There’s going to be at least one new member sitting around the massive City Council table in St. Paul City Hall next year, although thanks to the new process of ranked choice voting, we proably won’t know for sure who it is until six days after the Nov. 8 election.
Incumbent Pat Harris in Ward 3 isn’t seeking re-election, and four candidates are vying to replace him. That means for the first time since 1994 there won’t be a gentleman named Harris sitting in the Ward 3 seat at the table. Pat Harris took office in 2000, replacing his brother, Mike, who had stepped down after six years on the job.
One other thing is certain in next week’s election: There won’t be any changes in Ward 7 on the East Side because Kathy Lantry, the current council president, is running unopposed.
But with an expected low turnout and the uncertainty of ranked voting, who knows what changes might come out of the election, where four-year terms for all seven seats are on the ballot?
This is the first year the city is using the ranked voting method, where voters can select their first, second and third choices, or more, depending on the number of candidates in the running. The method will be used only for the City Council races, not for electing four members of the St. Paul School Board. (Minneapolis used the system, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, in its 2009 city elections.)
In cases where there’s a majority winner on the first-choice ballots in St. Paul, the results will be known Election Night.
If there’s not a majority on the first round, the countdown process will be conducted by election judges, in a public setting, on Monday, Nov. 14.
Election night parties
We should know the results of four races on Election Night:
- In Ward 4, where incumbent Russ Stark faces Curtis Stock;
- In Ward 5, where incumbent Lee Helgen is running against Amy Brendmoen;
- In Ward 6, where Dan Bostrom faces Bee Kevin Xiong,
- In Lantry’s Ward 7.
The outcome of the other three races, I’m betting, will be decided in the ranked voting run-off.
In Ward 1, incumbent Melvin Carter III faces four challengers: Johnny Howard, Anthony J. Fernandez and James Michael McEiver.
Dave Thune, the longtime incumbent in Ward 2, faces a tough re-election contest with four challengers: perennial candidate Sharon Anderson, Jim Ivey, Bill Hosko and Cynthia Schanno.
The highest turnout of all, though, should be in Ward 3, which includes Highland Park and the city’s southwest corner. With Harris stepping down after 12 years to spend more time with his family, there’s much interest in who will begin the district’s Non-Harris Era.
While it’s billed by many as a race of civic experience versus youthful energy, it’s kind of funny that the youthful one has the support of the old-line establishment.
Chris Tolbert, a 28-year-old assistant Hennepin County attorney, has the DFL endorsement plus support from Mayor Chris Coleman and the outgoing Harris, as well as the police and fire unions.
Veteran downtown developer John Mannillo is running as a relative outsider, even though he’s been appointed to councils and task forces by every mayor going back to George Latimer in the 1970s and ’80s. He also ran for mayor once, 18 years ago. He is blunt and outspoken, and while he jokes that he’s been paying taxes longer than some of his opponents have been alive, he’s also been working on city issues and been active in the process, offending some people, that long, too.
Mannillo is treating his lack of major endorsements from the party and the mayor as badges of honor, even though he did work hard trying to get the DFL nod, and then made some efforts to challenge Tolbert’s endorsement.
Now he says he’ll “go in with his hands clean, not owing anything to special interests.”
And, he said, “Every time the mayor does a promotion for Tolbert, I get calls for lawn signs.” It’s not so good, he said, for the council to be too cozy with the mayor, especially in St. Paul’s strong mayor system.
With the Ford plant, which is in the ward, closing next month, there’ll be a long line of redevelopment decisions for the city, Mannillo said, and they shouldn’t be handled by beginners. “The Ford plant will have the biggest impact on the city in years, maybe the biggest single development since the railroads. We need experience.”
He’s also touting a plan to cap property tax levels for those over 65 to keep rising taxes from forcing older homeowners to move.
Stein ran for school board in the 1990s and for the council seat twice, but she lists a fair amount of civic experience: Neighborhood Task Force on the Ford Plant, the St. Paul Airport Noise Coalition, the Highland Area Community Council, the Ayd Mill Road Task Force, the Citizens Long Range Space Planning Committee of the St. Paul Public Schools and the Neighborhood Recreation Alliance.
Slinger’s experience is less; he says he’s “been active in the political process for several years, working on campaigns, getting involved in student politics, advocating at the Capitol and giving a voice to an underrepresented populace.”
But Mannillo’s slings about inexperience are clearly aimed at Tolbert, who, with the endorsements piled high, has to be considered the front runner.
Tolbert, too, says property taxes are highest on voters’ list of concerns.
“From business owners to residents to labor to community leaders, they all agree we have to have an honest conversation about what city services we value, and how to fund them,” Tolbert said.
And he’s figured out one of St. Paul’s big concerns: so much tax-exempt property, with colleges, churches, schools and government buildings all off the property tax rolls. “We’ve got to look at potential alternative revenue, like right-of-way assessment.”
Mannillo wonders if the ranked voting system might work in his favor, if supporters of Stein and Slinger are feeling anti-establishment and choose him as their second choice. Then the second round of counting could go in his favor, he said.
Or, I suppose, his supporters could list Stein as second choice and it would go another way.
So many possible permutations; it will be interesting.
Lantry or write-in?
Without the stress of a contested election, you’d think Kathy Lantry would be calm and relaxed. I think she is, even though she joked: “You’d be surprised; I keep thinking there’s going to be a big write-in campaign.”
Lantry, guaranteed to win a fifth term, said there’s been other cases in recent years where council members went unchallenged; Dan Bostrom in two previous elections and former Council Member Jay Benanav once.
This time, she gets the free pass.
“I’d like to think it’s because people are satisfied. I think I’m good at it, and I love what I do. People know that even if we disagree, we can chat, and I seldom take a vote that I can’t defend,” she said.
She said she’s “one of those odd people who enjoy the budget [process]. It’s the main thing we are tasked with doing, and I take it very seriously.”
Interestingly, Lantry told me she always liked running in primary elections, which are no longer needed with the ranked voting system.
“I loved the primaries. It told me where my strengths and weaknesses were, so I knew where to work harder. There was a lot of good information,” she said.
But the primaries are no more, and the ranked voting results will bring some sort of new alliances and coalitions to the new council, she said. Such budget issues as library hours and fire department overtime are among the things Lantry expects the new council to haggle over with the mayor.
But city politics, at least in St. Paul where almost every elected politician is liberal, usually don’t suffer from the same gridlock of partisan politics that we see at the Legislature and in Washington.
“It’s issue-based, and coalitions change all the time,” Lantry said. “And we’re more respectfu l— even when we disagree, we do it politely. Dealing with the same seven people all the time, you never know when you’ll need them in your corner.”