Kassim Busuri walked into the St. Paul City Council meeting, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and took his seat alongside people who think he had no business being there.
Over the hour that followed, council members heard a presentation about refugee resettlement in Minnesota, approved a resolution honoring a small-business owner and heard appeals from property owners tagged for code violations. Every council member spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, except Busuri.
It was emblematic of the isolation that the interim council member has experienced since May, when he shook the seven-member body by announcing his candidacy for the Sixth Ward seat despite pledging that he would not.
Though he’s attended nearly every council meeting, his colleagues removed him from a work group and deleted his name from agendas. With the election less than two months away, he’s a distant third in fundraising behind Nelsie Yang and Terri Thao, who started campaigning last year.
Busuri’s fellow council members have publicly called for him to either resign his seat or drop out of the election. He said he will do neither. It’s left him the odd man out in a job that requires alliances — a hurdle that could be tough to overcome if he wins in November.
“I think he would have a lot of relationship building to do,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert. “Just like in life, both in governing and politics, your word is everything.”
Busuri said he didn’t take the interim position with the intention of running for office, but he decided to join the race after realizing the extent of the ward’s needs and hearing from constituents who wanted him to run. In an interview last week, he described what he views as “hatred” from some of his fellow council members but said he believes they can still work together.
“It’s just some of the childish things that happen in between that some think is OK to do — I believe it’s not OK to do,” Busuri said. “If we’re adults, we should be working together as adults.”
Shirley Erstad, who ran unsuccessfully for the Fourth Ward council seat last year and is Busuri’s campaign manager, said she thinks the pushback Busuri has faced from other council members is politically motivated — but even if he’s elected, she said, he may not have to work with them.
“If this were a special election and his was the only seat that was up for election, that would be one conversation,” Erstad said. “But because the entire council is up for election right now, we don’t know who he’s going to be working with at that table.”
Busuri, an educator and St. Paul’s first Somali-American council member, was one of seven finalists for the interim position. He replaced Council Member Dan Bostrom, who unexpectedly announced his retirement in December after more than 20 years representing the East Side ward.
Busuri said his top priorities for the ward are reducing crime, attracting investment and building a sense of community. But when Sixth Ward development projects go before the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) for approval, Busuri’s name no longer appears alongside them. And though he was chosen to serve on the council’s public safety work group, he was removed less than a week after announcing his candidacy.
Tolbert, who chairs the HRA, said in an interview Wednesday that he decided to remove Busuri’s name from agendas to avoid giving him an advantage in the election.
“It just seems very unfair for him to be able to use projects that he had no involvement in to boost his candidacy,” Tolbert said.
Six people filed to run for the Sixth Ward seat. Yang, a community organizer, and Thao, a former planning commissioner, are leading the pack in both fundraising and spending — since the beginning of the year, Yang has raised more than $80,000 and spent more than $50,000, and Thao has raised about $47,000 and spent about $45,000. Alexander Bourne, Greg Copeland and Danielle Swift are also running.
Busuri’s precarious position on the council could be a problem when it comes to getting things done on the East Side, including the planned development at the former Hillcrest Golf Club site, Thao said.
“If we’re trying to work on projects, it would be an uphill battle,” she said. “That would be a major, continued disappointment for the East Side.”
Yang, who announced her candidacy more than a year ago and has garnered endorsements from teacher and labor unions, said she thinks if Busuri is elected, he’ll struggle to work not just with other council members, but with constituents.
“If there is already so much distrust, I feel like it would really impact someone’s desire to actually want to take their issue or their concern to City Council,” she said.
Busuri has raised about $9,000 since joining the race and spent less than $5,000. His list of 21 donors — excluding a $99 donation he gave himself — includes downtown developer Jim Crockarell and former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. Crockarell declined to comment, and Durenberger could not be reached.
Retired St. Paul Police Sgt. Mark Ficcadenti donated $125 and has offered to volunteer for Busuri’s campaign, even though he lives in White Bear Lake. Ficcadenti did youth-engagement work alongside Busuri as a police liaison to St. Paul’s East African community and said he encouraged him to run for the council seat. He described Busuri as an “up-and-comer.”
“Every council, every legislative body, needs a check and a balance — and he will provide that, and he is providing that, despite some people’s best efforts,” Ficcadenti said. “If he holds on, he holds on, and if he doesn’t, he moves on.”