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Carter wins historic victory in St. Paul; Frey leads in Minneapolis; challengers poised to shake up City Council

Winners in Minneapolis’ mayoral race — as well as the six most-contested city council elections — are expected to be announced by the end of Wednesday. 

Mayor-elect Melvin Carter celebrating with supporters Tuesday night at Union Depot in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

St. Paul made history Tuesday, electing the city’s first African-American mayor, an outcome that wasn’t as surprising in result as it was in speed.

With five major candidates in the race, most expected the result would come down to ranked-choice voting tabulations. But Melvin Carter, whose election night party was held in the same Union Depot where his grandfather once worked as a railroad porter, received just over 50 percent of the first-choice votes of St. Paul voters. It means that a race that was expected to be determined Saturday evening was over shortly after 10:30 p.m., when second-place finisher Pat Harris called and congratulated Carter.

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“This campaign started almost two years ago,” Carter said in his celebratory speech. “We started with a real simple question … in living rooms, in coffee shops in every corner of this city. We started off by asking people from every walk of life in St. Paul, ‘What is your vision for this city?’ And I’m really proud because we built what I’m excited to say is a big, bold, bad vision for the future of St. Paul.”

Carter related a story of someone who told him his problem was that he didn’t look mayoral enough, a reference to the pictures of all past mayors of St. Paul who were all white men. “What I told them him is, ‘That’s not my problem, that’s our problem,’” Carter said.

With his victory, he said, the voters made “a strong statement to every child born in this great, wonderful, vibrant city that you look like a mayor.”

More counting in Minneapolis

As Election Day came to a close, the results in Minneapolis were far less definitive, and ranked-choice voting will be needed to decide the city’s mayoral race — as well as six of the most-contested City Council elections.

The results released by Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis Tuesday night gave only each candidate’s first-place, second-place and third-place vote, offering plenty of fodder for Wednesday-morning quarterbacks. Tabulations to begin at noon today will be needed to see how the second and third choices of lower-placed candidates will be distributed.

What was clear is that incumbent Mayor Betsy Hodges has to get a lot of help in order to prevail in her re-election effort. Council Member Jacob Frey won a plurality of first-choice votes for mayor, with 25.05 percent, while former Hennepin Theatre Trust president Tom Hoch finished second with 19.32 percent. Hodges was third with 18.11 percent, while state Rep. Raymond Dehn was fourth with 17.24 percent and former Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds was fifth with 15.01 percent.

Once the votes of the other 11 candidates, who together took just 5.28 percent of the vote, are redistributed, the second and third place selections of Levy-Pounds and Dehn voters will be the next in line to determine if Frey, Hoch or Hodges can get a  majority. If not, the candidate who remains in third will be dropped and their votes redistributed.

Frey optimistic

On Tuesday night, Frey was tired but hopeful at his election night party at Jefe Urban Hacienda, a restaurant in his Ward 3. Usually not at a loss for words, Frey said, he admitted he had “hit a wall.”

“We’ve been working ourselves to the bone for the last year,” he said, holding a nearly empty glass of tequila. “It was a point of emotional emptiness. I was just done.”

But just after 10 p.m., Frey stood up on a bar in the center of the room to address the crowd, which had grown to around 100 people. He wouldn’t declare victory, but he said that things were looking pretty good.

“They said we were too young, too ambitious, not from here. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m 36 years old, I moved to this city because I love it, and I think a little bit of ambition could be pretty damn good for this city,” he said to cheers.

Council Member Jacob Frey addressing party attendees Tuesday night
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Council Member Jacob Frey addressing party attendees Tuesday night at Jefe.

He thanked the other candidates in the race, including current Mayor Betsy Hodges, who he said has been a “wonderful public servant.” But he said the city has become divided. 

“We have divisions between cops and communities; we’ve got division between businesses and activists; we’ve even got divisions on the DFL Party. Right now more than ever what we need are bridge builders. 

“We are not declaring victory right now, but what we are going to declare, regardless whether it’s me or it’s somebody else, is a new mentality where you’re not going to demonize people. Where we’re going to work together for the common good.”

Hodges: ‘The numbers don’t look great for me’

It was a far less upbeat scene at Hodges party, at the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant in the Longfellow neighborhood. When results from the first few precincts came in, showing Frey with a lead around 8:30, many in the room gathered around a screen that displayed results. Others turned their attention toward their smartphones.

One of them was Hodges supporter Terry Kilmartin, who lives near Uptown, and said he was hoping for another four years of Hodges for continuity’s sake, especially when it comes to the Minneapolis Police Department. Kilmartin, who ranked Hodges first followed by Ray Dehn and Nekima Levy-Pounds, was surprised to see Frey leading in the first round.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “He wasn’t my one, two or three.”

