St. Paul’s City Council elections on Tuesday coincide with a tumultuous time for the capital city.
As council incumbents make phone calls, knock on doors, appear in debates and raise money to keep their jobs another four years, they’re also reckoning with the highest number of fatal shootings in a decade and a contentious referendum on trash collection that could lead to higher property taxes.
All seven council seats are up for election, and 28 people — including the six incumbents and the interim Sixth Ward council member — filed to run.
“The council is at a point where we need to call out things that aren’t working,” said First Ward Council Member Dai Thao, who is seeking a third term.
Campaign season gives incumbents a chance to check in with constituents and figure out what’s working and what’s not. Council members say they’ve heard from plenty of people who are excited about where the city is headed, as well as many who are concerned about issues such as crime and housing affordability — and who feel that city leaders aren’t listening to them.
Council Member Jane Prince, who is running for a second term representing the Seventh Ward, said she’s repeatedly heard that residents are worried about gun violence, pavement conditions on major streets and whether rising property taxes will price them out of the city.
“It all fits into a theme that we at the city need to be letting residents know, letting our voters know, that we’re really listening to them and that they have a voice,” she said. “I think there’s growing feedback about people feeling that City Hall doesn’t care what they think.”
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the Second Ward, said she recently campaigned in the lobby of a new affordable housing complex downtown and met people who said they’d never spoken to a politician before.
“That situation was so different from the normal situations that I’m in, and the normal groups of people that are coming and talking at City Hall,” she said. “I think this campaign has just reminded me that it’s so important to be proactive about making sure I’m hearing from a representative group of my constituents and not just the people who traditionally have had access.”
Incumbents say that months of campaigning have made them think about what they want to do differently — and what they want the council as a whole to do differently — if they’re re-elected on Tuesday.
Noecker said she wants to start her next term reaching out to constituents — “especially the people who are disappointed in me.”
Fourth Ward Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, who was first elected in an August 2018 special election, said she wants to see the council better engage residents on redevelopment projects such as the Midway Walmart site. Council Member Chris Tolbert, who is running for a third term representing the Third Ward, said it’s time for the city to put together a long-term plan for investing in infrastructure — especially streets.
Council President Amy Brendmoen, who is also running for a third term, said she wants to partner with local colleges and universities, particularly on climate change issues, and create more opportunities for residents to get involved with the city through volunteer work.
“It’s one thing to critique, and it’s one thing to be part of the solution,” she said.
Challengers echo frustration
In races where incumbents are seeking re-election, many of the challengers are political newcomers who say the current council isn’t representing residents’ interests. Some have campaigned on defeating the city’s year-old organized trash collection system, which will appear alongside the council races on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Lindsay Ferris Martin, a social media consultant challenging Noecker, said the trash issue, coupled with the experience of confronting a problem property in her neighborhood, spurred her to run.
“Just getting out and talking to more of our neighbors, I realized it wasn’t just the 12 of us that lived on this block that were experiencing these issues,” she said. “There’s a lot of us in our community that were feeling that we couldn’t get in touch with our council person and we’re not being heard or engaged with, and that was my motivation for running.”
Liz De La Torre, a former staffer to U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum who is seeking the First Ward seat, said she decided to run because she didn’t feel Thao was up front about where he stood on issues. She said a lot of residents she’s talked to on the campaign trail don’t know there’s a municipal election happening; many of those who do say they’re disappointed in current city leadership.
“It’s on both sides — elected leaders and voters — to meet halfway and engage each other in a civil and respectful manner,” De La Torre said. “I’ve been on both ends of that now and I think we’re all frustrated, but I think we can talk about that and move forward with it as well.”