Paris Yarbrough looks around St. Paul’s East Side and sees signs of gentrification that leave her uneasy. Buzzy restaurants and breweries are transforming the neighborhood where she grew up and has now returned to, but also signaling that it may not be affordable for long.
“I want the development to happen, but I want it to happen in a way that’s not at the expense of the culture and richness of St. Paul,” Yarbrough, a law school student, said.
Minneapolis resident Maygen Keller, who works at a cafe on 34th Avenue S., has another worry: persistent racial inequality.
“Things need to shift in order for everyone to feel like it is their city,” Keller said.
Such is voter sentiment on both sides of the Mississippi River as Minneapolis and St. Paul charge toward mayoral elections with great consequences.
Even with months of campaign left before ballots are cast in November, both races are already stoked with intensity, and the top issues are similar, divisive and complex.
Should the cities have a $15 minimum wage, and if so, how soon, and for whom, exactly? How can each city provide economic opportunity to people of all races and ethnicities, and repair the damaged relationship between police and people of color? Has housing become too costly, and what’s the way forward on economic development?
Each race is also shadowed by what many voters call an infuriating new question: How do cities where so few backed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign now respond to threats real and perceived coming from his White House and Republican allies in Congress?
A swarm of candidates in both cities is debating all of that, and more, in what appear to be wide-open races. St. Paul will elect its first new leader in 12 years, with Mayor Chris Coleman leaving office, and in Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges faces a robust slate of challengers in her bid for a second term.
Both races also just added dramatic new plot lines, with recent allegations that St. Paul candidate Dai Thao’s campaign solicited a bribe and ongoing tensions between Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau. While many residents aren’t plugged into all of the political twists yet, they are paying close attention to changes in their neighborhoods.
Minneapolis’ population is 410,000 and city leaders have set a goal of 500,000. St. Paul exceeded 300,000 residents in 2016 for the first time since 1970.
Population growth has sparked higher rents for apartments, a difficult market for home buyers and concerns about gentrification. Driving down housing costs will require more living units, and in Minneapolis and St. Paul, cities with no room to grow outward, that means apartments or condominiums.
But neighborhoods are wary of such dense development.
Denis Houle is president of the Armatage Neighborhood Association in one of three wards along the bottom of Minneapolis that typically account for a third of all voters in city elections. He said construction of multifamily housing will make single-family homes more expensive in neighborhoods “that are still reasonably affordable” in north and south central Minneapolis, and he doesn’t believe demand for apartments will keep up with supply.
“The housing market is right now very tight and it’s only going to get tighter,” Houle said. “Are there enough young people coming up who will want to move into their apartments or condominiums after them? Are we going to be stuck with a lot of empty buildings?”
In St. Paul, discussion about density and housing often revolves around the 122-acre Ford site in Highland Park, where the city plans to add up to 4,000 housing units. Highland Park, which makes up most of the city’s Third Ward, is the battleground for mayoral candidates. Nearly a quarter of voters in the last mayoral election lived in that ward.
Some residents there worry about crowded streets and lost parking, while others, like former 3M marketing manager Sonja O’Brien, look forward to denser development. Leaving the Highland Park library, O’Brien glanced down the street toward the empty plot of Ford land. She said she would like to see a walkable community that blends parks with housing, locally owned restaurants and retail.
“This is an opportunity where we can create connections and bring people together,” she said. “We can’t act like it’s Woodbury.”
The Trump effect
Many residents haven’t tuned in to the mayoral races just yet.
Nancy Calvin, walking her dog on a windy day next to Lake Hiawatha, offered a cheerful assessment of her city, one that represents a broad swath of residents. She doesn’t watch city politics closely, and she’s generally pleased with life in Minneapolis.
“I know that there’s a lot of people who are doom and gloom,” Calvin said. “I’m pretty happy with most things. I don’t think the world’s falling apart.”
But those who are following the local races say they’ve been inspired by national politics. Many who were dismayed by Trump’s election say they want local leaders to shore up their cities as outposts of opposition to the White House.
“We need someone who’s in touch with national topics,” said Rob Roberts, a St. Paul resident and mechanical engineer. He said St. Paul needs a mayor who will stand up for progressive values and say, “This is our city, this is what our character is — and it’s all in the context of this presidential administration.”
