A Face-Lift for the St. Paul City Council?

Primaries could mean a stronger, tougher lineup

 The St. Paul City Council often seems irrelevant. The city's strong-mayor system of governance--coupled with a leader, in Randy Kelly, who is not shy about wielding power--frequently renders the council superfluous. At times, city council members have been reduced during public meetings to existential musings about the significance of their standing in the municipal universe.

The primary elections on September 9 could set the stage for a council better equipped to do battle with the mayor. With two generally Kelly-friendly city council members dropping out, this fall's races could change the council's dynamics considerably--from a body that grudgingly accedes to the mayor's wishes to one that actively challenges his authority. "The reality is that this year's elections are pretty important," says Ben Goldfarb, executive director of Progressive Minnesota. "There is an opportunity to change the balance of power on the council."

Most of the attention is focused on the two races where incumbents have chosen not to seek reelection. In the First Ward, which runs through central St. Paul, Jerry Blakey is stepping down after 10 years in the post. Chris Coleman has declined to seek a third term in the Second Ward, a district that includes the city's west side, downtown, and the West Seventh Street neighborhood. Both races have generated a small throng of candidates; in each ward, only two candidates will move on from the primary.

Former Council president and labor darling Dave Thune is the frontrunner in Ward Two
Bill Kelley
Former Council president and labor darling Dave Thune is the frontrunner in Ward Two

In Ward Two, there are four different women running whose last names end in "son." Naturally they worry that voters will have a difficult time simply remembering which candidate they intended to support. The lack of distinctive monikers among the field has led to some fairly resourceful (some might say desperate) marketing techniques. Elizabeth Dickinson, the Green Party candidate in Ward Two, is constantly reminding voters that her last name is the same as the late poet's, while Donna Swanson has taken to linking her candidacy with frozen foods. "I'm Swanson," the DFLer tells voters. "Just like the frozen dinner."

Ward One is the most diverse, politically combative district in the city. Among the nine candidates seeking to fill Blakey's post, six are members of minority groups. The ward has traditionally been a base of political power for the black community, but the significant spike in Asian residents over the last decade has altered that fact. "The demographics of Ward One have really changed drastically," acknowledges the Rev. Devin Miller, a local political activist. "But the African-American community still has a stronghold in Ward One. It's just a matter of getting them out to vote."

Mayor Randy Kelly has attempted to sway the outcome of the two races by throwing his support behind two candidates, Debbie Montgomery in Ward One and Christine Nelson in Ward Two. (Both candidates are also supported by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, a key Kelly backer in the last mayoral election.) "St. Paul is at a crossroads," Kelly argues, alluding to recent cutbacks in state aid. "I feel that we must look to the future and a new reality, and elect office holders that realize the world has changed for local units of government in Minnesota."

But some candidates question how much bounce Kelly's blessing will have. "The mayor's not the most popular guy in Ward One," argues Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action and a Ward One candidate. "A lot of people feel that the mayor doesn't pay a lot of attention to Ward One."

Whoever makes it through the primary--and the general election--will confront a grim reality upon taking office. St. Paul faces significant budget shortfalls for the foreseeable future, with the latest budget forecast projecting a $19 million deficit in 2005. After a decade of holding property taxes level, the city's coffers are empty.

 

Dave Thune is undoubtedly the front-runner in Ward Two. The former city council president, who served on the body from 1992 to 1998, garnered the early support of many labor unions and in April secured the DFL endorsement--a blessing akin to beatification in Ward Two.

The strong support among DFLers for a second Thune tenure is somewhat bewildering. An examination of the 53-year-old motorcycle enthusiast's record over just the last five years reveals instances of political opportunism, questionable ethics, and dubious fiscal management.

While Thune was still on the city council in 1997, he landed a $2,000-a-month job as a consultant with M.A. Mortenson Company. This just happened to be the same company that was awarded a lucrative contract to build St. Paul's new publicly financed hockey arena. Although Thune did not play a direct role in awarding Mortenson the contract, he did cast a vote in favor of allowing the Minnesota Wild to privately bid out the construction work. And in practice, that was the same as voting for Mortenson--the company had put up the Wild's initial $100,000 National Hockey League application fee.

The state auditor launched a probe of Thune's fiscal ties to Mortenson and ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing. Spurred in part by this incident, however, the council amended its conflict-of-interest rules to eliminate such cozy relationships in the future.

Thune then surprised DFLers during the 1998 gubernatorial race by endorsing his former nemesis, Norm Coleman. Despite the then-St. Paul mayor's electoral defeat, Thune's political patronage was rewarded: He landed a job in Coleman's municipal administration as the housing information officer.

Shortly after Thune announced his candidacy for the Ward Two seat this year, the Pioneer Press reported that he was 11 months delinquent on a $25,000 city-backed loan that had been secured to renovate a building on West Seventh Street. Thune has subsequently paid off the balance and blames his political opponents for leaking the story even though they knew he was about to settle the debt. "It's petty politics," he insists.

While most of the Ward Two candidates are unwilling to take on Thune's problematic record, Elizabeth Dickinson does claim that she's encountered a significant "ABT" sentiment on the campaign trail: Anyone But Thune.

