lot of what the (St. Paul) City Council delivers: public safety, parks, libraries.
I was born in St. Paul, but I bounced all around the east metro – I lived in 35 places by the time I was 15. You name the social service program, I’ve been on it. I’ve seen you know the results of violence, like people getting stabbed in my affordable housing complex, struggling in school because my family was struggling at home. There’s a lot of folks who operate on behalf of folks who are struggling – but I think sometimes, they don’t quite understand the needs of people in those positions.
When we moved in with my grandparents in White Bear Lake; that was transformational. I was in an area with less crime. We had good safe parks. We had good libraries. I could go down with my brother and sister and do those things. It was that sense of community. To go from where I was to where I’m at, a lot of it was City Council. I want to help folks with that.
Q: St. Paul voters instituted rent control in 2022, and the City Council later watered down the ordinance, creating exemptions for new construction. Where do you stand on the city’s current rent control ordinance? Does it need to be changed?
Russell: I would alter it by making the 20-year exemption on new construction, 30 years. We need to build more housing now, so I would double down on making sure we have the exemptions that we need to build the housing that we need. Ultimately, people who are rent burdened – they pay 30% more or more of their income in housing – controlling their rents doesn’t decrease the amount of their income that they’re paying.
People think that all of a sudden their rents are going to become more affordable relative to their income. And unless you increase their income or actually lower their rents, that’s not going to work. We need to add more housing stock. Most of Highland Bridge is not being built – and it’s because of rent control.
Q: What are your thoughts on the proposal to put a property tax increase on the 2024 ballot to cover child care costs?
Russell: I will not be voting in favor of the referendum. Childcare is an extraordinarily expensive thing. My wife and I have gotten around it by having grandma and grandpa babysit – but not a lot of people have that option. So I support investments in childcare.
That being said, the best place to house those investments would be at the county level. The city has never set this up, so we’d have to set up an entire new infrastructure. The programmatic elements of it haven’t been detailed. On top of that, the increases aren’t even going to raise the amount of revenue necessary to actually run the program. So I actually agree with Mayor Carter: this idea is not fully developed.
Q: Candidates Patty Hartmann and Troy Barksdale have both expressed reservations about St. Paul’s new zoning rules, which will allow triplexes on almost any residential lot in the city. However, the two top-fundraising candidates in Ward 3 – you and Jost – are both generally supportive of those regulations. Since Ward 3 has so many single-family homes, I’d expect more nervousness about the new rules in this ward.
Russell: I understand where some of that nervousness comes from. The one thing that I would criticize the city for is not doing a good job explaining what the implications of this are going to be for everyday folks.
This is a return to what housing was like before. I don’t think any advocates support a free for all when it comes to just building anything you want, on any lot you want, without any consideration of the ramifications.
In a city that has rent control, you need all options on the table. For zoning, those are very, very slow changes over time. Unfortunately, a lot of the projects just won’t pencil out for a lot of small-time local developers just because it’s difficult to maybe position enough units, or their lot coverage is limited to 45%. You still have height requirements, with depth setbacks, so it won’t be that free-for-all which I wouldn’t support. I do have some concern about teardowns, and I can absolutely understand where people are concerned about that. If I’m lucky enough to represent the ward and that turns out to be an issue, I absolutely have every intent to do whatever I can to prevent that.
But I’m also someone who truly believes we need to invest in wealth building opportunities for families, and part of that is building the housing that we need. When we have a third of our property not on the tax rolls, and we have significant challenges with our tax base, we need all options on the table.
Q: I have to ask you about the DFL convention in April.
Russell: I wanted you to.
Q: Why did you want me to ask about the convention? (After Jost made a very strong showing in an early round of voting, Russell conceded the party’s endorsement – and left the impression he would ‘abide by the party endorsement’: drop out and make way for Jost. He ultimately stayed in the race.)
Because I know it’s something that’s out there. If I had to go back and do it over again, I just would say no to abiding by the party’s endorsement.
Our goal with the speech was to say, okay, we don’t want to waste everyone’s time fighting this out over arcane, esoteric rule challenges that would probably just upset everyone. You figure, “What’s the way to do this with the most grace?” Especially when the writing was on the wall: “Congratulations, she had won the endorsement.”
I have significant concerns about a couple hundred people at the convention making a decision for 42,000 people about who the council member should be, in April, when nobody’s paying attention. It rewards people who organize at the precinct caucuses – organizations that organized, and were over-represented at the convention; Faith in Minnesota being one of them. Many people who left that convention saw that and told me, “This is exactly why we don’t like to participate.” This was all insider politics and the results were set going in. To have multiple people who were at the convention, and multiple people who weren’t, and even other elected officials – who I won’t name – say, “keep running,” says a lot.
Q: Sounds like you’ve been clued into politics for a while.
Jost: Yeah, running for City Council in St. Paul was something I always wanted to do, ever since high school. I was really involved in politics then. I went to St. Paul Central, and I started Central Young Democrats. The first campaign I worked on was John Kerry in 2004. We worked on Amy Klobuchar’s campaign. We worked on Chris Coleman’s campaign – I actually remember going to his inaugural ball, which was really cool.
Running for City Council is something I always thought about. But I started my career, moved around [to Seattle, for grad school] and it wasn’t until I really settled down again that I thought the timing was right.
Q: How do you think the politics of this city compare to your time in high school?
