Party of Nine

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."

Even so, problems have continued to crop up in the wake of the caucuses. Ward One co-chair Busse says she was declared a racist by one resident who didn't agree with the way delegates would be seated at the convention. "It's still out there big time," she allows.

Racial tensions aren't the only issue that has surfaced during the prelude to this weekend's convention. The DFL feminist caucus is drawing fire for the way it conducted its screening process. One of the members of the screening committee was Lee Vang, who happens to be candidate Bao Vang's sister. The only contender who was deemed "acceptable" was Vang. Kerri Allen was not judged a suitable candidate, even though she serves on the board of the feminist caucus. "If I could have had my sister on the committee to make sure that every other candidate would be found unacceptable then she would've been there," Allen says.

One way or another, all of this political intrigue will come to a head during Saturday's convention at Central High School. One of the nine DFL candidates vying for the endorsement will need to garner support from 60 percent of the delegates in order to earn the party's backing. Under the current rules there will be seven rounds of voting. Following the third ballot, any candidate with less than 15 percent of the delegates will be dropped. This threshold will gradually increase to 30 percent. If no candidate can attract 60 percent of the vote by the seventh ballot, the convention will end in a deadlock; the most likely scenario under the current rules. "I think a lot of people are uncommitted--or at least that's what they're saying to me," says Stuart Alger, another candidate and a lawyer in the Minnesota Attorney General's office. "I don't think anybody's close to the 60 percent."

As a result, the most important battle of the day will likely occur before anyone has cast a vote. As soon as the convention opens, delegates will be asked to decide whether the number of ballots permitted should remain at seven or not be capped at all. The attempt to change the rules is being spearheaded by the two candidates who emerged from the party caucuses with seemingly the strongest support among delegates--Melvin Carter, a retired St. Paul police officer, and Vang, a Ramsey County contract manager. "Why do you go through all this trouble and not endorse a candidate and just waste people's time?" asks Vang.

Vic Rosenthal, another candidate, counters that seven ballots is plenty to determine if there is a clear favorite among the delegates. "The ward is so diverse and so divided right now that to force the issue I think is a mistake," says Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, a nonprofit advocacy group. "You could have delegates angry before we even begin the voting process and I think it's unfortunate."

The outcome of this seemingly arcane debate could determine whether the DFL throws its weight behind any one candidate. Even if the party chooses to endorse a candidate, it will not completely eliminate a contested primary. At least three candidates--former Thomas-Dale Block Club leader Johnny Howard, businessman Toumoua Lee, and St. Paul Police officer Debbie Montgomery--plan to run in September no matter what happens at the convention. "I don't dance if I don't like the music," quips Howard. Those candidates would face an uphill battle in Ward One, however, where the DFL seal of approval is akin to coronation.

With nine candidates, and no clear favorite, it promises to be a long, contentious, and compelling day. "Nobody knows how to have a floor fight the way people in Ward One do," laughs delegate Pat Lindgren. "If there's no blood on the floor then we didn't really have a convention."

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