Election 2014: Ramsey County Commissioner, District 5

If you ever get the urge to go into politics, but you’re totally in it for the power and really not interested in the glory (because “glory” in the case of politics mostly just means people e-mailing you with complaints), run for County Board. At least around here, the County Board does an amazing array of stuff and yet people largely ignore it completely. How completely? Well, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson has been on the Hennepin County Board for years and yet even in the metro area, an awful lot of people don’t even know who he is. (This excellent article talks about the problem in some detail, though it’s focused on Hennepin County, not Ramsey.)

(For the non-Minnesotans who read these posts for the snark and weird stories, I’ll just quickly note that Minneapolis and St. Paul are in different counties. Minneapolis is in Hennepin County; St. Paul is in Ramsey County. Both of these counties include a bunch of suburbs and Hennepin I think includes a little bit of rural land.)

In my part of St. Paul, here’s who’s on the ballot:

CHARLES S. BARKLIND – NONPARTISAN
RAFAEL E. ORTEGA – NONPARTISAN

Rafael Ortega is the incumbent. He has (1) the job, at the moment; (2) the DFL’s endorsement; and (3) yard signs (I’ve seen them.)

He does not have a web site that can be found with Google.

Well, he has a job web site, but the complete lack of a campaign web site kind of makes me wonder where people got the yard signs. I mean, obviously people had their methods back in the era before the Internet — heck, I pounded in yard signs for Ken Golden the first time he ran for Madison City Council — but seriously, don’t you want people to be able to get them easily? and more importantly, to donate money to you easily? He must not be very worried.

To clarify the DFL endorsement thing despite the fact that no party is listed: there are a bunch of offices that are officially non-partisan; the political parties in town can endorse candidates if they want and if they can agree on somebody. The DFL routinely does endorsements for the mayoral races, the city council races, the school board races, and the county board races. The Republicans in Minneapolis and St. Paul occasionally do endorsements but mostly just stay out of it because an endorsement from Republicans in Minneapolis isn’t going to motivate people to vote for you, it’s going to be the MARK OF CAIN that people point to and say “you can’t vote for this guy; he’s a REPUBLICAN.” The smart Republicans, like Cam Winton, run as Independents.

Rafael Ortega

His office web site says he grew up in a tough neighborhood in New York, where he learned firsthand about the importance of transit. He was a social worker and a director of a social services organization before becoming the first minority elected to Ramsey County board and the first Latino elected to ANY county board in Minnesota, which happened in 1994. So twenty years in, it’s no wonder he’s not super worried about getting re-elected.

His achievements list mentions, “Did critical site cleanup for Sholom Home East on West 7th in Highland Park, paving the way for what the Star Tribune calls the ‘future of nursing homes.'” Sholom Home is a genuinely nice facility: pleasant and (more critically) well staffed with people who are well trained, attentive to the residents, and friendly. My grandmother has lived in three different places since moving to the Twin Cities, and I toured several others, so I speak from a pretty good knowledge base when I say that Sholom Home is EXCELLENT. So I will happily give him points for that. That whole little corner went from a disused industrial site to a thriving mini-neighborhood; I think it was anchored by Sholom Home.

On the other hand, you could probably fairly blame him for some of the most annoying things about the Green Line, the LRT line that runs from Downtown St. Paul to Downtown Minneapolis.

Here’s the thing about the Green Line. (Why did they call it the Green Line? Why couldn’t it have been the University Line, like the Blue Line was and should have stayed the Hiawatha Line?) It runs down the center of University Avenue, and they didn’t feel that they could let it preempt the traffic lights, because Snelling (the biggest north-south street it crosses) is already a mess, and letting the Hiawatha Line preempt the lights created some seriously effed-up east-west traffic. Years after they opened the line, they finally had the technology installed so that the traffic lights could resume the cycle where it left off, instead of starting over from the beginning.

So to solve this problem on University they are not letting it preempt the lights for the north-south streets at ALL. Now, on Snelling: yeah. You can’t. I think it makes sense to not let the trains preempt Raymond, Fairview, Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, Victoria, Dale, or Western — all of which are stops, anyway. But there’s a light at Prior. There’s a light at Pascal. There are lights up and down all of University; making the train stop at Pascal is just ridiculous.

There is a fascinating, if someone technical, article from back in July about how they’re trying to fix this problem by timing the signals to create waves of green in both directions. When you do this right, cars and trains will get a whole long string of greens and then one red and then another whole long string of greens. Except I would think the trains would keep screwing this up by stopping at stations for unpredictable amounts of time, and in fact, the bus that used to run along University Ave was faster than the goddamn train.

Mind you, the Green Line is getting a ton of riders, despite all the annoying aspects; it’s way above ridership predictions and actually seems to be a huge success. And it has not made it any more difficult to cross University by car than it already was. (In fact, it’s a whole lot easier than it was during construction, when it was horrific.) I found a whole bunch of blog-type posts about Rafael at the Pioneer Press site and one of them quotes him saying that he doesn’t think cold weather will depress ridership, and I think he’s right; trains are nice year round, but they are particularly awesome when it’s snowy and the roads are a mess.

…and HEY, while hunting for information about Charles Barklind I found a voter’s guide that had a link and I FOUND RAFAEL ORTEGA’S WEBSITE. (I sent them a note suggesting ways they could make it a bit easier to find.) In addition to his transit stuff he mentions creating a program that offers mental health and chemical dependency treatment under one roof, protecting sex trafficking victims, and redeveloping land like the old Army Ammunition Plant.

