Unlike Minneapolis, the biggest election in St. Paul this year likely won’t be the mayoral race, where incumbent Chris Coleman remains the odds-on favorite for a third term.
Instead, the Ward 1 special election to replace outgoing City Council Member Melvin Carter III promises to be more of a spectacle, as eight candidates — ranging from household names in the ward to political novices — square off in St. Paul’s most diverse and economically troubled district.
Attention is shifting to the race now that the City Council has appointed Nathaniel Khaliq, a longtime community leader, to hold down the job for four months after Carter leaves next week to take a state job.
The winner of the November election will be sworn into office shortly afterward to fill out the remaining two years of Carter’s four-year term.
The all-important DFL endorsing convention for the strongly Democratic ward is four weeks away. Seven of the eight candidates — one Republican joined the field this week — said they plan to seek the party endorsement, although only one asserted he would drop out of the race if he doesn’t get it.
Paul Holmgren, who has lived in the ward for more than 30 years, is the lone Republican. Holmgren, who has run for the Legislature, plans to promote job growth by easing regulations and lowering property taxes, St. Paul GOP Chair Greg Copeland said. There are no declared Green Party candidates as yet.
Some candidates already have scored important endorsements. Noel Nix, Carter’s council aide, said Thursday that he has won the support of AFSCME Council 5, which represents most city employees, and Teamsters Local 120, the Public Works Department’s union. St. Paul Firefighters Local 21 has endorsed community activist and IT manager Dai Thao.
An important variable could be ranked-choice voting, which was introduced in St. Paul only two years ago. In a ward with historically low turnout, that process could catapult a lesser-known candidate with moderate support. But several candidates said that many residents they’ve seen don’t understand how it works or what it means for their vote.
“It’s going to be a big education curve for the voters,” said Matt Hill, who manages the arts and cultural heritage fund for the Minnesota Historical Society and sits on the Heritage Preservation Commission.
Here’s the DFL candidate lineup:
• Hill, 28, is entering his first race because he “enjoys giving back to the community.” He wants to ensure smart development off the Central Corridor line, educational improvements and better youth services. He said he intends to abide by the DFL endorsement.
• Johnny Howard, 57, a well-known community organizer and landlord, lost to Carter two years ago as a Green Party endorsee. He said he will seek DFL backing this time but will continue in the race regardless of whether he gets it. He said he wants to bring City Hall to the neighborhood, strengthen the district council system and improve public services.
• Kazoua Kong-Thao, 43, was twice elected to the St. Paul school board and is a longtime state employee and consultant. She could not be reached for comment.
• Debbie Montgomery, 67, a former police commander and assistant state commissioner, served a term as Ward 1 council member before Carter defeated her in 2007. She said she is running again to ensure that residents benefit from the Central Corridor line, to close the school achievement gap and bring down unemployment and foreclosure rates.
• Nix, 31, is a first-time candidate with a background in community nonprofits and urban planning. He said he will make sure the community profits from the new light-rail line, that working families have good housing options and that the school achievement gap is closed. He declined to say whether he would run without the DFL endorsement.
• Thao, 37, also is making his first run for office. His priorities are jobs, public safety funding, affordable housing and education. His campaign manager declined to say whether he would abide by the DFL endorsement if he doesn’t get it.
• Mark Voerding, 61, another first-time candidate, once was aide to Ward 1 Council Member Bill Wilson and now works for Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman. He said the ward needs to take full advantage of the jobs and development opportunities posed by the Central Corridor line, and that he would work to promote better services and lower property taxes. He said he wasn’t sure if he would abide by the DFL endorsement if it went to someone else.