A St. Paul election whose front-runners represent the old and new guard of an evolving DFL Party could shift the dynamics of City Council leadership.
Former City Council President Russ Stark left office in February for a job in Mayor Melvin Carter’s office, leaving the Fourth Ward seat open for the first time in a decade. Parks advocate Shirley Erstad, 51, and Mitra Jalali Nelson, 32, community representative for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, entered the race in February and have garnered high-profile endorsements.
Hamline-Midway resident and consultant David Martinez, 38, filed his candidacy Tuesday. The election is scheduled for Aug. 14, and the winner will take office in late August or early September.
“It’s going to be a really important time to be joining the council, and I would say they’ll probably have a fair amount of leverage,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who has endorsed Erstad. “It’s an exciting opportunity for everyone.”
The Fourth Ward includes Hamline-Midway, Merriam Park, St. Anthony Park and parts of the Mac-Groveland and Como neighborhoods. It’s home to universities and apartment complexes, quiet residential streets and the bustling Green Line corridor. Allianz Field, though in the First Ward, is bordered on two sides by the Fourth.
Nelson, who grew up in the Twin Cities and moved to St. Anthony Park two years ago, would be the only renter on the seven-member council. Her platform includes plans on affordable housing, public safety and police accountability, transportation, education and a $15 minimum wage.
When Nelson talks about big development projects like the soccer stadium, she sees an opportunity to make the city a better place to live while protecting nearby renters from being priced out of their homes.
“We have a moment in our city to really define what the future’s going to be,” she said. “We have a moment to build a politics that really reflects everybody who lives here.”
Nelson’s message echoes Carter’s oft-stated goal of making St. Paul a city that works for everyone. The mayor endorsed Nelson in April, and she went on to win the DFL endorsement that same month. Attorney Amy Ireland dropped out of the race at the convention, which was made up of delegates from 2017, but Erstad continued on.
“Our world changes so quickly that there are new people who may have wanted to get involved in the process and couldn’t,” Erstad said. “Especially because this seat hasn’t been open in 10 years, the voters in Ward Four deserve to have a real choice.”
As executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County and a member of her District Council and the group St. Paul Strong, Erstad has advocated for government transparency on issues from Pedro Park in downtown St. Paul to vacancies on city commissions.
Her bread-and-butter platform of strong city services and government accountability — summarized as “People, Potholes, Priorities” — has attracted endorsements from current and former elected officials.
“She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, kind of get into the weeds and sort it out,” said supporter and former Fourth Ward Council Member Jay Benanav. “If I’m a constituent and I need something done, who’s got the experience to get it done? Shirley does.”
Compared to Erstad, who has lived in St. Paul for 25 years and raised three children in Merriam Park, Nelson has simply spent less time living in St. Paul and working on the issues that residents face.
But her supporters say the work she has done, including organizing with St. Paul teachers in 2012 to pass the St. Paul Public Schools funding levy and working as a congressional aide, is strong — and that being a newer resident with a fresh perspective is a good thing.
“People could certainly frame it as a weakness, but I think that there’s a lot to be said about someone who isn’t coming in with their own preconceived notions about how the city is supposed to work, or about what’s good,” said Hamline-Midway resident Joe Kreisman. “There is something to be gained from not having that ingrained history.”
Martinez, the third candidate to file, ran for St. Paul school board in 2013, and said he’s running for City Council because he feels city services and new development in the Fourth Ward aren’t keeping up with rising property taxes.
“That just doesn’t add up to me,” he said.