Six candidates are vying to represent St. Paul’s Sixth Ward on the City Council, the hottest race in next Tuesday’s election that will determine all seven council seats.
Those candidates represent the diversity of the East Side district, which has an open council seat for the first time in 22 years after the retirement of Dan Bostrom last year. Five are people of color, three are women and three come from refugee families.
“This panel of people in front of you is a true representation of what Ward Six really is,” candidate Danielle Swift, an organizer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said at an Oct. 23 candidate forum.
The candidates are split on what has become the most contentious issue of the election: whether to jettison the city’s year-old program for trash collection.
Swift, Kassim Busuri, Alexander Bourne and Greg Copeland said they don’t support the city’s organized trash collection system, which will be on the ballot Nov. 5. Nelsie Yang and Terri Thao said they plan to vote to uphold the current system, though they said they believe the existing contract is flawed.
“If I were a council member when this contract was being drafted, it would have looked definitely very different,” Yang said. “I really believe that families who are getting city services, that they should actually be saving money, that we should be fighting for the best deal, and I acknowledge that that didn’t happen.”
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in August that voters can decide whether they want organized trash collection, but the city’s contract with haulers will remain in place regardless of the referendum’s outcome. If voters nix the current system, the city will be left holding a $27 million bill that residents will pay for through property taxes, according to Mayor Melvin Carter and other city officials.
Busuri, who became St. Paul’s first Somali-American council member when he was appointed to complete Bostrom’s term, said he plans to vote no on the referendum “to protect the rights of the citizens.”
“We would not be in the situation we are in today if the council at that time listened to the people who they served,” he said. “By threatening the people of St. Paul and saying this is going to go on the tax levy when there are other options is wrong, and that’s why I’m voting no.”
The Sixth Ward, located in the northeast corner of the city, includes the Frost Lake, Hayden Heights, Hazel Park, Payne-Phalen, Phalen Village and Prosperity neighborhoods. Most residents are people of color, and more than a quarter were born outside the U.S., according to data from Minnesota Compass.
Bostrom represented the ward until December, when he abruptly announced his retirement at the end of a council meeting. An East Side native, Bostrom joined the council in 1996 and remained a moderately conservative voice as the rest of the council skewed left.
Jessica Gerlach, a waitress at Magnolias Restaurant on Payne Avenue, has lived in the Sixth Ward all her life. She doesn’t know whom she’ll vote for yet, but she’s glad that Bostrom has retired.
“I think it was probably time for him to move on,” she said.
About 30 people attended an Oct. 23 candidate forum at Arlington Hills Community Center, and the six candidates spent more than an hour answering questions about ward and citywide issues.
Most candidates said they support increasing housing density in the city. Thao said she would like to see St. Paul make zoning changes similar to what Minneapolis did with its 2040 comprehensive plan.
“I spent nine years on the planning commission where we looked at a lot of these deep issues around zoning, and I think now is a good time for us at the city of St. Paul to look at increasing density,” Thao said.
The candidates also discussed how they would improve the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color — a fraught topic after months of fatal shootings, including an officer-involved shooting of a black man, that have left residents on edge.
“Frankly, I think the engagement that people who have children want, whatever their color, is to have bad guys get picked up and taken down to the jailhouse and get scheduled for a court appearance,” Copeland said.
Payne-Phalen resident Mike Allen said the forum solidified for him that “Copeland and I will never see eye-to-eye on anything.” Allen said climate change is his top issue, and he’s planning to vote for Yang and Thao as his first and second choices on the ranked-choice ballot.
The East Side “would be lucky to have either of them,” he said.
Yang and Thao lead fundraising, campaign finance reports show. Yang has raised more than $95,000 and has more than $27,000 cash on hand, while Thao has raised about $53,000 and has nearly $1,300 cash on hand.
Busuri is the third-place fundraiser, reporting more than $10,000 in campaign donations. His candidacy has been controversial from the get-go; as part of his application and interview for the interim council seat, he pledged not to run in the November election. He decided to run anyway and announced his candidacy in May. He drew criticism a month later for past homophobic postings on social media.
Bourne has found himself having to answer for his court record, including recent allegations in Minnesota.
Bourne was incarcerated in Louisiana in 2015 in a theft case involving his shoe repair business. More recently, a woman filed a restraining order against Bourne that described physical, verbal and emotional abuse. An order for protection was issued after a July court hearing.
In an e-mailed statement, Bourne said the woman is “a liar, fraud and master-manipulator” and that she was the abuser.
In that same statement, Bourne emphasized his St. Paul roots and engagement with the community, from the weekly community barbecues he held over the summer to the free co-working space for aspiring entrepreneurs of color that he created at his campaign headquarters.
“It would be an honor to co-govern a people-centered democracy with the community that raised and invested so much into me,” he said. “I encourage you all to re-imagine what is possible.”