Party of Nine

The ward one race in St. Paul promises to be one nasty scrum

Everybody wants Jerry Blakey's job.

The three-term St. Paul City Council member's announcement that he will not seek re-election has prompted a throng of contenders to seek the post. No fewer than nine candidates will be vying for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party's endorsement at this Saturday's convention at Central High School. "Never in the history of this ward,or probably any ward, has there been so many candidates running for one seat," says Ward One DFL co-chair Stanley Gardner. "Nine? Unheard of."

The political contest is proving to be one of the most fascinating and contentious local scrums in recent memory. Ward One is the most diverse district in the city, both economically and ethnically. It contains the brick mansions of Summit Avenue and the ramshackle bungalows of Frogtown, and stretches from the shadows of the Minnesota State Capitol to the Midway neighborhood. Roughly 25 percent of the residents live below the poverty line and seven in ten households had an income of less than $50,000 in 1999, the most recent year for which data is available. The ward is almost evenly split among whites, blacks, and Asians, with a smattering of other ethnic groups, such as Latinos and Somalis.

The field of candidates mirrors the ward's diversity. There are two Hmong candidates, two white candidates, and five black aspirants (Blakey's departure means that school board member Toni Carter could end up being Ramsey County's only black elected official). As a result, interest in the race has already been more intense than usual. While it has become common practice to pooh-pooh party caucuses as nothing more than bewildering tribal ceremonies presided over by a cabal of DFL insiders, last month's gathering attracted an unheard-of 600 attendees. For example, Precinct 14 had 47 delegates; the normal turnout is three. "It was by far our largest crowd ever," says Ward One co-chair Heidi Busse. "Even people who have been going to the precinct caucuses for 30 years were saying it was the largest they've ever been at."

This flowering of participatory democracy in part results from the sheer size of the field. After all, the more supporters a contender can drag to the caucuses, the better chance that person will have at winning a party endorsement. That said, the Hmong community's emergence as a political force in St. Paul, which began with Mee Moua's unexpected victory in last year's state senate race on the city's east side, is having a major impact on the race for Blakey's seat. (Cy Thao's election as a state representative from a district that includes much of Ward One added to the Hmong community's momentum.) "I think that it boils down to the fact that many people before Mee Moua tried and were unsuccessful," says Ward One City Council candidate Bao Vang. "Mee Moua provided that inspiration."

The rapid ascension of the Hmong as political powerbrokers has stirred some resentment, especially in central St. Paul. Ward One includes what's left of the traditional heart of St. Paul's black community, the Rondo neighborhood, which was obliterated to make way for Interstate 94. When Andy Dawkins stepped down as state representative for the area last year, it was widely assumed that his post would be filled by a black politician. However, the most likely person to assume that mantle, attorney Chris Crutchfield, was eliminated from the race because of political redistricting. That opened the door for Cy Thao to win the crucial DFL endorsement over Brooke Blakey. The convention, and its aftermath, proved contentious, with some delegates questioning special accommodations made for Hmong voters for whom English is a second language, including color-coded ballots.

Tensions between the black and Asian communities have also been exacerbated by the proposed Pan-Asian retail and office complex at the intersection of Dale Street and University Avenue. Some black residents worry that their own economic development efforts are being ignored. Robert McClain, another city council candidate, says one of his concerns is that the project will polarize the community. "I don't want to see economic development along racial lines," argues McClain, who is making his third run for the Ward One seat. "I don't want to see the Asian corner, the black corner, the Somali corner, and the white corner."

This divisiveness flared up at the party caucuses. Kerri Allen, another City Council candidate, who currently works for the city on education issues, alleges that one of her supporters was unable to secure a delegate slot because the proceedings in his precinct were conducted entirely in Hmong. "He was shut out of the process because he didn't know what was going on," she maintains.

Other delegates complained that they couldn't understand what was being told to the Hmong delegates. "A couple of the comments I got was, 'How the hell do we know what they're saying?'" recalls Ward One co-chair Gardner. "Well, you don't." Gardner, however, like many Ward One political observers, downplays the issue. "It's been my experience that anytime there is a change, there is a group of people who, instead of just going along with it, they get upset by it. It's different from the routine that they expected."

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