Election Day in St. Paul will mark the end of an unexpectedly turbulent City Council race.
What began as a run-of-the-mill special election made national news last month when candidate David Martinez was arrested after allegedly posting a seminude photo of his estranged wife on his campaign website.
Through everything that followed, from a canceled candidate forum to calls for Martinez to drop out of the race, front-runners Shirley Erstad and Mitra Jalali Nelson have tried to stay focused on the issues, from organized trash collection to development around Allianz Field.
If anything, Martinez’s behavior has spurred conversations about an election that could have drowned in the noise of higher-profile contests across the state.
“That’s certainly been something that people have wanted to talk about, and understandably so,” Nelson said. “I just think it’s so important to focus on what this election is really about, which is the future of our city and how we’re going to make a place for everyone in it.”
After multiple arrests in recent weeks, Martinez faces misdemeanor charges including disorderly conduct, trespassing and violating a protection order. He has not been charged over the photo post. He has said his campaign website was hacked, and that he plans to stay in the race.
“I’m just going to be out in the community,” he said. “I’m going to be visible.”
The Fourth Ward seat is open for the first time in a decade. Russ Stark left the council early this year to work for Mayor Melvin Carter.
Unlike other races on the Aug. 14 ballot, the Fourth Ward election is not a primary. The winner will take office in late August or early September.
Nelson, 32, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, would be the only renter on the council. She supports a $15 citywide minimum wage and major changes to the city’s affordable housing policy. She has endorsements from unions, progressive organizations, Carter and the DFL.
Erstad, 51, who runs a nonprofit, has a history of involvement with city issues from parks to government transparency. Though many of her endorsements are from former city leaders, including Mayor George Latimer and council members Jay Benanav and Dave Thune, she describes her campaign as a grass-roots effort against the status quo.
“With my age, I’m seen as the old candidate,” she said, “even though I’m a new candidate and my opponent has the support of the political machine and the unions and the special interest groups.”
Fourth Ward voters say they don’t see substantial differences between the two DFL candidates on key issues, though Erstad tends to take a cautious approach, while Nelson is typically more full-steam-ahead.
Merriam Park resident Shaun McElhatton, 59, attended a July 30 candidate forum and said he was impressed by both Erstad and Nelson. He said he likes what he described as Erstad’s thoughtful approach, as well as her understanding of neighborhood issues.
“Mitra’s an appealing candidate. She has a lot of energy. I like her politics,” he said. “I just think she doesn’t know the neighborhood that well, not nearly as well as Shirley does.”
St. Anthony Park resident Pat Thompson, 58 — who serves on her district council but spoke as an individual — said it’s important to her that Nelson is committed to tackling climate change at the city level. She said she likes the idea of a younger, newer St. Paul resident serving on the City Council.
“I’m much more like Shirley, really. Raised kids in St. Paul — same thing,” Thompson said. “But I would like to have some range.”
Though many Fourth Ward residents have already voted, Erstad and Nelson and their teams of volunteers are still knocking on doors, making phone calls and showing up at events.
“What we really care about is just showing that we’ve been working hard from the very beginning, that we’re proud of what we feel is a powerful coalition we’ve been able to build in the time that we’ve been running, and just to not leave any voter behind,” Nelson said.
Both said they can’t quite believe they’ve nearly reached the end.
“I’m really looking forward to what’s coming next,” Erstad said, “however it ends up.”