Emma Cauchy, an engineer at General Mills who lives a few blocks east of Lake Harriet, said she hasn’t been following city politics closely. But her top issues are that police treat people of color fairly and Minneapolis remain inclusive. “Just make sure that our city remains a safe sanctuary for immigrants,” Cauchy said.
St. Paul mayoral candidate Melvin Carter said outrage over state and national politics is the “tie that binds everything” he hears from residents. Hodges and Thao have seized on this impulse, crafting campaigns focused on Trump and the ways cities can resist his administration.
Saundra Crump, who lives in the Near North neighborhood of Minneapolis, attended a speech in April where Hodges outlined the “pernicious” threat of the Trump administration. Crump thought Hodges was light on specifics, and while she is no fan of the president, she is not persuaded Minneapolis should remain a sanctuary for people who immigrated here illegally, who she believes are victimized in a system that treats them as second-class citizens.
“When you’re making statements about ‘no matter what it costs,’ we’re going to be a sanctuary city, no matter what it costs?” Crump said.
Crump is concerned more about training police and holding them accountable — issues that resonate all over the Twin Cities as people wrestle with the frayed relationship between police and people of color.
The problem is at the heart of two of the region’s biggest challenges: how to keep neighborhoods like north Minneapolis and St. Paul’s East Side safe without further damaging community trust in police, and how to ensure the downtowns are welcoming for everyone from weekday commuters to weekend revelers.
The light-rail Central Station in St. Paul and the Warehouse District station in Minneapolis have become popular spots for young people to hang out, and sometimes get in trouble.
Violent crime in both downtowns has declined recently, but quality-of-life crime is up in downtown St. Paul, and the number of robberies in blocks around Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis is still about double its level in 2008. Businesses in both cities have clamored for a more visible police presence and gotten some response, but voters are suspicious of old-fashioned calls for law and order.
“Safety’s good. Everybody wants safety. But when the safety conversation takes over the racial harmony conversation, that’s a problem for me,” said Brennan Vance, a filmmaker walking with his 1-year-old son on Bryant Avenue in south Minneapolis.
Jeanie Ferenz rarely encounters police in her Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, but she said neighbors say they’ve been racially profiled. Officers need to connect with the community, she said, “to show that they’re there and that they’re not the bad guy.”
Minimum wage and jobs
Business owners are also watching the mayoral races.
In St. Paul, where job growth has lagged Minneapolis since the recession, candidates have trumpeted support for small businesses and streamlining regulations. That is a much-needed change, said Tryg Truelson and Chris Corlett, who opened Rah’mn restaurant in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood a month ago after navigating City Hall departments they said did not communicate and duplicated work.
Meanwhile, another layer of complexity is looming. Both cities will soon require employers to offer workers paid sick time, a mandate challenged by business associations in court and by Republicans who’ve passed a bill at the Capitol pre-empting local labor ordinances.
Minneapolis expects to take up an even more contentious workplace regulation — an increase in the minimum wage — this summer. Under Coleman, St. Paul is waiting to see how the issue plays out in Minneapolis. Several mayoral candidates in Minneapolis and a couple in St. Paul say they back a $15 minimum wage with no exception for tipped workers.
Kathryn Hayes, one of the owners of Anchor Fish & Chips in northeast Minneapolis, said she and her partners must figure out how they will respond to a blanket $15 wage. They’ll likely move to counter service, which would put servers out of work and undercut the essence of the business, an affordable neighborhood restaurant that prides itself on quality service.
“We will have to change our model a bit, for sure,” Hayes said. “I’m really upset about it.”
Keller, who works at the cafe in south Minneapolis, said the city is moving too swiftly to be perceived as progressive, without considering consequences. A $15 minimum wage, she said, would destroy many small businesses.
A slow ramp-up to $15 would soften the blow, Hayes said. The same goes for development in her neighborhood that she fears will make it difficult for patrons to find parking, a concern echoed by business owners across Minneapolis and St. Paul. She’s happy the city is growing, and she wants low-wage workers to earn a living.
“I just wish,” Hayes said, “that people would be gentle about it.”