St. Paul voters will face something unfamiliar when they cast ballots this year — a wide-open mayor’s race.
When Chris Coleman announced late last year that he would not seek a fourth term — something that had been anticipated for some time — it meant the city would not have an incumbent on the ballot for the first time since 2001. Ten candidates have taken advantage of that opening, and five are campaigning full time to lead the capital city.
Among those candidates, two are fourth-generation St. Paulites who seem as though they’ve had their eye on the office for years; one came as a political refugee from Laos; and two others moved to the city as adults. Here is a look at the contenders and the issues at play in the race:
Melvin Carter III
One of the candidates at it the longest is also the youngest. Melvin Carter III is 38 years old and currently works as the executive director of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet, a job he took after serving a term and a half on the St. Paul City Council. Carter also served as an adviser to Dayton during the protests that began after the police shooting of Philando Castile.
The only major candidate to have attended St. Paul Public Schools (he graduated from Central High), Carter describes himself as a son of Rondo, the historically African-American neighborhood that was carved up by the 1960s construction of Interstate 94. It was there that his family has lived for generations, and Carter often speaks of how his family and his race gives him a unique outlook on policing and community trust.
“I’m the son of a police officer … and I’m also someone who knows what it feels like to be pulled over for Driving While Black or for being in the wrong neighborhood or by just running down the street,” Carter said at a recent candidate forum.
“I’m running for mayor to build a city that works for all of us, that starts with schools that work for all of our children, a local economy that works for all of our families and also public services — from the way we plow our snow to the way we police our neighborhoods.”
As a council member, Carter worked to pressure the Met Council and the federal government to add stops on the Green Line that served lower-income neighborhoods. He also was instrumental in crafting the Promise Neighborhoods program, which focuses extra educational and outreach efforts on low-income areas of the city. Among mayoral candidates, Carter has made the strongest statement in favor of City Council plans to redevelop the Ford site, including endorsing the density, height allowances and employment targets some neighbors have protested against.
The person who replaced Carter as the council member in Ward 1 is Dai Thao, 41, who won a special election in 2013 before winning a full term on the council from his Frogtown base in 2015. An IT consultant and organizer for ISAIAH and Take Action Minnesota before winning his seat, Thao also serves as the St. Paul council’s representative on the St. Paul Port Authority.
Thao, who came to the United States from Laos in 1983 at age 8, part of the migration of Hmong people from Laos following the Vietnam War, has made his refugee experience a major part of his campaign narrative, speaking often of losing siblings in refugee camps and experiencing poverty and hunger after finally getting to St. Paul.
“I don’t want to squander this opportunity that America has given me,” he said. “I want to thank you for investing in the Hmong-American community. I am the product of that investment, of your love.”
Just as the city DFL was selecting delegates who would try to endorse a candidate (none reached the 60 percent majority required), Thao was rocked by accusations that he had requested a campaign donation from a lobbyist in exchange for reconsidering his stance on restricting disposable food containers. He fired his campaign manager after news of the allegation surfaced, but later denied the charge, calling it the result of dirty tricks by powerful interests who didn’t like his fight for “regular people.” After a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation, prosecutors from Scott County — who were given the case after Ramsey County declared it had a conflict of interest — decided not to file charges.
Thao now says the episode, while painful, made him stronger. “Through that whole ordeal my family, especially me, grew spiritually. I feel like I grew five inches taller,” he told residents of Episcopal Homes last month. And he said he now forgives those who accused him, “because we have to learn to forgive each other.”
This will be Elizabeth Dickinson’s second run for mayor, having run against then-incumbent Randy Kelly and Chris Coleman in 2005, when the Green Party-endorsed Dickinson won 19.5 percent of the vote.
Dickinson, 57, a Massachusetts native who lives in the Riverview neighborhood, has been a community affairs manager for the MN AIDS Project, worked on the smoking ban for the Association of Non-smokers and has also lobbied for higher educational standards with the National PTA. Currently, she works as a life coach, writer, speaker and landlord, and is again endorsed by the Green Party.
“My commitment to the city is for economic justice, social justice and environmental justice,” Dickinson said. Her main issues are the $15 minimum wage, energy and the environment. She has proposed that city government work to create or bring in more solar energy firms, a growing industry that has the potential to train and employ struggling residents.
“We have a poverty problem in St. Paul,” Dickinson said. “Approximately a quarter of our population lives in poverty, and if we phase in the $15 minimum wage it will lift 67,000 individuals in St. Paul out of poverty.”
Should Carter or Thao win, they would be the first person of color to be mayor of the city. Should Dickinson win, she would be the first woman mayor in the city’s 159-year history.
Tom Goldstein is a fixture in St. Paul politics, though more as an activist than as an elected official. He served one term on the St. Paul school board and ran for City Council in 2015 but he is more familiar as an opponent of projects such as the Lowertown ballpark and the MLS stadium, which he says serve wealthy sports owners more than regular residents.
“Would you rather have a soccer stadium in your neighborhood or soccer fields your kids can play on and rec centers open for your families?” he asked at the Ward 1 DFL convention in April.
Goldstein, 60, grew up in Maryland and came to Minnesota to attend college. He now lives in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood not far from where the soccer stadium is currently under construction. At campaign appearances, it doesn’t take Goldstein long to tie many of the issues of the campaign to what he called “an ill-placed use of funds” for stadiums.
The budget problems caused by the state Supreme Court’s invalidation of the city right-of-way assessments, for example, would be eased had the city not spent money on stadiums and the renovations to the Palace Theater, he says. And social problems that contribute to crime could use those resources as well.
