The most intriguing campaign in St. Paul isn’t Mayor Chris Coleman’s re-election bid — unlike Minneapolis’ wild and crowded mayoral race — but the City Council contest for the open seat in the city’s most diverse ward

“Every time you talk to someone, you’re grabbing an interpreter,” laughed Debbie Montgomery, who is campaigning for the seat she held from 2004 to 2008. “I’m learning more about world history than I ever have before.”

While Coleman faces two novice challengers and one perennial office-seeker, seven candidates — most of them DFLers but otherwise offering a variety of experience and backgrounds — are hoping to fill out the term of former First Ward City Council Member Melvin Carter III.

Carter had two years left to serve when he stepped down this summer to take a state education position. The council appointed former NAACP head Nathaniel Khaliq to hold the seat until the winner takes over in November.

The race bears marked similarities to the First Ward campaign in 2003, when nine candidates were hoping to succeed outgoing Council Member Jerry Blakey. The issues today, according to the candidates, resemble those discussed then: job training and opportunities, public safety and affordable housing.

There’s one big difference: The top two finishers in the 2003 primary squared off in the general election. Now St. Paul uses ranked-choice voting, which puts the entire slate of candidates on the November general ballot and opens the door to candidates who command broad support even if they don’t necessarily lead the field.

“My strategy is, if I can’t be your first choice, I’d be a really good second,” said Kazoua Kong-Thao, a charter school operations director who served two terms on the St. Paul school board.

While African-Americans have held the First Ward seat since it was established 30 years ago, there is less talk now than in 2003 about maintaining the council’s “black seat” — although many believe that minority representation of some kind helps the city.

“I think in St. Paul that we need a little color,” said Johnny Howard, a longtime organizer in the African-American community who also ran in 2003. “I hope it doesn’t come down to who is black, who is Hmong, but which candidate is best.”

Blakey, who is black, was the First Ward council member from 1994 to 2004 and said race wasn’t an issue when he ran. Nevertheless, he said, “Having that diversity of thoughts and ideas on the council is important — at least until race doesn’t matter in this country.”

No DFL endorsement

The dynamics of ranked-choice voting, as well as the ward itself — which includes some of St. Paul’s most economically troubled neighborhoods, a typical indicator of low voter turnout — favor candidates with name recognition and the backing of well-known groups and people.

The ward had 21,218 registered voters in the 2011 election, but only 17 percent of them — 3,672 — voted.

The most successful candidates in racking up endorsements have been Noel Nix, Carter’s former council aide who last week scored the backing of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee and who also has AFSCME and Teamsters support; Dai Thao, a community organizer and IT manager who is endorsed by St. Paul firefighters, TakeAction Minnesota and the Stonewall DFL; and Kong-Thao, who is backed by several elected officials, including Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza.

All three fought it out in July for the biggest prize of all in the left-leaning district: the DFL Party endorsement.

Thao and Nix led voting for six ballots, with Kong-Thao running a consistent third, before the convention ended with no endorsement.

Thao, who like Kong-Thao was born in Laos and moved to Minnesota as a child, said he knows what it’s like to be uprooted and to suffer discrimination.

“We share a common history and our lives are interconnected … I’m going to work hard for everyone,” he said.

Nix, who is endorsed by both Carter and his mother, Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, said he has organized “an incredibly diverse team … and building the right partnerships to move the ward forward.”

Fresh campaign finance reports aren’t due until next week, so the current filings show little in terms of fundraising and spending with one exception. As of early July, Thao had raised more than $10,000 from more than 150 individuals and carried a balance of $8,000.

Different approaches

Two candidates who have secured party backing are Howard, who won the Green Party’s endorsement last month, and Paul Holmgren, a retail worker and accountant whom St. Paul Republicans have pledged to support.

“We want to make sure that from Summit to Front, everyone is comfortable in this ward,” Howard said.

Holmgren offers a distinctively small-government approach, saying that the city ought to cut duplicative tasks and analyze each ordinance to see if it’s necessary.

“A business owner said that all we ask you to do as a city is to plow our streets and keep them safe and nothing more,” Holmgren said. “If we took that approach to the budget, we could have a very livable city and would be welcoming jobs instead of wondering where they all went.”

Mark Voerding, an assistant to Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman who also competed for the DFL endorsement, has long personal experience with the First Ward seat: He was an aide and campaign manager for Bill Wilson, St. Paul’s first black council member, who served for 14 years.

“I’m basically highlighting my experience working for both the City Council and the county, my knowledge of the district and the political process and how to get things done in City Hall,” Voerding said.

None of the candidates can claim closer ties to the office than Montgomery, a former police commander and assistant state commissioner who won election to the First Ward council seat in that 2003 election and then lost her re-election bid to Carter in 2007.

Along with Howard, Montgomery probably has the most recognizable name on the ballot. She said she’s running on the basis that she’s already proven in bringing jobs and economic development to the ward and building mixed-income housing.

“I was at the table fighting and negotiating and trying to get things done,” she said. “The things that people asked me to do the first time, I feel I delivered on what they asked me to get done.”