Some are drawn into politics by an inspiring speech. For Elizabeth Dickinson, it was a smokestack.
The Green Party candidate for St. Paul mayor was shocked to see a coal-burning power plant from her new home atop the city’s West Side bluffs nearly two decades ago. She became a leader in the fight to convert the High Bridge facility to natural gas, which Xcel Energy agreed to do in 2002.
“I had never done community organizing before, and it really brought home how impactful that could be,” Dickinson said.
In a crowded race to replace Mayor Chris Coleman, who is stepping down to run for governor, Dickinson paints herself as the candidate most focused on the environment and sustainable energy, pushing for more green energy jobs and detailing plans for solar panels on public buildings. A life coach and former actress, her pitch to voters is that she’s different.
Dickinson, 57, has never held elected office, but she has become a familiar face in St. Paul campaigns, having run for mayor in 2005 and City Council in 2003. She’s one of two female candidates for mayor — the other is perennial candidate Sharon Anderson — in a city that’s never elected a woman to the top job.
“I’m one of the only women in the race,” she told a man while door knocking recently in Highland Park. “I’m the only Green. And I’d say what makes me the most different from the guys who are running, policywise, is emphasizing energy and the environment.”
She also would like to see St. Paul adopt a $15 minimum wage and phase it in over time to ease the transition for businesses, as Minneapolis is doing.
Dickinson spreads her message by knocking on doors to talk with residents, all the more important because she has just a fraction of the campaign cash that some other candidates have, according to the most recent finance reports. She turned down a $1,000 donation from WomenWinning because the Green Party does not allow donations from political action committees.
That doesn’t deter supporters like Andrea Kiepe, who met Dickinson during community organizing related to the power plants and was impressed by her ability to articulate policy issues.
“She’s just one of those people you run into and you’re like, ‘Wow, she is a sharp cookie,’ ” Kiepe said. “She knows what she’s doing and she’s got good judgment and she’s got a good heart.”
Dickinson grew up north of Boston and studied English at Cambridge University. She was living in California and working as an actress when she read in an actors union newsletter how many actors in the Twin Cities had health insurance. She picked up and moved to St. Paul in 1998.
Dickinson also has been a substitute teacher, a licensed psychologist and a lobbyist. Locally, she has pushed for comprehensive sex education on behalf of the Minnesota AIDS Project, the smoking ban in bars and restaurants for the Association of Non-Smokers, and Common Core standards for the National Congress of Parents.
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, wants the city to elect a woman mayor — she ran herself in 1997 — and thinks highly of Dickinson. But Pappas is supporting Melvin Carter, a DFLer, and once told Dickinson that she needs to run as a DFLer to have a career in politics.
“It’s not realistic that St. Paul’s going to elect a Green Party mayor, even though St. Paulites might like to see a woman mayor,” Pappas said, noting the city has never elected a Green candidate to City Council. “I’m a strong supporter of women candidates, but not enough for me to leave my party.”
Dickinson said she did consider running as a DFLer, but her life in partisan politics has all been with the Green Party.
“Life is more nuanced and complicated than just having two options,” Dickinson said. “And by running Green you’re saying we need more options.”