|[My view as an "undecided voter" at the Ward convention.]|
Earlier this spring, when running for a delegate seat at the Saint Paul DFL City Convention, I was undecided about the mayor's race. This year’s mayoral election is important because, for the first time in a well over a decade, there’s a wide-open race for the mayor’s office. And unlike in Minneapolis, in Saint Paul the mayor’s office is by far the most important position in the city.
At the time, I was undecided. I was genuinely open to hearing from different candidates, and really did not want to see the DFL party endorsing a candidate in the spring. Instead, I wanted lots of information and a contested race. I wanted to watch the campaigns through the summer, and to understand more clearly the different stances that the candidates had on the issues.
To my relief, all of those things have happened and I got my wish. Barring any last-minute changes, here's my ballot. But before I get there, some context for this year's race.
Saint Paul’s political system
|[The Council Chamber is not where the power is.]|
For the most part, unlike our western neighbor, Saint Paul does not have a strong track record of explicitly radical politics. As Mary Lethert Wingerd lays out in her political / labor history of the Twin Cities
, the model here has been one of compromise rather than confrontation. For generations, Saint Paul has gone the route of centrist liberalism, often aided by the Catholic church. Leaders have tried to mediate and mitigate political tensions like, for example, the one between labor and business. As a city, our most popular mayors have most been center-left business liberals, like Chris Coleman or George Latimer. In fact, rather than left-progressives in the Ellison/Wellstome mold, Saint Paul voters have been more likely to flirt with almost-extinct species of conservative urbanites like DINO
mayors Norm Coleman and Randy Kelly (their Minneapolis equivalents would be Arne Carlson or Barb Johnson). A lot of that is because of low turnout and how campaign money operates, and for better or for worse, that’s been the way of city politics Saint Paul.
|[Sadly for democracy, but happily for Coleman, the 2013 mayor's race was a farce.]|
The city’s other big political hallmark is a “strong-mayor system” that dates back to the 1970s. Unlike Minneapolis’ dispersed (“thirteen mayors”) Council model, Saint Paul concentrates decision making and budget-setting power in one office. The next Mayor of Saint Paul, whoever it is, will have a by far the most influence over the city’s priorities, processes, and goals than anyone else.
There are good things and bad things about that system, and one of the most common complaints about Chris Coleman’s tenure as mayor has been a lack of transparency about big-ticket city decisions. Situations like the Saints stadium no-bid contract
, the setting up of priorities during the city capital budget process
(that often came at the expense of ward priorities), or the $40M+ “8-80” budget that included some real categorical stretches like the Palace Theater remodel.
Personally, I feel Coleman’s power of the purse has been used relatively well. The 8-80 projects
, the Penfield
, and the Palace theater renovation
, for example, were all good investments. Likewise, the city’s two Chris Coleman-era stadium deals — the Saints and MN United — are vastly better than the ones in Minneapolis. Both might be as close as any Minnesota stadium project ever comes to “paying off,” in terms of economic development (which is to say, it’s all relative).
And unlike previous mayoral regimes, Coleman hasn’t wasted tons of money on doomed urban malls or big road expansions, and I give him props for doing things like trying — but badly failing!
— to implement more parking meters and for trying — and probably succeeding — to organize garbage collection
Regardless of my take on it, there’s been a narrative bubbling under the surface of Saint Paul politics that city finances are falling apart because of waste or vague corruption, or that the city priorities are somehow skewed toward downtown business and away from geographically balanced and racially equitable investments.
If that’s the case, I’m not seeing it. Downtown is critical for the whole city, for example. And my take on tax-base problems are that we need to stem the continual leak of jobs
(through downtown investment, among other things), that we have a lack of market-rate development, and that we still rely on fiscally-inefficient pro-sprawl policies
. And, oh yeah, there’s the screw-up of the city’s street maintenance assessment system by some combination of it being a bad idea in the first place (thanks Randy Kelly!) and someone shrugging off an important law suit.
The key idea here: any Saint Paul mayor will be able make sweetheart back-room deals. That’s the nature of the system, and it’s going to be a problem in the city no matter who is elected. You hope for transparency and accountability and decentralization of decision making, but the entire system is set up to minimize those things.
