A fresh-faced cast of candidates — many of them young and driven by neighborhood quality-of-life and development issues — is ushering in a potentially historic political year in St. Paul, opening the door to the kind of generational quake that shook Minneapolis City Hall two years ago.
At least a dozen first-time candidates are running for the seven City Council seats, including several women considered among the favorites in their respective races and the first Somali believed to stand for city office in St. Paul.
“St. Paul has been frozen in time for a while, and at some point the politics were going to catch up with the demographics,” said David Schultz, a political-science professor at Hamline University.
“This could be the election where it starts to shift.”
To be sure, not everything is changing in a city long considered a Democratic stronghold. All but three of the candidates are DFLers who plan to seek the party’s endorsement when caucuses and ward conventions are held next month.
That means the makeup of the City Council field will be largely shaped in the coming weeks, even though candidates may file to get into the race as late as mid-August.
With ranked-choice voting taking the place of primary elections, some DFL candidates say they may stay in the hunt even if they don’t get the party endorsement.
But with City Council stalwarts Dave Thune and Kathy Lantry deciding not to run for re-election this year, only Dan Bostrom will remain from the 1990s when Norm Coleman was mayor — if Bostrom, 74, a six-term incumbent, defeats his younger opponent.
In the two wards with open seats, eight of the 10 declared candidates are first-timers. Moreover, the average age of the candidates running for the open seats is 39 — 11 years younger than the average age of the current council.
Among the five incumbents seeking re-election, only Third Ward DFLer Chris Tolbert, 31, appears to be unopposed.
Libby Kantner, Tolbert’s 25-year-old City Council aide who last summer became chair of the St. Paul DFL, said the party is working hard to build a network of younger, more diverse activists.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of new people come to the caucus process this year,” she said.
Here’s a breakdown of the contested races:
• First Ward: DFLer Dai Thao, 39, an IT manager and community organizer who won a special election in 2013, faces two Summit-University residents: Samakab Hussein, 34, a self-employed accountant, and Trahern Crews, 40, a community organizer who is seeking the Green Party endorsement. Hussein, a DFLer, is thought to be St. Paul’s first Somali candidate.
• Second Ward: Five first-time candidates hope to succeed Thune: Marit Brock, 46, a health care manager and community activist; Louis Garcia, 30, a Target IT engineer and web designer; Cara Martner, 26, a music business student; Rebecca Noecker, 30, outreach director for a Minneapolis schools nonprofit and St. Paul Planning Commission member; and Darren Tobolt, 42, a longtime Ramsey County Board aide and DFL activist. All but Martner (an Independence Party candidate) are seeking the DFL nod and say they will drop out of the race if they fail to get it.
• Fourth Ward: Curtis Stock, 50, a compliance worker for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said he will run again against DFL incumbent Russ Stark, 41. Stock, an independent, lost to Stark by a wide margin in 2011.
• Fifth Ward: In what promises to be an intriguing race, David Glass, 63, is running for the DFL endorsement against first-term incumbent and Housing and Redevelopment Authority Chair Amy Brendmoen, 45. Glass blamed Brendmoen, among others, for his breach-of-contract suit filed when city parks officials declined to renew his cafe contract at Como Park; he later settled with the city for a near-record $800,000. Glass said he’s running not to target Brendmoen, who narrowly defeated an incumbent in 2011, but to restore common sense at City Hall.
• Sixth Ward: James Lockwood, 44, a communications manager and former spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman, said he hopes to capture the DFL endorsement. His opponent will be Bostrom, a former police officer and school board member who has been on the City Council since 1996.
• Seventh Ward: Five candidates are seeking the DFL endorsement to fill Lantry’s seat. They are Steve Frazer, 47, a St. Paul police watch commander; Elliott Nickell, 31, a criminal and family law attorney; Jane Prince, 61, an attorney and former City Council aide; Paul Sawyer, 28, events manager for the Science Museum of Minnesota; and John Slade, 48, a community organizer and grant writer. Of the five DFLers, only Sawyer said categorically that he will drop out of the race if he doesn’t get the party endorsement.
DFL caucuses will be held Feb. 3. The Fifth Ward convention will be held Feb. 21, followed by the Second Ward convention on Feb. 22 and the Seventh Ward convention on Feb. 28. For more information, go to stpauldfl.wordpress.com/.