Jost: I feel like it’s different. I think this area, a long time ago, leaned Republican. Now, there’s still lots (kind of) moderate, conservative Democrats – but I think that’s definitely changed. There’s really a wide range of folks that live in the ward. When my parents moved in their seventies, they still had a lot of the same neighbors – but there’s a lot of young families who are around my age, in their thirties and forties.
In high school, I remember being really excited to even see women in politics. (Sen.) Amy Klobuchar running was such a big deal, and (Rep.) Betty McCollum was our congresswoman, but otherwise we didn’t have a lot of women representation. That’s one of the things that’s for sure changing – because we’re looking potentially at an all-woman City Council. It’s not just women, but women of color, and that’s across the city. The network of women – and especially women of color – in politics is very small. We all know each other and are supportive of each other. That’s part of why I was able to really step up and run, because there was that support system for women.
The other thing that’s really important to me is: I work as a civil engineer. I do mostly structural design. I work on wastewater treatment plant design and underground or lift stations. At my last company, I was working on a lot of projects at MSP Airport. I don’t know that we’ve ever had an engineer on the City Council – but that’s directly related to the job of being a council member.
Q: You mention the ward being less conservative than it used to be. I wonder if that trend affects the debate about legalizing ‘missing middle’ housing in the city. I’d expect a little more resistance to those new zoning rules in a place like Ward 3, where there are so many single-family homes. Do you think that the fact that you and Russell are the strongest fundraisers in this race is an indicator of something about the ward? Do you think people care?
Jost: People do care about it. There are folks in the world that are concerned that like eliminating single family zoning will lead a lot of density and a change in the character of the community.
But we need to get creative and find new ways to build housing that meets the needs of our communities. People want to live in multi-generational housing. People want us to provide affordable housing that isn’t just huge buildings. People can have an opportunity to share a yard. This is also a way to expand the property tax base, which is really important in St. Paul, because we have so much land that’s exempt.
I think there are a mix of folks that are concerned about it, but there do seem to be a lot of people that are on board – and it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time.
Q: Do you think progress on the Highland Bridge development at the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant site has changed how people view the issue?
Jost: This was the biggest thing that Chris Tolbert worked on; he spent almost all of his time working on that development. At first, there were lots of people really concerned about it. It was one of the biggest developments we’ve ever had – so there were lots of folks that wanted to know what was going to happen with it.
A lot of times what happens is once something gets built, they see how great it is – but it’s a process to get there when you’re not sure what it’s gonna look like. Whether it’s a big development or new 1-4 Unit housing rules, people worry that things are going to change too much and that they’re going to be left out of the process. So making sure that we are including folks in all of those decisions is super important.
Q: What do you think of the city’s current rent control ordinance? Does that need to be changed at all?
Jost: The rent stabilization policy that was amended last year just took effect in January. We had a 40-person working group advising on it; they advised significant changes. You also kind of knew this was going to happen, because the only way to bring about this type of ordinance was through the voters passing it on the ballot – so even when we voted on it, we knew that the City Council would revisit it in a year.
Right now, I want to see: What are the impacts of the modified policy? How is it impacting housing stability for renters? We only have like 10 months of data at this time – so I really look forward to looking at that and seeing what changes, if any, need to be made to the policy.
Some of those big changes like the construction exemption – how many properties does that actually exclude? I’ve heard different numbers from different people. What is going on with how exceptions and exemptions being applied for? How well is that process working? Are expectations understood between renters and property managers?
I am not committed to moving the policy in one way or the other, but I do want to make sure we are focused on the original plan of the policy, which is to provide stability for renters getting pushed out of their homes.
(Jost and fellow City Council candidates Anika Bowie, Mitra Jalali, Hwa Jeong Kim and Cheniqua Johnson all filed for the ballot on the same day – a coalition that could give St. Paul an all-woman council for the first time.)
Q: A lot of voters might associate you with the other candidates you’ve appeared beside in photos. Kim, on the Ward 5 ballot, has been outspoken about her desire to add more rent control limits. What would you say to voters who hear your position on rent control and think, “Well, for now, Jost is saying we should study the issue – but if she’s elected, she’ll go along with this group?”
Jost: I’m an engineer. The way I make decisions professionally, and the way I make decisions personally – this probably drives my partner crazy – is based on information, based on data, based on objective reasoning. How is this policy going to work? That is the way I approach everything. Even the rent stabilization policy – there’s tightening, and there’s loosening, but I don’t really even think about any policy as having only two directions. This is a complex issue with a lot of moving parts: rent, housing stability, affordable housing, housing supply.
I wouldn’t make any decision – for example, bringing the rent stabilization policy back to what the voters originally passed – without information to show that is something we should do to solve a particular problem.
The idea that I’m going to make some “irrational decision,” I don’t know where it’s coming from. I feel like it’s often said about women and women of color. I’m sure you saw, when the Star Tribune article came out about all women, and maybe all women of color on the City Council, there were tons of positive comments – but also comments online saying, “Oh, are they qualified?”
People have made a lot of assumptions about this group. We’re definitely not all the same. We’re not necessarily trying to become ideological necessarily. We all bring a very different expertise. The most important thing to us is that people who have been left out for a long time are included. When we elect more people from underrepresented groups, it helps everybody. I personally think it’s kind of a scare tactic.