Like I said, there are pros and cons to the strong mayor system, and for that reason, you hope that, whoever you elect, they're going to make smarter back-room deals than others.
Track records versus present-day stances
|[Pat Harris' disappearing / re-appearing 2011 sharrow.]|
The other thing that’s on the table here, at least with a few of the candidates, is that they previously served in office and have something of a record. The two front-runners, Pat Harris and Melvin Carter, both previously served on the City Council
. Meanwhile, Dai Thao is currently on the council, and has recently taken a bunch of illuminating votes. How much weight do we give their track records versus what they are saying now on the campaign trail?
One thing to note: a lot has changed in Saint Paul over the last six years. For example, Harris was a Council Member in Highland for 12 years,
ending in 2011 (replaced by CM Tolbert). So there’s a lot there.
The point is that I first encountered Harris when he was involved in the Jefferson Avenue bicycle debate. I remember him as the Council Member who ordered the city to remove sharrows from a repaving plan because they were a waste of money
. (Scroll down to #5 on that link to read about it.) Harris was the Council Member during the entire Jefferson Bike boulevard debate
(though not the final denouement). It turned into a bike planning fiasco, and today the once-ambitious project is an embarrassment to the city.
(A point in Harris’ favor: sharrows are not a big deal and do legitimately suck. But on the other hand, his rationale at the time was ridiculous and the position did not help one bit.)
Meanwhile, Carter’s track record on urban and equity issues isn’t entirely stellar. As former Council Candidate Jim Ivey is fond of reminding me on Twitter
, both Harris and Carter voted to allow Cossetta’s to violate the city’s living wage ordinance back in 2011. And Carter scratched a traffic circle from the Griggs Bikeway
before eventually supporting it.
(Again, one-of-five traffic circles is hardly a big deal, and he ended up supporting the project. But still... must we?)
My point is that I prefer focusing on what the candidates are saying and doing now, rather than navel gazing at Council votes from the 2010s. Partly that's because there’s been a ton of progress on Saint Paul safe streets in the last seven years. In conversations with Harris today, and hearing him speak at events, he's changed his stance on street safety issues since the 2000s. The same is true for Carter and presumably some others. Meanwhile, Thao has the unfortunate position of actually being in office during an election year, and having to make tough-but-revealing decisions.
But most importantly, unlike previous Minneapolis and Saint Paul mayoral elections where there was either a total lack of opposition or an almost-total lack of daylight between nearly-identical candidates, in this race there are many important distinctions
For example, here are four big issues for me: Ford site, living wage, public safety policy, and safe streets.
Four Key Issues
|[Citizens giving CM Tolbert a spinal exam.]|
Let’s take them one-by-one.
#1: Ford site / development
At first glance, using the contentious Ford site debate to evaluate different candidates seems a bit small-minded, like a single-issue voter who only cares about one particular crosswalk at one intersection.
But actually, as I tweeted a while back
, the Ford debate combines a bunch of critical issues
. It was a great test for a mayoral candidate because their positions revealed their character in action. Firstly, and probably most important, the different stances point to how much each candidate is willing to stand up to pressure brought by (in this case) a well-heeled group of wealthy homeowners. The Ford site is like a spinal exam.
That’s huge, because having a spine in the face of the city's unequal public engagement landscape will be be critically important as Saint Paul attempts to make some tough-but-necessary changes around things like sustainability, safety, and the precise meaning of the word “livable
Candidates’ Ford site stances also throw into relief a candidate’s trust in policy analyses, as well as their commitment to public process. Both of those will also be critically important when it comes to ensuring the stability of Saint Paul’s tax-base, or not wasting thousands of hours of staff time on clearly lost causes. Meanwhile, there's an all-important need for more housing in the city, that's supported by reams of policy documents
. The Ford site might be a “single issue,” but it’s one that brings together some of the most important policy threads dangling over Saint Paul right now.
#2: living wage
Especially in the Trump era
|[Saint Paul wage flag.]|
, one where Minnesota teeters on the brink of a Scott Walker-esque state government that would wage all-out war on our cities
, the living wage issue is a critical test of one’s political philosophy. Now that the mantle of progressivism has passed to the cities, passing a $15 city-wide wage practically the only thing anyone on the left can do to help working-class people
. Supporting the effort, despite business pressure, is a clear sign of where one falls on the political spectrum. It also reveals a lot about how frustrated a candidate is with status-quo top-down liberalism, versus a commitment to grassroots organizing tactics that build on incremental results.