 

In recent years Hmong residents have emerged as a potent force in St. Paul politics. Two years ago Mee Moua shook up the political establishment by bringing out scads of new voters and defeating a handful of veteran candidates for a state senate seat on the city's east side. Cy Thao followed up that victory by handily winning a state house race last year in a district that includes much of Ward One.

This year's city council race presents a new wrinkle in Hmong politics: two candidates from the community squaring off against one another. Bao Vang and Toumoua Lee are just two candidates in a freewheeling contest that features at least five legitimate contenders, but their presence has created some unusual discussions and disputes among Hmong citizens.

Early on in the race, there was considerable pressure for one of them to drop out so that Hmong voters could unite behind one candidate. Even now there remains confusion among residents; some persist in believing that they can vote for both candidates. There are dozens of homes in the Frogtown neighborhood, the heart of Ward One, where both candidates' placards sit side by side in the same yard.

Last week, tensions between the two campaigns came into the open when Lee fired off a letter accusing his opponent of falsely informing voters that he was no longer in the race. He also charged that Vang's supporters were misleading elderly voters about the date of the election and then driving them downtown to fill out absentee ballots.

Vang scoffs at the accusations. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with what we are doing and those allegations are absolutely not true," she says. "I think it's just a desperate last-minute attempt to try and get the Hmong people to get out there and support him." (The Ramsey County Attorney's Office is charged with investigating Lee's accusations.)

The presence of two Hmong candidates in the race has created other unusual dynamics. Vang is running on a largely progressive platform and has garnered the support of many advocacy and labor groups, including Minnesota ACORN and AFSCME Council 14. She views younger Hmong voters as a primary source of support.

By contrast, Lee, who is a real estate agent and developer, has courted the business sector and Christians. He's an active member of St. Paul Hmong Alliance Church in Maplewood, which has some 3,000 members. "He's really looking for votes in the Christian community," says Lee Pao Xiong, a longtime Hmong political activist. "He's got a solid base with that."

Lee has also sought support from the heads of the 18 Hmong clans, traditionally the leaders of the community. "He's doing it the old Hmong way of bringing all the older clan leaders together," says Vang. However, Xiong says, the political power of the clan leaders has been greatly diminished in recent years. "It doesn't work anymore," he argues. "Nobody's stupid enough to follow a leader blindly anymore."

 

Elizabeth Dickinson cuts a striking figure as she trolls Grand Avenue for votes. Dressed in a blue and white polka dot dress with bright red buttons and matching belt, she buttonholes passing pedestrians with a fervor (and an outsized smile) that might be mistaken for an evangelical Christian's come-on.

Dickinson is the first Green Party candidate ever to run for the St. Paul City Council. Her candidacy comes during a period of growing pains for the fledgling political movement. The Green Party has established itself as a player in local races--most notably by winning two city council seats in Minneapolis--but it has never ceased to flounder at the state level. In the 2002 election, despite receiving public matching funds and fielding a credible slate of candidates, no Green got more than four percent of the vote.

St. Paul has long been basically a one-party town. The closest it generally gets to political debate is between moderate and liberal Democrats. When Dave Thune stepped down from the Ward Two post in 1998, the only candidate to run for the position was DFLer Chris Coleman. Two years later Coleman trounced his lone challenger, a Republican, by a more than two-to-one margin.

"They aren't the DFL party of 20 years ago, but they're still the only major party in town," says Dave Schultz, a Hamline University law professor who has provided legal counsel to the Green Party. "We need to have a second party in St. Paul, and the Republicans are never going to achieve it."

If Dickinson fails to survive the primary, it will not be for lack of effort. The west sider, whose résumé includes stints as a teacher, therapist, yoga instructor, and actress, has been banging on voters' doors since April, hitting every house in the ward at least once. "At my peak I was doing 30 hours a week of door-knocking," she notes. Dickinson's tireless campaigning has shown some signs of paying dividends. She earned the endorsement of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, normally a lock for the DFL standard-bearer, as well as the support of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Organization of Women.

Dickinson's pitch to potential voters this evening skews heavily toward environmental issues, particularly the benefits of a city-run power plant and the potential of wind as an untapped source of energy. She repeatedly informs residents that the 29 power plants in Minnesota offering consumers the lowest rates are all operated by local governments rather than corporations. She also claims that wind power could provide electricity for at least 90,000 St. Paul households at a cost comparable to existing energy sources. "That one thing would make us the greenest city in the country, because nobody else is doing it," she exclaims.

The response from potential voters is generally sympathetic, if noncommittal. She receives a genial reception from one apartment dweller who describes himself as a "pro-life, eco-radical." Another woman grills Dickinson for 20 minutes before enthusiastically declaring, "I think I like you."

As darkness descends on Grand Avenue, Dickinson comes across a twentysomething man lounging in a lawn chair in his front yard, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Corona. He turns out to be the only professed Green Party supporter she encounters this evening. "I think you can count on two votes from us," the man says of himself and his wife. The couple is about to move to a new residence in Ward Two; the man retreats inside to find the address so that they can be added to the Green Party mailing list. "Every time I find a Green voter," Dickinson beams, "I just want to yell, 'Score!'"

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