As a finalist for an interim seat on the St. Paul City Council, Gary Unger says he would have agreed to step down after the election.
But he’s also supportive of Kassim Busuri, who was picked to fill the Sixth Ward seat and then decided he would run for the seat in November, breaking his pledge to the City Council not to do so.
When Busuri refused to resign his seat, council members sought to limit his power.
Serving the people of the East Side, Unger said, is more important than placating six City Council members. He said Busuri has earned his vote with his work since February.
“I think the council thought they were getting a patsy that they could push around,” said Unger, 77, a retired 3M Co. employee. “They’re finding out he thinks for the people and is doing a job not the way they wanted.”
Busuri is counting on those sentiments in the Sixth Ward, where the abrupt retirement of Dan Bostrom in December opened up the seat in far northeastern St. Paul for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I live here. I know my constituents. They love me, and I love them,” Busuri said in an interview. “When they asked me to run, I had to change my commitment.”
Busuri’s decision has sparked an ongoing debate on social media and throughout the Sixth Ward. Is it a sign of dedication to a consistently underserved community or another example of a politician saying one thing and doing another?
To John Wade, a Sixth Ward resident for 45 years, it’s the latter.
“If he goes back on his word, why do you want him in office?” Wade said. “You can’t trust what he’s going to say.”
But Richard Kramer, a longtime ward resident who also is chairman of the St. Paul Charter Commission, doesn’t see it that way. In the end, he said Busuri’s responsiveness to constituents and attention to detail show he’s a council member the ward needs. Why give that up because of an arbitrary agreement with people who don’t live in the area?
“The City Council shouldn’t be asking people to make promises that are impossible to enforce,” Kramer said. “I have never understood this [appointment] process. You assume they want to pick the best people for the job, but then they don’t want those people to run?”
For years, the council has appointed interim members to fill unexpired terms on the condition that the interim members do not seek the seat in the next election. City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said the idea, while not legally binding, is to prevent an appointee from gaining an unfair advantage — such as name recognition — in winning the seat.
It didn’t used to be that way. Marie Grimm was a 32-year-old policy aide to Sixth Ward Council Member Karl Neid in 1992 when Neid died of a heart attack. She was appointed in May to complete his term and won a special election that November. No one asked for a promise not to run, Grimm said. “In fact, it was quite the opposite.”
Her peers considered Grimm’s first months as on-the-job training, she said.
“There is value to letting that person run. It’s such a hard job,” she said. “I think [Busuri’s] decision of having the voters decide is a good one. Whether it’s a promise made and not kept, well, we’ve had a lot of those lately.”
It didn’t take long for Busuri to face reprisals. Less than a week after he announced he’s running, he was removed from a council work group on public safety. His name was also removed from a recent Housing and Redevelopment Authority agenda, where he had been listed as a sponsor for a housing development in his ward.
Other council members, as well as some of Busuri’s fellow candidates in the Sixth Ward race, have called for him to either resign his position or suspend his campaign. He has said he will do neither.
Earlier this week, Alexander Bourne, a former entrepreneur running for the Sixth Ward seat, was at his campaign headquarters talking to new area resident Andrew Williams about how to restore residents’ faith in the political process.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” Bourne said of Busuri’s going back on his word. “If he’s broken the trust of his peers, how effective can he be? It’s really disturbing all the way around.”
Terri Thao, who announced months ago that she is seeking the council seat, said she knows no one who is happy with Busuri’s decision. In a race that provides a real opportunity for a changing of the guard on the East Side, she said, Busuri is falling back on politics as usual — taking advantage of incumbency that he didn’t earn in an election.
“Integrity means a lot,” Thao said. “If he really felt the need to run, run with the rest of us. But don’t do it under the guise of already being seated as the interim.”
Nelsie Yang, who started her campaign nine months ago, said she knows some area residents like the idea of Busuri running for the seat. But “he’s really damaged the integrity of the process.”
Pat Hill has lived in the ward for 47 years and supports Yang.
“[Busuri] ought to be able to change his mind. But there is a right way and a wrong way,” Hill said. “If he runs, he should step down from the appointment. Now, he has the advantage as an incumbent. And he’s attempting to build on that advantage for the November election. I object to that.”
Busuri said he is unfazed by the criticism and is focused on his work, including the possible redevelopment of the 112-acre Hillcrest Golf Club.
“When I first came in, I was thinking I was just going to be a caretaker of the seat,” he said. “But I saw the yearning and the want of the community. There is so much need and they have felt they’ve been left behind and no one is listening to them. I am.”