When Chris Tolbert was first sworn in as the City Council member for St. Paul's Third Ward in 2012, the 125-acre Ford plant had just closed down in the Highland Park neighborhood.
"Now there are people living there," Tolbert said. "The ward's changed a lot, and I think it will continue to change."
Since Tolbert announced last year that he would not be seeking a fourth term, four candidates have stepped up to lead the Third Ward. Located in St. Paul's southwest corner, the district has historically had the highest voter turnout of the city's seven wards.
Interest was evident at a forum last week, where the four candidates — Troy Barksdale, Patty Hartmann, Saura Jost and Isaac Russell — discussed topics ranging from public safety to infrastructure and trash collection.
Jost and Russell were the first to jump into the race, and they have since competed for key endorsements and contributions.
Jost, 35, won the nod of the St. Paul DFL in late April, joining a slate of candidates from other wards who are campaigning on a progressive agenda. When pitching herself to voters, she emphasizes her civil engineering background and deep roots in Macalester-Groveland, where Jost and her partner are raising their 4-year-old son.
Russell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Economic Inclusion, told DFL delegates he was dropping out of the race after Jost won the party's endorsement before resuming his campaign three days later — a move that drew criticism from some DFLers. The 40-year-old father of three said he doesn't hear much about it on the campaign trail, where he emphasizes his public policy experience and his plans to "focus on basic city services."
Hartmann challenged Tolbert in 2019 and garnered more than a third of the ward's votes. The 69-year-old personal injury attorney said she decided to run that time after feeling that city officials were ignoring residents' complaints about St. Paul's rollout of organized trash collection. Now, Hartmann says, she's been urged to run again by people with ongoing concerns about the city's direction.
Barksdale is a student in his last semester at Macalester College, where he plays on the football team. The 22-year-old said that while he entered the race late and has fewer resources than his opponents, he's relying on "the energy of youth," as well as his ability to win over voters through rallies and other public speaking opportunities.
"It's going to be a pretty competitive fight," Barksdale said. "But I'm excited for it."
When out door-knocking, Jost said the most frequent thing she hears from voters are complaints about the condition of St. Paul's streets. She then explains her technical expertise and problem-solving mindset.
"People really know that it's important because they can see what happens when things aren't going the way they should," she said.
Russell said he hears the most about safety concerns. He's advocating for "fully funding" law enforcement.
"A lot of folks are concerned about catalytic converter thefts, car thefts, breaking and entering," he said. "I'm a Black man, and I have concerns about law enforcement. But also, I want cops to keep me safe."
Hartmann said she also hears a lot about public safety, as well as the proposed Summit Avenue bike trail that the council voted to approve earlier this year — and which she opposes.
"There's sort of a chronic longstanding issue — the feeling that a lot of decisions are made that never really give people an adequate opportunity to participate in the decision-making process," she said.
Though he's a renter, Barksdale said his top priority is eliminating the city's rent stabilization policy because it's "bad macroeconomics." He also said he will work to maintain low housing density in the Third Ward.
According to campaign finance reports filed in mid-September, Russell had raised nearly $60,000, while Jost had raised about $45,000. Both had about $22,000 unspent. Hartmann reported about $5,000 in her account, and Barksdale had no campaign finance form on file.
Last week, a new political group funded primarily by labor unions and backed by some businesses announced plans to support Russell.
"We need a council that is squarely focused on a city's core priorities — affordable housing, maintaining our streets and infrastructure, and improving safety," said Jason George, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, in a statement.
Jost has backing from several current council members, including Tolbert.
"I think she's showing that she is working hard, understands the issues, has relationships and understanding of the views and values of not just the Ward 3 residents, but the city as a whole," Tolbert said.
No matter which candidate wins, the Third Ward may be headed for a first: The district apparently has never been represented by a woman or person of color.
Read more about the candidates at startribune.com/stpaul-guide. All seven St. Paul council seats are on the ballot this fall.