Six candidates vying for the open City Council seat in St. Paul’s First Ward met Tuesday night for a campaign forum that touched on jobs, crime and the impact of the new light-rail transit line in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods.
According to the candidates, more living wage jobs and small business opportunities would provide many of the answers to several problems plaguing the ward, St. Paul’s most diverse and economically troubled. Many said they would work to ensure that residents have access to new jobs expected to emerge from the LRT corridor.
“We need to create a city that’s going to attract new businesses,” said Johnny Howard, a longtime neighborhood organizer and landlord who has Green Party backing. The more people employed, he said, the fewer crimes.
Nearly 100 people attended the 75-minute forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Only one candidate, Republican-backed Paul Holmgren, did not participate.
The winner will fill out the last two years of the term of former City Council Member Melvin Carter III, who stepped down last summer to take a state education job. The council appointed former NAACP head Nathaniel Khaliq to hold the seat until the winner takes over in November.
Noel Nix, Carter’s former aide, and Dai Thao, a community organizer and IT manager, have scored the most endorsements, followed by Kazoua Kong-Thao, a charter school operations director and former school board member. All three battled unsuccessfully in July for the DFL Party endorsement, which went to no one.
Also running are Mark Voerding, a Ramsey County Board aide, and Debbie Montgomery, a former police commander who won the First Ward seat in 2003 but lost her re-election bid to Carter four years later.
Stopping crime will require a multipronged approach, Nix said, including an effective police force, more recreational opportunities for youths and maintaining housing stock. He cited Carter’s house buyback program as a way to stem the tide of foreclosures in the community.
Voerding agreed that the key to reducing crime is more jobs along with better enforcement, and cited his work as a council aide to reinstate beat cops and start the FORCE program to flood crisis areas with officers.
Thao called himself “a transformative leader” who will listen to residents and make job creation his top priority. He suggested one way to lessen the property tax burden on residents would be to spread it to the city’s myriad colleges and universities.
Kong-Thao, citing her experience helping to manage the school board’s multimillion dollar budget, said the council needs to do a better job of prioritizing its resources. She also questioned the effectiveness of the Promise neighborhood, a city and schools collaboration designed to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, asking “what are we actually promising … and can we deliver?”
As of last month, Thao was winning the money battle. The latest campaign finance reports showed that he had raised more than $24,000, more than twice that of any other candidate, and had $10,200 in his campaign war chest. Kong-Thao and Howard each had raised just under $10,000, while Nix had raised nearly $6,000 and Montgomery had brought in $4,700.