In Minneapolis, minimum wage stances have been a big differentiatior for the different Council and Mayoral candidates. The same should be true in Saint Paul, though the vote has not yet come to a head.
#3: race and policing
This is also critical
|[Philando demonstration chalk on Summit Avenue last year.]|
. We have for far-too-long ignored the festering collision of race and policing in our cities. Over the last few years, as more and more innocent people have been killed by police, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ability of public safety institutions to deal with accountability have come to define urban political movements in US cities. This issue is not going away.
Minneapolis might have it worse, but this is still a big deal in Saint Paul, and anyone who thinks that the SPPD is immune to these kinds of shootings or frustrations is kidding themselves. The next mayor will be at the center of these tensions. Will they be able to do anything to help resolve them?
#4: safe streets
Finally, the reason I've been blogging for 12 years. My central issue is making sure the city does as much as it can to change the culture of our streets. This is a complex issue because, on the surface, all the candidates (and Saint Paul official policy) already say the right things. Everyone believes in safe streets and bicycling and healthy transportation.
(Well, everyone but Tom Goldstein.)
But that’s not the real problem in Saint Paul. What we need in this city is actual leadership on safe streets, because simply having a plan isn’t good enough. The next mayor will need to dedicate funding to bike projects, and stand up to bike lash and backlash from drivers in negotiation with the county.
That takes spine, tough accounting, and an understanding of the nuance of design tradeoffs. Even if someone says all the right things, it’s not a given that they’ll be the kind of strong leader that will take some heat to create a safer city for everyone.
The next mayor will need to push for Maryland Avenue-style road diets
on the East Side and North End, probably over the objections of other elected officials from those neighborhoods. The next mayor will need to be a strong advocate for transit and walkability on the Riverview corridor
, probably over objections from elected officials or businesses. The next mayor will have to fight to get funding for the completion of the critical downtown bikeway
, despite the logjam of other priorities and the objections of some businesses. The next mayor will have to appoint a public works director who believes in a multi-modal future instead of a car-dependent past. The next mayor will have to somehow get downtown property owners to work together on improving public space and streets, despite the fact that none of them can agree on anything.
Building safe streets isn't about saying the right thing, it’s about implementing the right things even when people are filling your ear with complaints about insoluble problems like traffic and parking. Who is the right person for that kind of leadership?
Anyway, that’s the landscape as I see it. And here’s my ranked list of the top five contenders for the job.
[in ranked order of preference.]
#5 (last place): Tom Goldstein
|[Even his lawn signs are mansplain-y.]|
I first encountered Tom Goldstein when he was running for City Council two years ago…
Actually, no. That’s wrong. I knew about Goldstein’s baseball card shop as a kid. I vaguely remember his publication the Elysian Fields Quarterly
, and that he was part of some sort of secret baseball society in Saint Paul.
But that’s pre-politically active Goldstein. My first encounter with Goldstein-the-gadfly
was when I witnessed him rally people against the proposed Cleveland Avenue bike lane. I was politically repulsed
, in the true "Bill Hosko" sense of the term, and that feeling hasn’t left me in the years since.
Sure Goldstein makes an occasional good point about corporate subsidies, but on these and all issues, he epitomizes the proverbial “stopped clock that’s right twice a day.” Only, to correct the metaphor, Goldstein would have to be a stopped clock hanging from the side of a nearly-abandoned 1980s urban strip mall that hasn’t told the time correctly in at least five years.
Not only would he be a disaster for the city, but personally he’s a jerk. I hope this is the last we hear from him.
#4: Dai Thao
|[Dai Thao's Ford flier is all kinds of wrong.]|
At first, I liked Dai Thao running for mayor. I’ve had some good conversations with him as a Council Member, and have always been pleased when he’d sent his staff to street safety events or (much more occasionally) shown up himself to weigh in. During the last few years on the Council, he’s proven himself open to supporting bike and pedestrian safety projects. When he makes a mistake, as he did on the Idaho traffic circles, he comes around to correct it.
