St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao entered the race for mayor this week, saying he wants to unite residents to address some of the city’s biggest challenges.
Thao is the fourth person to announce a campaign for the seat in 2017. He said St. Paul needs a leader who will create an educated workforce, fight poverty and attract businesses and jobs.
“We have to look out for each other,” Thao said. “This is a city that’s small enough we can do that, and it’s big enough to be a role model to other places in this country.”
Thao will be running against former City Council members Melvin Carter III and Pat Harris, as well as former School Board Member Tom Goldstein. Mayor Chris Coleman is not seeking re-election, opting to run for governor instead.
Thao, 41, has represented Ward 1, which includes the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, since 2013. He is an information technology manager at Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery and previously worked with activist groups ISAIAH and TakeAction Minnesota.
If elected, Thao said he would strengthen the partnership between St. Paul Public Schools and the city and push for all-day prekindergarten and youth work opportunities.
He also plans to create a Mayor’s Committee of Business Partners to evaluate economic strategies and recruit businesses to the city. Small business owners have suggested the city reduce administrative hurdles, and Thao said he would address those issues if elected.
The winner of the mayoral election will face financial challenges as the city reshapes its right-of-way assessment program. The assessments have been a major funding source for street maintenance work, but legal issues with the process have forced St. Paul to re-evaluate it and look for new ways to pay for road upkeep.
Thao said he would restructure the right of way program to make it fair. He plans to work with the many organizations in St. Paul that do not pay property taxes, like colleges, churches and nonprofits, to ensure they chip in on city expenses.
Other pieces of Thao’s platform are racial equity — he said he would build on Coleman’s work in that area — and creating a responsive government.
Reflecting on his time on the council, Thao said he is particularly proud of his work on the safe and sick leave ordinance and the city’s new emergency notification system.
He also was instrumental in the recent controversial decision to remove police from the board that reviews allegations of officer misconduct. Thao initially cast the lone vote in favor of taking officers off the board — a decision many in the community supported but police opposed.
He urged fellow council members to listen to residents who testified in favor of removing police. In the following weeks, the majority of council members joined him in voting to have an all-civilian board.
Thao said challenges early in his life shaped his work as a council member and what he would do as mayor. He spent part of his childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand. He moved to Minneapolis when he was 8 and lived in public housing that was infested with mice and cockroaches.
“I would never want anyone else to experience what I experienced,” Thao said.
He plans to hold regular meetings with residents and create a committee of community leaders to evaluate city operations and come up with solutions to local problems.
Zach Wilson lives in Thao’s ward and has called him on a number of issues. He said Thao was unusually responsive and willing to tackle challenges, from right of way assessments to institutional racism.
“I don’t think Dai Thao will be a comfortable mayor,” Wilson said. “He will be someone who pushes us in a direction toward equity, which I think is good, but I think it probably will make some people uncomfortable.”
If Thao is elected, the council would have to appoint an interim replacement to his Ward 1 seat. Then there would be a special election to fill his seat for the rest of the term, through 2019.
Thao plans to hold his first campaign fundraiser next month and will be playing catch-up with Carter, who began fundraising in 2015, and Harris, who announced his campaign earlier this month but has already raised at least $46,835.