Kris Reiter might not be registered to vote in St. Paul, but she'll be on the ballot as a candidate for the Fifth Ward council seat in next week's general election.
That's the upshot of Ramsey County District Judge Gary Bastian's ruling last week on whether Reiter qualifies as a St. Paul resident and can therefore seek elected office in the city. Her father, two-term incumbent council member Jim Reiter, died earlier this month after suffering his second heart attack in three months.
Following her father's death, Kris Reiter announced that she would be seeking his seat, despite the fact that her primary residence has been in Shoreview since 2000. In announcing her candidacy, the 33-year-old real-estate agent claimed that she had been living at her parents' St. Paul home since early September in order to care for her sick father, and therefore met the city's 30-day residency requirement.
Not everyone was convinced. Four people living in the ward, which includes Como Park, the Rice Street corridor, and pockets of the city's East Side, filed a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of her candidacy. Among the facts cited in their lawsuit was that Reiter had failed to change either her mailing address or the address on her driver's license, and that she was not registered to vote in St. Paul. Judge Bastian was not swayed.
The ruling sets up a five-way scrum for the post just days before the November 4 election. In addition to Reiter, three other St. Paul residents collected the 500 signatures needed to appear on the ballot following the incumbent's death: Mamie Lanford Singleton, a 26-year veteran of the St. Paul police force; Kathy Weyandt Jackson, director of student life at St. Bernard's High School; and Sheryl Kabat, director of the Weed & Seed program in Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. They all join Lee Helgen, executive director of the Minnesota Workforce Council Association, on the ballot. Helgen narrowly defeated Jim Reiter in the September primary and has the backing of Progressive Minnesota and several labor unions that carry clout in parts of the ward.
Despite this list of credible candidates, many of the forces that had supported the elder Reiter quickly lined up behind his daughter. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, and City Council members Dan Bostrom, Chris Coleman, and Pat Harris immediately endorsed her candidacy. The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the firefighters union quickly backed the younger Reiter as well. The overall impression was that of a de facto coronation and left many people questioning the neophyte politician's independence--and credibility. More to the point, critics argue, the power structure just wants Reiter's vote on the council: "If you didn't have so many powerful people at a city and county level who are counting on that vote," argues Kabat, "this would not be happening."
Kathy Weyandt Jackson, who has the backing of the Republican Party, is dismayed that she didn't even get a chance to speak with the Chamber of Commerce or the firefighters union before they made their decisions. "They endorsed her without even finding out about anyone else who was running," says Weyandt Jackson.
Weyandt Jackson, a lifelong resident of the area and a former English teacher at Como Park High School, is running a vigorous campaign. Signs touting her candidacy have popped up all over the district seemingly overnight. This is likely bad news for Kris Reiter. Reiter's base of support is expected to come from the more conservative wing of the DFL party, as reflected in the endorsements of Mayor Kelly and the Chamber of Commerce, a constituency that Weyandt Jackson will also be wooing.
Other key votes are up for grabs. Bill Carlson, a political science professor at Bethel College and longtime activist in the Fifth Ward, points to the ward's Hmong population as the potential swing vote in the race. In 2002, John Lesch and Nancy Haas squared off in the DFL primary for a state representative seat in a district that largely mirrors Ward Five. Then, Haas garnered the backing of Mayor Kelly and the Chamber of Commerce, while Lesch countered with support from Progressive Minnesota and many labor unions. Lesch ultimately won with 57 percent of the vote. Carlson, a Helgen supporter, attributes the outcome in part to Hmong voters. "In my mind they were essentially the difference," he argues.
Election forecasting aside, last week's court ruling didn't clear up all matters with regard to Reiter's residency. Perhaps the most peculiar moment of the hearing came when Reiter testified that she'd sold her Shoreview home to Sheriff Bob Fletcher in July for $299,000. Then Reiter told the court that she started renting the home from Fletcher at a rate of $61 per day, or roughly $1,800 a month. Reiter originally purchased the Shoreview home in June 2000 for $160,000. (Neither Reiter nor Fletcher returned calls seeking comment for this story.)
Reiter swore in an affidavit that a deed was filed with Ramsey County in July, proving that she had sold the house (she also provided a copy of the deed). But a review of Ramsey County property records shows no evidence of the transaction: Reiter is still listed as the owner of the property and is responsible for taxes. And as of Monday, she had not paid property taxes that were due on October 15.
Which hardly resolves the issue in the minds of many. Charlie Tiller, one of the plaintiffs seeking to keep Reiter off the ballot, says that the court ruling has not swayed his opinion about the illegitimacy of her candidacy. "I am sorry that her father died, but we don't have dynastic succession in this country," Tiller says. "At least we shouldn't."