I was even somewhat willing to forgive him for his campaign manager getting semi-sort-of-caught aggressively asking for money from a well-connected Styrofoam lobbyist
. On that one hand, the move does fit with Thao's aggressive M.O. On the other hand, raising money from well-connected folks is something that lots of the politicians do all the time. The only difference is that the established candidates are more subtle.
(That said, his subsequent vote against sustainable food packaging looks pretty bad given this incident, especially considering the fact that he had previously supported the ordinance change while he was running for office.)
Anyway, all my enthusiasm for Dai Thao’s mayoral campaign vanished during the last few weeks. His flip-flopping on the Ford Site was not only disappointing, it defied basic logic
. Was he standing up for the wealthy homeowners upset about traffic? Or for people who need affordable housing?
It became pretty clear which was which after the Council actually passed his affordable housing amendment (on a close vote!) and then he went ahead and voted against the Ford site plan anyway on a flimsy process pretext. Well that and his campaign literature (seen above) which parrots the talking points of the Republican-lobbyist position. The degree and speed at which Thao abandoned equity positions and began catering to privilege at the expense of future renters is the biggest disappointment of the campaign year.
#3: Elizabeth Dickinson
I like Elizabeth Dickinson. I also mirror much of what Naomi Kritzer says
about Elizabeth Dickinson, that's her campaign weirdly seems like that of a "business-friendly liberal." Her wishy-washy stance on the Ford site — calling for more open space — was a bit of a surprise to me. It's not really the kind of strong grassroots leadership I’m looking for in a left-of-center candidate.
But really, my basic concern is that she lacks experience, and that trumps the rest of it. At an early house party, she pretty much lost my support when she talked about her strong belief in life coaching, suggesting that that's what Saint Paul was missing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the life coaching model works for some people, and I don’t think she mentions it on the stump any more. It's not my thing though, especially in today’s political moment. I feel that we need firm leadership that can get disengaged people involved and excited about local politics, rather than a mediator approach. I think that the stakes for Saint Paul's next mayor are too high to take a chance on someone with no experience holding a political office.
On the other hand, I think she’d be make a great Council Member, where she was one of many people at the table offering input, with a small staff pushing a green agenda. (Like Goldstein, she previously ran for Council, but didn’t win.)
#2: Pat Harris
|[Harris helping kids at a library.]|
Harris seems like a nice and capable person, with deep ties in the city, but is clearly the conservative in the race. “Trust me, I’m a banker,” might seem comforting for people that are worried about Saint Paul’s fiscal future, but I’m not convinced that this is the kind of message that we need in the Trump era, when Saint Paul is in the midst of massively important political and demographic changes.
On the issues, Harris isn’t bad. But he consistently adopts the more conservative position than his primary rival, Melvin Carter.
On the Ford site, according to the official position, Harris supports “robust development
.” In political reality, Harris tried to have it both ways, somehow finesse-ing a position that allowed him to critique a plan that he also says he supports using a flimsy reasoning that, at least to me, does not hold much water.
(The irony there is that he was on the Council, and part of the process, when it began. If anyone should have led the way on supporting Ford, it should probably have been him.)
On the living wage, Harris hedges again, adopting a classic “yes, but…” answer that is chock full of bussiness-y buzzwords
(scroll down to #5). It’s a pretty clear dodge, especially contrasted with the conversation in Minneapolis where there’s a consensus about how a tip credit / exception throws many workers under the wheels of the minimum-wage bus.
On policing, Harris is the one calling for hiring the most cops, and he's also supported by the Police Union. As Naomi Krister (again!) says
, "I take the endorsement as an indication that this candidate is the one they [the Police Union] most expect will let them continue to act without accountability."
Even though Saint Paul is not as bad as Minneapolis (low bar!), a endorsement by the Police union is a negative endorsement for me. I wish that systemic police violence wasn’t a thing, and that this issue didn’t matter so much. But it is, and it does, and it’s hard to see Harris making much progress on this front given his positions here.
Finally on safe streets, it’s a big question mark that leans positive. Given his willingness to parrot traffic and parking concerns about "extreme density"
during the Ford site debate, I have reservations about whether he’d be a strong leader with making Saint Paul streets more walkable and bikeable. That said, Harris' streets.mn questionnaire was good
. He clearly knows how to say the right things.