Charles S. Barklind

Charles really truly does not have a website. He’s a man of many contradictions, though, so let me just go through a few things I found in semi-chronological order.

Back in 2010, when he ran for this same seat, he turned in some answers to a voter’s guide. This is a highbeam.com link but conveniently, Charles’ extremely succinct answers are in the teaser bit. In 2010, he was 62 and a golf caddy. Candidates were invited to submit a 100-word essay about the issue that was most important to them. I quote Charles’ essay in its entirety: “The University Corridor of light rail transit. I’m in favor of it.”

A year or two back, he got profiled on a blog that does news analysis. In the piece, he describes himself as a Republican, although mostly he sounds like a harmless crank with a letter-writing hobby.

This year, he’s got a profile in an East Metro voter guide. In response to the question, “What would be your top three priorities if elected?” he says, “Maintain our excellent credit rating. Take from the rich. Give to the poor.”

Anyway. I am not going to speculate about what precisely is going on with Charles, other than to say I’m glad he’s found a rewarding hobby in running for office and I’m glad he lives in senior housing where presumably there are people to keep an eye on him. He sounds like he’s probably both incredibly hardworking and very kind, and I hope the people in his life appreciate him. I don’t want him as my County Commissioner, though.

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3 thoughts on “Election 2014: Ramsey County Commissioner, District 5

  1. I think that the trains could preempt a number of those other lights, such as Fairview and Hamline, in fact I’d only want to see Snelling protected from preemption–and I wish they’d figure out some way to help Snelling traffic get through the University and I-94 interchanges with more dispatch. You’re certainly right about the horrific past few years of construction along University. There must be some way to get that train running faster. I thought some of the corridor chosen was a mistake, but now that we have the light rail, while I may never believe that it was worth the past couple “horrific” years, I think looking for ways to make the most of that investment only makes sense.

    • I totally agree about Hamline, actually (as much as it pains me, since Hamline is currently my preferred street for crossing University). I’m less sure about Fairview. But also, since a lot of people currently do use streets like Prior and Pascal for getting across, I think it might be worth switching to pre-emption on those lights and seeing what happens at the other intersections, rather than doing it everywhere at once.

      I do have some ideas for improving things at Snelling/University and Snelling/94. Here’s what I’d like to see them do:

      1. Connect Ayd Mill to 94. This is a freaking no-brainer. Right now, to get from 94 to Ayd Mill, you have to exit at Snelling and turn left on Selby. There’s not enough space for that left-turn lane, causing all sorts of backups. That traffic shouldn’t even be there; you should be able to exit the highway directly onto Ayd Mill. The traffic coming in the other direction is marginally less terrible but again, it shouldn’t require surface streets at all.

      2. Right now, if you’re coming north on 35E, you can go east on 94 without exiting but not west. If you’re starting somewhere like Montreal & West 7th and going west, Google Maps will instruct you to take Ayd Mill, then go to Snelling, then get on I-94 west. (I ignore this advice and instead, take Lexington up and get on the highway there.) However, you really should be able to go west from 35E, and the fact that you can’t is nuts. Especially if they’re going to keep dragging their feet on the Ayd Mill connection due to pressure from the neighbors (who apparently prefer massive backups and annoying traffic to … I don’t even know what their issue is with having a fully functioning Ayd Mill. Noise? More noise? Suck it up, guys) they should add a ramp to take northbound 35E traffic straight to westbound 94.

      3. They need to make some improvements to Lexington. Right now, the Grand/Lex intersection is a really weird mess. Southbound, you have two lanes. The left lane is not currently a dedicated left-turn lane; however, as soon as you’ve crossed over, the two lanes get merged into one, and just for extra shits and giggles they’ve signed it as, right lane yields to/merges into left, but everyone drives it as left lane yields to/merges into right, and I really think the road striping pretty much implies that.

      Meanwhile, northbound, you have two lanes, but due to the pedestrian traffic you can easily get held up in both. The left lane gets held up by left turners (since northbound traffic doesn’t get an arrow); the right lane gets held up by pedestrians (because it’s an intersection with a lot of foot traffic.)

      The solution here seems really obvious to me. Southbound traffic, make the left lane a dedicated left-turn-only lane. Northbound traffic can then have three lanes: dedicated left-turn-only, and then a “must go straight” lane and a “can turn right or go straight” lane. You eliminate the complicated post-intersection merge and you smooth out the northbound traffic (which for whatever reason backs up a lot more than the southbound traffic at the moment.)

      4. Finally, I would have somebody talk to the companies that do navigation — Google Maps, Apple Maps (or whatever that division is called), etc. The directions they give you tend to funnel everyone through Snelling, and I think that’s probably because the map applications are set up to give priorities to highways and Snelling, technically, is some sort of highway. I suspect that if someone talked to them they could set up some overrides to route more traffic to other highway entrances. I do think this could be a contributing factor. In the meantime, I take advantage of local knowledge, by doing things like coming up Hamline, then turning left just across 94 so that I can coast straight onto the highway once I get to Snelling. Or using Lex. Or going slightly out of my way to cross University at basically any other intersection than Snelling, especially if it’s close to rush hour.

  2. To further digress from political discussion, if you really want to know the details of Ayd Mill, check out this streets.mn podcast. There are some good reasons it’s not connected, yet. Who knows if it ever will be. (Personally, I think it’s likely to horribly damage the pretty nice neighborhood at Selby/Snelling, if it gets connected.)

    http://streets.mn/2014/01/27/podcast-56-ayd-mill-road-101-with-mike-madden/

    Snelling is a state highway. Talk to MNDOT.

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