St. Paul mayoral candidates use final debate to highlight differences

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
St. Paul mayor candidates at a recent forum from left to right: Melvin Carter, Elizabeth Dickinson, Tom Goldstein, Pat Harris and Dai Thao.

During one of the last times they’ll appear together before Tuesday’s election, the top five candidates for mayor of St. Paul attempted to close the deal. But rather than using the live forum broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio to broadly appeal for votes from across the city — and from across the political spectrum —  the candidates drew bright lines.

Dai Thao pushed his call for economic justice and reforms of an economic system that is stacked against the poor.  

Melvin Carter claimed two issues as his own: He hit hard on his call for reforms of police culture and “systemic racism,” not only in the police department but in other institutions. But he also was the strongest supporter of the city’s plan for the former Ford site and for a streetcar line that would run along West 7th Street.

Tom Goldstein returned to the theme of economic populism, arguing that St. Paul is too quick to help sports owners and developers and not quick enough to help regular people.

Pat Harris seemed to want to show himself as the moderate, safe choice, tempering a call for growing the city with concerns for those worried about the effects of development on their neighborhoods.

Elizabeth Dickinson, the only non-DFL candidate among the top 5, stayed mostly above the fray, sticking to her themes of environmental and economic justice, clean energy and inclusive governance.

The forum, coming just five days before election day, was moderated by MPR host Tom Weber and provided one of the largest audiences for a mayoral debate.

“I thought America would be paradise,” said Thao, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos. “But when we got here we were discriminated against; the poor and the working class were pitted against each other. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with poor or middle class people. It’s that there’s something wrong with the system — and that system hasn’t changed.”

Said Goldstein:  “I’m someone who is not part of the status quo.” And after quoting the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who often said “We all do better when we all do better,” Goldstein said that isn’t the case in St. Paul.

“If you own a baseball team or you’re a music promoter or you want to build a soccer stadium or a new practice facility for your hockey team or you’re a wealthy developer, you’re doing better because there’s been millions of dollars in subsidies available to you,” Goldstein said. “But when it comes to the rest of the community, you pretty much have to figure out how to do it on your own.”

Cops and controversy

Carter has been the target of the campaign’s biggest controversy: a 3rd party mailing that attempted to link the theft of guns from his home to increased gun violence in the city. The piece was condemned by just about everyone, led to the dissolution of the group that sent it and caused the police federation (which helped pay for the mailer) to stand down from the rest of the campaign.

But when asked about it by Weber, Carter tied the episode to the bigger issue of police-community relations, especially the St. Paul Police Department’s relationship with the city’s communities of color. “I think the important thing to know about this is it’s not a feud between me and the police federation,” Carter said. “This comes in the shadow of me saying we need to change the underlying social contract between our police department and people all over our city.”

Carter said the only difference between what happened to him and what happens to others in the city is that he is a public person and the matter was publicized. “It’s a reflection of the systemic racism that’s built into not just how we police but into institutional St. Paul all across the board.”

Gun violence is an issue in many neighborhoods, and Harris has proposed adding 50 more police officers over the next four years — one plank in an agenda to address a rise in shots-fired and homicides in the city. He said Thursday that additional police officers would be supplemented by hiring a community violence coordinator, who would work with community and religious leaders to combat gun violence; and by creating youth ambassadors to work with young people prone to using guns.

“I’ve been criticized for this and I disagree,” Harris said of his proposal for more cops.

Dickinson, who is Green Party endorsed, has often been the adult in the room, counted on to summarize issues without turning them into a political talking points. One example came during a discussion of the campaign hit piece on Carter, which was paid for not only by the police federation but by the fire union and the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, among others.

“In my opinion, it was a desperately unwise move on the part of the police federation and the people who contributed to it,” she said. “And frankly, it’s a distraction from an issue-based campaign, which this has been up until now. I was sorry for its effect on Melvin Carter and on Pat Harris and I’m really hoping we can move on.”

Development and transit

Carter also distinguished himself from Harris and Thao on two development controversies — in ways that will appeal to a younger demographic in the city, one that supports increased density for reason of sustainability, retail and restaurant development and transit use. Carter emphatically endorsed the city-council approved plan for the 135-acre Ford site, while Thao voted against it on council and Harris condemned it for its density and potential impact on nearby neighborhoods.

Carter’s support — and his defense of the 10-year-long public process that led to the plan (“the process is older than my 4th grader”) — is not without risk. The neighborhoods involved are some of the wealthiest in the city, and many residents are threatening litigation and proposing a ballot measure that would put the plan to a citywide vote. Thao said the plan benefits “big-profit companies” and is designed to maximize profits at the expense of neighbors. Harris increased the intensity of his previously stated opposition, arguing that the financial studies used by the city are flawed and that it is a mistake to do the zoning plan before a developer is on board and has a proposal.

But Carter said the city needs to expand its tax, housing and jobs base to respond to a growing population. “It’s beyond me that we can logically come to the conclusion that we should limit the amount of housing that we should build at the Ford site,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making the most of that opportunity.” Goldstein was opposed to the plan even before Harris and Thao. Dickinson, while generally supportive of the Ford site plan — especially for environmental reasons — said there will be many opportunities for public participation before a development plan is approved by the city.

On how (and whether) to build a mass transit line from downtown to the airport via West 7th Streets — the Riverview Corridor — Harris said he much-prefers modern streetcars over light rail trains because they can share traffic lanes with cars and will be less disruptive to businesses on West 7th. He even suggested that the streetcars are misnamed, that they should be called “ultra” light rail. Thao said he supports transit in general but worried about the impacts on business, fearing similar damage as occurred on University Avenue during construction of the Green Line.

But it was Carter who gave the most-forceful defense of the streetcar proposal. “I’m excited to advocate for streetcars along West 7th,” he said.

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