And again, on the one hand, he’s a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, a group which has never seen a parking lot it didn’t like. On the other other hand, Harris seems like a strong supporter of Riverview, which (not coincidentally) goes right to the airport.
All in all, I don’t think Harris would be a bad mayor. Personally, I like him. He might be a good mayor. Some of my friends support him, and if he was elected, I’d have an open mind and hope for the best.
But to me, the entire campaign seems backward-looking. I don’t like his positions or rhetorical direction nearly as much as the next guy on this list…
#1: Melvin Carter
I am not that into family political dynasties, but at least the Carters have an interesting one. Carter’s mother is a long-time County Commissioner, and (more to my interests) his grandfather played in a jazz band
that backed Dizzy, Miles Davis, and Coltrane back when they toured through Rondo. (Not really important now, but still!)
The point is that, initially, I was skeptical about Carter’s candidacy, especially given how he failed to finish his second Council term (leaving for a job at the Governor’s office). But the more I’ve seen Carter in action, the more I’ve liked him. That’s true both personally, and in his positions on the key issues in Saint Paul.
Firstly, Carter was the only candidate to straight-up support the city’s plans for the Ford site. Given how much heat there was on that issue, that’s a big spine check. And given how much evidence and process there had been supporting the plan, that’s a big endorsement from the all-important sustainability-and-reality lobby.
On living wage, Carter has (eventually) become a no-reservations supporter of the $15 now campaign
. That’s a big deal, and offers a clear difference with Harris.
On race and policing, Carter is very interesting. Back during the Philando Castile demonstrations, I was frustrated by Carter’s seeming lack of a strong position. Despite the fact that Carter's dad was a cop, and that he went to high school with Castile himself (killed by suburban police
on the Saint Paul border), Carter’s public statement was very cautious
. Perhaps entirely understandably...
Since then, Carter offered an intriguing vision for how policing would be changed under his administration
, bringing together the former police chief and the family of Philando Castile around a platform of police reform. (Maybe it’s just a photo-op, but that is really hard to do!) There is a chance that Carter’s administration could be a national leader on addressing police violence and systemic racism.
On safe streets, again there’s not much way to know. Like Harris, his streets.mn / SPBC / TLC questionnaire is solid
and says all the right things. But the devil is in the details of city budgets and administrative finagling. Personally, I think Carter’s “safety” message is more effective at building coalitions of support for street design changes.
|[80% of Saint Paul's seniors are white.]|
Carter is 38 and Harris is 51, and they’re both well-connected former City Council Members running well-funded campaigns.
Despite all that, they seem farther apart in age. To me, the choice between Harris and Carter mirrors Saint Paul’s huge generational divide that, I fear, could be a thorn in the city’s side.
Here's the dilemma. The vast majority of Saint Paul’s seniors (and especially voters!
) are white. They’ve spent most of their lives in a quiet sorta-homogeneous city that was somewhat in decline, where driving and parking has always been relatively easy and things changed slowly, if at all.
Meanwhile, the city has changed a lot. Today, Saint Paul is almost 50% people of color, and the vast majority of them are younger and have different needs than prior generations. By itself, that poses critical problems around race, culture, and who has access to resources or political speech. It leads to situations where where you have old, traditional white politicians (e.g. Janice Rettman or Phyllis Kahn) representing areas of the city that are full of young people of color, and especially new immigrants. Addressing those looming racial and age divides are daunting tasks not made easier by a lack of political representation.
On top of that, finally Saint Paul is starting to see growth and change in ways that challenge the low-density status quo. That means handling development, population growth, and the need for more and better housing in smart ways. It also means re-thinking our streets, sidewalks, and public spaces in ways that ruffle the drive-always status quo. Those changes will require leadership and tough trade-offs that challenge some of Saint Paul's traditional ways.
This summer, I was legitimately undecided for a long time. I'm glad that the DFL convention did not endorse anyone, and that we finally got to see a competitive mayor’s race in Saint Paul.
But since then, Melvin Carter III has won my vote with his stated commitment to thinking about the city’s future. In the end, it wasn’t even close, and I think he could be a great mayor of Saint Paul.