Goldstein also has been outspoken about the city’s use of tax increment financing, which he says benefits private development and deprives the city government of revenue it needs for other problems. Goldstein had advocated for a program to give all St. Paul residents high-speed internet access.
Pat Harris is the other St. Paul native among the leading candidates. A resident of the Highland Park neighborhood, he served three terms on the city council, representing Ward 3 and is currently a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. He is a public finance banker for BMO Harris Bank, working on municipal finance for governments and school districts.
Harris, 51, is also something of a super volunteer, serving on boards as diverse as Friends of the St. Paul Library, Catholic Charities, the Minnesota Jewish Theater and the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation. He is a founder of Serving Our Troops, which raises money and recruits volunteers to serve steak dinners to state National Guard troops and their families while they are deployed.
Harris describes himself as a St. Paul guy who has been active in politics, social services, volunteer organizations and religious groups since returned from college out of state.
“I spent 12 years on the St. Paul City Council where I was a leader on the budget, on affordable housing, on our libraries and so many other things,” Harris said this week. He also cites his work as a banker helping schools and local governments borrow money for construction projects as an asset.
Gun violence and policing
Harris appears to be filling the role of front-runner, whether he likes it or not. And in ranked-choice voting elections, frontrunners, like incumbents, can become targets. Evidence of that came last week when Harris took heat from several other candidates at a forum sponsored by several Downtown and Lowertown organizations. His plan for adding 50 police officers to combat growing gun violence — announced that morning — was criticised by Carter, Dickinson, Goldstein and, to a lesser extent, Thao.
Harris said he was responding to increased gun violence in the city, where there have been 17 homicides and a 40 percent increase in reports of shots fired. His proposal also would create a joint gun-crimes prosecution unit; hire a community violence prevention coordinator; and work with community and faith leaders to create a gun violence youth ambassadors, modeled on the downtown Community Ambassadors program.
Carter said the plan addresses the wrong problem. “The issues around trust might be bigger than you think,” he said, relating that when his house was broken into over the summer his neighbor called him — not the police — because the neighbor didn’t trust law enforcement.
“We’ve bought in for too long to this notion that building safe neighborhoods is just about more police, tougher prosecution and bigger jails,” Carter said. “We have proven that that doesn’t work.” He said his public safety strategy starts with schools and libraries and rec centers.
Dickinson called Harris’s plan “reactive rather than preventive.” She called for more outreach to and intervention with gang members, and, like other candidates, called for additional training in de-escalation and dealing with people having mental health crises.
Goldstein said he would rather hire 50 mental health and social workers than 50 police officers.
What other differences are there? Carter and Dickinson are most unequivocal in their support for a $15 minimum wage ordinance, something adopted in Minneapolis but not yet introduced in St. Paul. Said Carter: “We can’t be the type of city where people who work full time are stuck living in poverty,” and he repeated his opposition to a tip credit.
Harris, Thao and Goldstein endorsed the concept but expressed concerns about its impact on small and startup businesses. Harris said the city could look at reductions in license fees or a longer phase-in for small businesses.
“Last fall the city passed a safe and sick time ordinance which I supported immensely,” Harris said. “But only a month later they raised license fees on bars and restaurants and I don’t know how you treat businesses like that. You have to help them on the back end if you’re going to ask them to do something on the front end.”
Goldstein said the initial targets for a higher wage should be “large corporations and Fortune 500 Companies” that have the resources. And Thao said everyone supports higher wages but said the city can’t use the same model for small businesses and large businesses.
At the Lowertown forum, the candidates also mixed it up over the city’s role in the construction of both CHS Field and the new MLS stadium for Minnesota United. While Goldstein frequently expresses his doubts about the utility of investments in big projects, he directed them at Harris and Thao by name at the Lowertown forum.
“Mr. Carter voted to break the bank when it came to the Saints ballpark and Mr. Thao voted to break the bank when it came to the soccer stadium,” Goldstein said. “When we do these deals we need to actually get something for the community other than some business for bars and restaurants.”
Thao defended his support for the project, saying the Midway Shopping Center and former Met Transit bus barn were underdeveloped or undeveloped for a long time. The stadium will be privately funded, he said, and could bring other development and employment to his ward. The city is paying for streets and infrastructure through the large parcel, work that would have been needed regardless of new uses of the site.
“I think sometimes we take for granted these opportunities because either we are privileged or we don’t understand how difficult it is to travel to find a good-paying job,” Thao said.
Carter also supports the stadium. “I’m excited to bring the world’s game to one of our state’s most diverse communities,” Carter said.
Harris said the soccer stadium project will be transformative for the neighborhood, while Dickinson questioned the use of TIF funding because she thinks it would be redeveloped regardless of TIF help.
St. Paul uses ranked choice voting and voters can rank up to six candidates. So what does a voter do who has you’ve already used five of their rankings and don’t want to leave that sixth unused? Tim Holden ran against Coleman in 2013 as a business-oriented independent. Chris Holbrook was the Libertarian Party candidate for governor in 2014 who is critical of increased city property taxes, regulation of business and opposed to any city minimum wage. There’s also Trahern Crews, a civil rights activist who describes himself as “the poor people’s candidate,” and Barnabas Joshua Yshua, a homeless man who says he is answering a call from God to run. Finally, there’s Sharon Anderson, who is well into the definition of “perennial candidate,” having run for mayor three times, City Council once, state Senate twice and state attorney general twice.