After winning a special election in 1997 for the Ramsey County Board, Janice Rettman has faced either token opposition or no opposition at all in five straight elections.

But this November the veteran Third District commissioner faces what promises to be her stiffest electoral challenge ever.

Rettman is up against DFL-endorsed Trista MatasCastillo, a political newcomer who served 16 years in the U.S. Navy, Marines and Army National Guard and has largely worked since on efforts to help veterans. She finished more than 14 points ahead of Rettman in the August primary, winning nearly 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

The candidates, both residents of St. Paul, are vying to represent an area that includes St. Paul’s North End, Frogtown and Como neighborhoods as well as Falcon Heights.

Rettman said she knows this will be a tough contest.

“I’ve given it my best,” she said. “I want to continue doing it because someone has to stand up and be accountable.”

MatasCastillo said that she was confident heading into the primary and remains confident with the general election just five weeks away.

“I was told she’s unbeatable and you’ll never beat her,” she said. “But I am running this race for a position. I’m not running against Janice or against another person. The position isn’t entitled to a person.”

Both candidates vow to be strong advocates for affordable housing over the next four years and to speak for the blue collar workers, seniors, young families, immigrants and small business owners that populate much of the district.

Cutting through paperwork

MatasCastillo, who grew up in central Minnesota, has lived in St. Paul for 18 years — nearly as long as Rettman has represented the district.

For years, Ramsey commissioners have said that one of their top priorities was to make county services more accessible to residents. MatasCastillo said she has the experience to see that it happens.

After closing out her military career, MatasCastillo started Women’s Veteran Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to help women vets. She worked for Habitat for Humanity, and can point out roughly 500 or so Habitat homes scattered throughout the district.

She now works for Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, which partners with groups and individuals to get homeless vets off the street.

As the mother of a severely autistic and developmentally delayed child (she and her husband Hector have five children), MatasCastillo also became a veteran of navigating the hurdles, paperwork and court hearings that come with some county-run services.

The paperwork to get her son Hunter, 19, into a group home and guardianship over him when he turned 18 was a full-time job, she said.

“The system has been created to keep people out of it,” she said. “You have to prove you’re worthy of assistance. It’s a safety net and so you walk in like it’s an [emergency room] and you need triage, but you can be treated almost like a criminal who is trying to take something.”

Standing firm

Rettman’s story is a familiar one to district residents. A Texas native, she took a job out of college with what is now called AmeriCorps VISTA and was assigned to Iowa, helping to run housing and other service programs in American Indian settlements.

She came to St. Paul to direct the city’s housing information office, where she worked until she ran for the City Council. After serving there for nearly 12 years, she was elected to the County Board.

Rettman often has found herself as the board’s lone dissenter, on the losing end of countless 6-1 votes. She said that’s what happens when a commissioner is strongly aligned with residents and business owners who live or work next door to a proposed project.

“It’s about listening to people,” Rettman said. “I think a voice such as mine is one that is needed to represent people who may be working so dang hard they can’t attend every meeting.”

When the county still collected trash in St. Paul, Rettman fielded complaints from residents wondering why the county wasn’t taking fallen branches, downed trees or other yard waste. She helped start drop-off areas where yard waste can be dropped for free.

Rettman cast the lone vote against a proposed framework to redevelop the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills, the largest redevelopment site in the metro area. She said the plan didn’t require enough affordable housing and was vague about when it would be built.

“If we’re putting in infrastructure or we’re giving any kind of a tax break, then affordable housing cannot be the afterthought,” she said. “We need to stand firm on it. It’s easy to say it will be dealt with later.”

The district needs more job training programs for residents, she said, and the board needs to take into account tax hikes from cities, school districts and other jurisdictions when it sets the county’s tax levy. “The money comes out of the same pockets,” she said.

Access for people

MatasCastillo said she believes the county can revitalize businesses and homes along Dale Street by removing a lane of traffic in each direction, slowing cars down and making it easier for pedestrians to cross.

She also said the district needs a grocery store. She said that she’d like the county to look into converting one of its five publicly owned golf courses into land that could be opened to urban farming or community gardens.

“One golf course is 100 acres,” she said. “That’s 100 acres we could keep as green space but also create access for people who could use it to [grow] a lot of produce right in their own neighborhood.”