It’s a back-to-basics election this November in the city of St. Paul.
Forget pro soccer, parking regulations, housing teardowns and disputes over bike lanes. What City Council candidates are hearing most from voters as Election Day nears is straight out of City Hall 101: crumbling streets, rising taxes, declining services, too few living-wage jobs and too many top-down decisions without citizen input.
“When people are talking about snowplowing on the hottest days in the month of July, you know that there are snowplowing issues,” said attorney Jane Prince, who is seeking the Seventh Ward council seat on St. Paul’s East Side.
The concern that city officials have lost touch with residents is so acute that a group of longtime St. Paul community leaders last week launched a grass-roots effort to sign candidates to a pledge for open and responsive government.
Eighteen candidates are on the ballot for the City Council’s seven seats, most of them DFLers. Four of the five incumbents seeking re-election face opposition: first-termers Dai Thao and Amy Brendmoen, veteran Dan Bostrom and Council President Russ Stark. All have DFL backing save Brendmoen, whose fight for the party endorsement with opponent David Glass ended in a draw.
Two challengers are backed by other parties: Trahern Crews, a community organizer endorsed by the Green Party in the First Ward, and safety engineer David Sullivan-Nightengale, endorsed by the Independence Party in the Fifth. No declared Republicans are seeking election this year.
The Nov. 3 election will be the third city race in St. Paul (and the second City Council election) to use ranked-choice voting, where voters may list up to six candidates in order of preference. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, secondary votes are applied until someone wins a majority.
Here’s a look at the races drawing attention this fall:
Second Ward: New faces
Dave Thune’s decision not to seek re-election to the seat he’s held for 20 years opened the floodgates to a host of first-time candidates hoping to fill his shoes.
Four battled without success for the DFL endorsement, and the two who stayed in the race — Rebecca Noecker, a nonprofit director, and Darren Tobolt, a Ramsey County Board aide — are considered the front-runners, leading the field in fundraising and endorsements.
Both Noecker and Tobolt cast themselves as progressives who would bring new energy, ideas and experience to City Hall. Tobolt is an insider with long ties to local government, the DFL and labor, while Noecker is a city planning commissioner with roots in education.
Noecker wants to establish a concierge system to help small businesses navigate the maze of rules at City Hall. She said she wouldn’t grant the tax breaks that the City Council is backing for a privately built professional soccer stadium in the Midway area, and she believes that the council doesn’t stand up often enough to Mayor Chris Coleman.
Tobolt, a district council veteran, said he wants to make neighborhoods safer and more livable. He said he hears mostly positive things about the soccer stadium and that the tax breaks sought by team owners “seem reasonable.”
Others in the race are perennial candidate Sharon Anderson; Patrick Fearing, a West End handyman; Bill Hosko, an art gallery owner who came in second in the 2011 election; and Michael C. Johnson, a West End small-business man.
Fifth Ward: Repeat match
Glass and Brendmoen locked horns a year ago in a breach-of-contract suit he filed against the city when parks officials declined to renew his cafe contract at Como Park. Glass, who partly blamed Brendmoen for the dispute, won that battle when the council awarded him an $800,000 settlement.
Now Glass is challenging Brendmoen again, this time at the polls.
“Folks are tired of the heavy-handedness of the mayor and the council,” said Glass. “The only time they reach out to the community is to tell them what they decided.”
Brendmoen said people tell her that the settlement may have been worth it because the new restaurant, Como Dockside, is pulling in more money than Glass’ Black Bear Crossings. In general, she said, people seem happy about the city’s direction.
“Instead of seeing boarded-up houses, I’m seeing housing with new siding,” she said. “That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Racial tension is still apparent in some areas, and there are haves and have-nots.”
Brendmoen, who chairs the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said she wants to focus more resources in the neighborhoods to make them “vibrant, safe and walkable.” Glass, who is part Ojibwe, said he wants to narrow the income and achievement gaps between white and minority residents.
The third candidate in the race is Sullivan-Nightengale, a disabled veteran who once worked at the Pentagon. Libertarian on social issues and moderate on fiscal matters, he hopes to be voters’ second choice, which he said could push him in front if Glass and Brendmoen deadlock. “People are concerned about things that directly affect their lives,” he said.
Fourth Ward: Stadium divide
Tom Goldstein, an attorney and former school board member, was on the fence about running. But when St. Paul emerged as a contender for the soccer stadium, Goldstein — a vocal critic of the new Saints ballpark — entered the ring. Stadiums don’t generate development, he said, and he’s skeptical the project won’t draw some public funding despite what team owners say.
His opponent is City Council President Russ Stark, who has been on the council since 2008. Stark acknowledges “stadium fatigue” but said the soccer proposal is different: a privately financed project that would redevelop a site vacant for decades.
Stark’s top three issues, he said, are boosting such sustainable practices as walking and biking, increasing recycling and organizing private trash collection, and opening more job opportunities for minorities. Goldstein said his basic pitch is “neighborhood investments before downtown subsidies,” improving city services and halting the use of tax-increment financing for development projects.
“I’m in an uphill battle, but I can tell people that you have an option now,” Goldstein said.
First Ward: Diverse district
Incumbent Thao has raised nearly $85,300, making him the most successful St. Paul fundraiser. The council’s most junior member and the first of Hmong descent, he is seeking his first full term in office after being elected two years ago to fill out an unfinished term.
His opponent is Crews, 40, the Green Party’s lone candidate in the St. Paul election. Crews, a community organizer and committee chair for the Summit-University district council, said if elected, he would address police brutality, living-wage jobs, rent control and parking issues.
“I know the city, I’m a native of the city and I have my ear to the street,” Crews said.
Thao said that he’s focused on ways to bolster racial equity in the ward: better access to good-paying jobs, development of more affordable housing, improving public safety. The ward contains, arguably, the city’s most diverse and low-income population.
It also contains the 10-acre vacant Metro Transit site being eyed for a Major League Soccer team. Thao, who backed a property tax exemption on condition that the stadium is built with private funds, said that soccer could be a catalyst for further development — if the community is involved.
“Nothing has been set in stone … [but] when it does happen, folks can be sure I’ll be inclusive and open to everyone at the table,” Thao said.