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges speaking to supporters as her husband Gary Cunningham looks on.

Around 9:30, with additional precincts reporting what seemed like more good news for Frey, Hodges’ supporters gathered near the podium and began to sing a rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” 

“The thing we know right now is that the numbers don’t look great for me,” Hodges said. “The other thing we know is we have ranked-choice voting. … This has been an incredible conversation. It’s not done, but it’s been an incredible conversation about who we are as a city and who we are as a people.”

Hoch ‘in a good position’; Levy-Pounds: ‘It’s still time for a change’

The mood was still buoyant at Tom Hoch’s campaign headquarters in Prospect Park around 10 p.m., with nearly all precincts reporting and results that put him in second place in terms of first-choice votes. “We know we aren’t going to get a final result until tomorrow and we feel like we’re in a good position,” Hoch campaign manager Kieran McCarney said.

Looking back on his campaign, Hoch said he was impressed by the show of support for someone who had never run for political office. “It’s just been humbling, the number of people who just pitch in and devote tons and tons of hours, just to help. It’s been really rewarding and heartwarming and gave me just lots of confidence in the future of our city,” Hoch said.

Nekima Levy-Pounds
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Nekima Levy-Pounds monitoring results at her gathering in North Minneapolis.

Right after polls closed at 8 p.m. there was already a packed house at Nekima Levy-Pounds’ campaign headquarters on Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis. Levy-Pounds, carrying her daughter Assata, who was born during the campaign, talked with supporters and watched results roll in on her phone. She addressed her supporters early, hitting on many of the key themes of her campaign, which was launched in the wake of the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police.

“I don’t think that people understand what it takes to run for political office as a woman of color in a racially hostile environment that does not want to hear the truth when you are a bold, beautiful, uncompromising black woman,” Levy-Pounds said.

Tom Hoch
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Tom Hoch speaking to a supporter at his Tuesday night party at his campaign headquarters in Prospect Park.

She said people like former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton paved the way for candidates of color. “The door was cracked open a little bit, but we had to karate kick that door open even more,” she said. “People don’t understand the pressure you go through when people are constantly trying to tell you to whitewash your message, to tone it down, or people don’t want to hear about police brutality and they don’t want to hear about racism.”

“Whether we are in City Hall or not, it’s still time for a change,” she said. “And if I’m not the next mayor, I feel bad for the next mayor because they’re going to have to contend with the girl that’s on fire and with a community that is mobilized to fight for justice and for truth and for equity for every single person in this city.”

Minneapolis council: Jenkins makes history, several incumbents face uphill battles

Minneapolis also made history Tuesday, electing the city’s first transgender council member: Andrea Jenkins in an open Ward 8.

All 13 council seats were on the ballot on Tuesday, and while most candidates were affiliated with the DFL, the election in many wards broke down to a contest between wings of the party — relatively moderate incumbents and relatively left-leaning challengers.

Unofficial election night winners — candidates with more than 50 percent of first-choice ballots — were Cam Gordon in Ward 2, who ran unopposed; Ward 7 incumbent Lisa Goodman, who defeated challenger Janne Flisrand; incumbent Lisa Bender in Ward 10; incumbent Andrew Johnson in Ward 12; and incumbent Linea Palmisano in Ward 13.

In Ward 6, incumbent Abdi Warsame appeared to have just over 50 percent of first-choice votes, but the city had not yet declared him an unofficial winner over challengers Mohamud Noor and Fadumo Yusuf.

Five other incumbents lacked a 50 percent majority of first-choice ballots, and will have to see if ranked-choice voting tabulations push them to a win. And in several races, the challengers might be more likely to prevail. Incumbents in that precarious spot are Barbara Johnson in Ward 4, John Quincy in Ward 11, Blong Yang in Ward 5, and Alondra Cano in Ward 9.

In Ward 5, Yang is trailing challenger Jeremiah Ellison. And in Ward 11, Quincy is trailing Jeremy Schroeder.

In Ward 1, Kevin Reich is in somewhat better position against challenger Jillia Pessenda. Reich is leading with 46 percent to Pessenda’s 44 percent, with independent candidate John Hayden’s voters likely to make the difference.

The most intriguing results might be in Ward 3, where Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen is leading a group of four candidates to replace Frey. The DFL endorsed candidate, Steven Fletcher, is second, and business-supported candidate Tim Bildsoe is a close third, with Green Party candidate Samantha Pree-Stinson in fourth. While those who put Pree-Stinson first on their ballot might be expected to split their second and third choice votes among the top three, it is unlikely Bildsoe’s voters would be inclined to support Jentzen.  

