The St. Paul City Council was minutes away from approving the city's 2021 budget and a majority of the seven-member council was praising the outcome, which kept the property tax levy flat and avoided layoffs after a tumultuous year.
But community organizer-turned-Council Member Mitra Jalali simmered with frustration over a budget she believed defied the will of her community.
"I am personally struggling to understand and I am very frustrated that our council proposal would show so little movement on the most prominent national conversation about police funding we have had in recent memory," Jalali said, her voice ripe with emotion. "I am ready to support significant cuts and disinvestment to [St. Paul police] today," she added, listing nearly $10 million in police programs that she believed could be scaled back.
The budget passed on a split 5-2 vote with no last-minute changes to police funding despite objections by Jalali and Council Member Nelsie Yang. Jalali's impassioned speech cemented her role as one of the council's most progressive voices.
First elected to represent the Fourth Ward in a 2018 special election and re-elected in 2019, Jalali proudly speaks up for what she calls "rising St. Paul," which includes young activists demanding police and other social-justice reforms, people of color, working-class families and renters.
"I try to speak to the St. Paul I see as rising that needs our help, that deserves inclusive, representative government and an equity agenda that is unapologetic," she said.
In many ways, Jalali, 34, embodies the group she says is often underrepresented from civic leadership. She was the youngest council member and the only renter when she first took office. She identifies as LGBTQ. And though she was born and raised in Minnesota, she is the daughter of immigrants: Her mother was born in Korea and adopted by a Minnesota family as a teen and her father immigrated from Iran for school.
"People feel trust in Mitra in a way that I hadn't seen with other council members," said Planning Commissioner and Fourth Ward resident Tram Hoang. "When folks talk about Mitra, they say, 'We are values-aligned with Mitra and we know she will be with us.' "
Jalali launched her career as a teacher at an alternative school, where she watched helplessly as police plucked Black students from her classroom for what she describes as rough treatment in the principal's office. She calls it a "radicalizing experience."
As a council member, Jalali took to the streets last year as part of peaceful protests demanding police reform after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
"She is boots on the ground," said Chauntyll Allen, St. Paul Public Schools board member and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities. "I love the way she interacts with community. I love how responsive she is. Her ear is really connected to the street."
Former St. Paul Mayor and Hamline University Prof. Jim Scheibel said he regularly invites Jalali to speak to his class and it's often the highlight of the semester. Students are drawn to both her message and her relatability, he said.
"We need new voices, and I think she very much reflects the city of St. Paul today," Scheibel said.
Jalali said her challenge is to build strong working relationships with her colleagues while pushing an already progressive council even harder on issues including police reform, climate change and affordable housing. After nearly two years, she said she's seeing movement in the right direction.
This month, the city's new tenant protection ordinance — one of the strongest in the state — takes effect. Jalali, who made renters' rights a key campaign issue, was the ordinance's lead sponsor and most vocal champion. She is also part of Mayor Melvin Carter's Community-First Public Safety Commission, which is examining alternative responses to low-level police calls including noise and parking complaints.
While Jalali said she objected to the total amount of police funding in this year's budget, she said the council has become more critical of police funding requests and staffing levels — a marked change from just a few years ago when they were still adding officers, Jalali said.
"For the first time in a long time we have a really forward-looking agenda," she said. "I think I have what I would describe as a healthy impatience with how much we still have to do though."
Jalali said she feels strongly aligned with Carter, and Council President Amy Brendmoen said she and Jalali are also strong allies.
"She has a different lens because of her life experiences," Brendmoen said. "I appreciate her ability to grapple with challenging issues and agree to disagree. … It's bringing us all along on a more progressive path forward."
Yang, who became the council's youngest member when she was elected in 2019 and joined Jalali in demanding more police budget cuts, said she admires Jalali's resilience even when facing brisk headwinds.
"She is someone who shifts the needle left on the council," Yang said. "Mitra is bold and fierce and she has a beautiful way of expressing her values and visions for the future. She and I tag-team the things we really care deeply about on the council."
St. Paul resident and activist Carolyn Szczepanski said Jalali's message around fair and affordable housing, particularly for renters who make up half the city, resonated with her.
"Most politicians talk about affordable housing as a policy issue, as opposed to something personal," she said. "The fact that Mitra was a renter, that was important to me."
Szczepanski said she credits Jalali — who recently became a homeowner — with shepherding through "one of the strongest tenant protections in the entire state." The ordinance, which is now being challenged in court by some landlords, regulates tenant screening, limits security deposits and requires landlords to give just cause for nonrenewal of a lease or termination of tenancy.
Szczepanski said she knows Jalali's outspoken policy positions can be met with rebukes by fellow council members, who at times have challenged her to move beyond organizer to policymaker.
"I've felt a certain way when I see other council members condescend to her," Szczepanski said. "But she puts in so much work to back up the ideas, values and issues she's bringing to the council — that feels really gratifying to me."
Jalali said she's undeterred.
"If you are a vocal woman of color, you are used to not being heard the same way a lot of times," she said. "I am who I am. I can't change that. That's fine — I am just going to keep doing what I do."
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037