Voters will choose the St. Paul City Council eight months from now, but three races could be over by Monday morning.
St. Paul DFL caucuses are planned for Sunday afternoon, followed immediately by conventions, in three wards where only incumbents are seeking the party nod — Chris Tolbert, Rebecca Noecker and Mitra Jalali Nelson.
Though other DFL candidates could emerge in coming months in those wards, it will be too late for them to seek the endorsement — a potent advantage in a city where all seven council members are DFLers.
Longtime DFL activist Chuck Repke said of the endorsement: “It’s huge, but it’s no guarantee [of victory]. In a local race, there are enough issues to drive a race.”
But John Mannillo, a former City Council candidate and outspoken critic of this year’s condensed process, said it does potential challengers no favors.
“The process does not make it open to new faces, to people on the outside, unless they’re already approved by the party,” he said. “It’s all an inside game.”
Council incumbents and party leaders said the DFL has made an effort in recent years to schedule caucuses and conventions based on what works best for candidates and constituents. Having one event instead of two makes it more likely that delegates will show up, they said, and scheduling the endorsement process early in the year pushes candidates to get their campaigns off the ground.
“If you can’t formulate a campaign, what are you going to be like as an elected official?” said DFL Chairwoman Beth Commers. “If it pushes them to get organized, it pushes them to figure out what they stand for and why they want to run, it pushes them to get out and talk to their neighbors, I don’t have any problem that we do it this time of year.”
Tolbert, who is seeking a third term representing the Third Ward, said there simply is no way to come up with a selection calendar to satisfy everyone.
“Every possible time you could schedule it, there’s a conflict for somebody,” he said.
Council incumbents who have challengers — Council President Amy Brendmoen and council members Dai Thao and Jane Prince — will go through caucuses Sunday and conventions in April or May. Candidates for the open Sixth Ward seat, which longtime Council Member Dan Bostrom left in December, will also have a separate convention.
In the Second, Third and Fourth wards, meanwhile, Tolbert, Noecker and Nelson will have minutes to transition from caucus to convention.
“We are basically trying to mobilize as many supporters as possible to come to caucus and then stay 15 minutes later for the convention,” said Noecker, who won the open Second Ward seat in 2015 in a race where no candidate managed to win the DFL endorsement.
Shirley Erstad, who along with Mannillo is part of the government transparency group St. Paul Strong and ran against Nelson for the Fourth Ward seat, said condensing the time between the caucus and convention robs participants of time for discussing ward issues.
“Part of the process for the caucus system is to get together with your neighbors and talk about things,” she said.
The condensed schedule will also make it difficult for candidates seeking citywide school board seats to visit the Second, Third and Fourth wards to make their pitch to delegates, she said. Those wards have the highest voter turnout in the city.
Endorsement is no guarantee
Even though Tolbert, Noecker and Nelson don’t have challengers for the endorsement, they said they’re heading into Sunday as if they do.
Nelson is seeking re-election less than a year after winning a special election for the Fourth Ward council seat in August. She said she is organizing with the same effort and intensity. In local elections, she said, it is important to build a foundation of people who have shared values but perhaps are new to local politics.
“This is about getting new blood into the party. I am motivated by getting people off the sidelines and into the game who would not otherwise be there,” Nelson said.
The endorsement comes with resources from the city DFL, such as help campaigning, as well as access to a voter database. Plus, incumbents said, it’s a quick way to tell voters what they stand for.
“You have 20 seconds to make an impression on somebody,” Noecker said. “And if they can see the logo of an organization they already know and trust and know that they’re identified with you, then that is just a shorthand way of establishing yourself and your values for voters.”
Still, there’s something to be said for just getting out and knocking on doors.
“The DFL endorsement is absolutely important and is an ingredient that a campaign would need in order to win, but it’s not the only reason,” said St. Paul DFL vice chairman Garrison McMurtrey, who managed Nelson’s campaign last year. “That campaign can’t rely solely on having the DFL endorsement.”