An early night in St. Paul

St. Paul initially outdid its sibling in campaign drama, first with the investigation of mayoral candidate and Council Member Dai Thao for allegedly linking a requested campaign contribution to a pending vote on the council, and then with a late-campaign mailer against Carter.

Thao was investigated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, but the Scott County attorney — which took on the case after Ramsey County recused itself — decided not to charge him with a crime.

The mailing against Carter — sponsored by an independent expenditure campaign funded by the St. Paul Police Federation and the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce — suggested that guns stolen during an August burglary of Carter’s home were contributing to a surge in shootings.

The mailing was so over-the-top that the group disbanded, after apologies from leaders of the police union and the chamber. As political scandals go, it was at least efficient, with a life-span of just four days. But there were repercussions, from the lingering effects of the mailing itself to the dissolution of the independent committee, which was pro-Harris, with $40,000 left unspent.

“You might not have heard about this, but we even had a burglary in our family home,” Carter joked Tuesday night. “If it wasn’t clear before, a couple of weeks ago this campaign became about who we are. It became about what kind of politics we’ll accept here in St. Paul and what kind of legacy we’ll build for our children. It’s our job to answer that question today.”

Halfway through Carter’s speech, incumbent Mayor Chris Coleman entered the room and stood with the group of Carter family members and supporters.

“I had a lot of friends in this race, but it is exciting to get to a point where we have the first African-American mayor so, as Melvin said, every child born in St. Paul can say I look like a  mayor,” Coleman said. “This is a nice victory for the inclusion we’ve been trying to accomplish in St. Paul.” 

Harris finished second, though it was a distant second, with just 24.8 percent of the vote. Thao was third with 12.3 percent, Elizabeth Dickinson was fourth at 4.75 percent and Tom Goldstein was fifth at 3.84 percent. Dickinson is a Green Party member, the others are all DFLers.

Now what?

Minneapolis elections officials expect to spend Wednesday morning cleaning up the data they received from Hennepin County and getting ready for the final tabulations, which are expected to begin at noon. Two teams of tabulators will work side by side, starting with the mayor’s race and Ward 3, and then moving through the rest of the council races based on a random drawing.

The order of the count will be: 9th Ward, the 5th, the 10th, the 11th, the 4th, the 7th, the 8th, the 1st, the 6th, the 13th and the 12th.

Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl said he expects to have the mayor’s results by the end of the business day Wednesday. That timeline, compared to a three-day count in 2013 and a 15-day count in 2009, is based on an ordinance change that allows what is called “batch elimination,” which allows the tabulators to eliminate candidates who have no mathematical chance of winning. While he was initially more optimistic about other races – even thinking they could be finished Wednesday as well, Carl now says Thursday is the target with some chance that counting could spill over to Friday, with is the day city workers commemorate Veterans Day.

Ramsey County Elections manager Joe Mansky has said his staff won’t start tabulating the ranked-choice voting ballots until Thursday morning, and may not finish until the end of day Saturday. With Carter’s big win, however, that is less important.

While it has never happened in a Minnesota RCV election, it is possible for a candidate who trailed on election night to come back and win. That’s what happened when Jean Quan was elected mayor in Oakland, California in 2010, said Corey Cook, the dean of the Boise State University School of Public Service.

In that race, former State Senate President Don Perata received 40,224 first-choice votes, which left him 16 percentage points short of victory. Quan received 29,206 first-choice votes. But as lower-vote candidates dropped out, Quan received 24,572 second and third-choice votes, closing the gap. Quan ultimately won with 51 percent of votes to Perata’s 49 percent, a 2,058-vote margin.

“After the Quan race, a lot of people (wondered) ‘What happened? Did she game the system?’” Cook said. “She didn’t game the system; she was preferred. There’s no math that helps her win, the system didn’t help her win, it was the underlying voter preferences.

“If you have two candidates relatively close together, and again, the race is well-defined, the person who has the second number of first place votes can win by winning second (and third) place votes,” he said.

Could something like this — where the first-round frontrunner doesn’t ultimately win — happen in Minneapolis and St. Paul? 

“That could very well happen,” Cook said, though it’s unlikely.  “It’s very uncommon, because you have to have sort of a uniquely polarizing frontrunner,” he said. “Typically you see the person who gets the most first-place votes also gets the most second-place votes. In almost every case, the leading candidate increases the margin in subsequent rounds of voting.”