Election 2015: St. Paul City Council, Ward Two

Open seat! So there are a bunch of people running and no one’s endorsed by any party.

Sharon Anderson
Patrick Fearing
Bill Hosko
Michael C. Johnson
Rebecca Noecker
Darren Tobolt

Sharon Anderson

Man, it would suck to be any other person named Sharon Anderson who wanted to go into politics and lived in St. Paul. Because at this point, everyone would assume that you were this particular unhinged weirdo with the worst eye for website design this side of 1997.

Patrick Fearing

Patrick Fearing considers it a selling point that he has lived not just in St. Paul but in Ward 2 for his entire life (he’s fifty.) In fact, I think every single job he lists (Mancini’s Char House, Pearson’s Candy Company, Schmidt’s Brewery) is in Ward Two. I don’t find that endearing, I find that unnerving. Is there some reason he can’t cross water?

His primary issue seems to be that he’s opposed to parking meters on Grand Avenue.

In a questionnaire he filled out, he gets asked for his top three priorities, and lists five. He must have filled that out before the parking meter issue blew up, because the first thing he says is, “I want to get the Bay Island Station area back on the map. It used to be a great place to go down and fish off the dock, until the city put a fence up. I want to bring back the dock and open it up for the community to go and fish, possibly open a boat launch there.” He also thinks St. Paul is too boring and needs more of a night life, and he is very proud of the fact that he’s raised no money (“Unlike Darren and Rebecca I haven’t had my hand out for two years asking the people of Saint Paul for their money to run my campaign.”)

Bill Hosko

BilL Hosko appears to be an artist and a political hobbyist. A search on his name turned up a Facebook page for a Ward 2 race, last updated in 2011. The Facebook page has a link to a website other than his current website, which is now entirely in Japanese. His principle issue seems to be parking meters, which he opposes.

So since that’s the ISSUE DU JOUR for Ward Two, I just want to say, as someone who lived in Minneapolis for seventeen years, I am baffled by the lack of parking meters on Grand Avenue and also by the willingness of St. Paul to post “permit [i.e., resident] parking only” signs on any streets near a popular shopping area.

There are large sections of Grand I won’t even try to shop on anymore because it is such a pain to park. I am totally willing to pay to park. I am totally willing to park a block away and walk. What I am not willing to do is to circle endlessly, like a vulture, hoping that something will open up so I can park and get my errand done. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.

Years ago in Minneapolis, I used to have to go to the Lake/Minnehaha post office once a week. That post office has a ridiculously small parking lot and I pretty much never got to park there. There’s also angle parking along the street outside the post office, but that was also nearly always full, so I had to park an annoying distance away and walk for my two-minute errand. One day, Minneapolis installed parking meters for all the angle parking. They were super cheap parking meters — 50 cents an hour — but this meant that suddenly, parking in those spots was nearly always available and for a mere 25 cents I could get my errand done efficiently. BLISS. I am a huge fan of metering high-demand parking; it works really well, and it makes money for the city. There’s been all this kvetching about how those proposed Grand Ave meters aren’t really trying to ration the parking, they’re trying to raise revenue for the city — even if that’s true, so what? On-street parking spots are not plowed and paved and generally maintained using magical coins pooped out by unicorns. That money comes from somewhere. Why not parking meters?

So all the “oh, I am SO TOTALLY against parking meters, I was against them before anyone else was against them, I was basically BORN opposed to the ENTIRE CONCEPT of parking meters” is not actually a selling point for me. YMMV.

Michael C. Johnson

Michael Johnson has a Facebook page that says he’s running but no other website, or any positions to speak of (someone asked him what he stood for and he said, “I am working on coming out with some bullet points to hammer out… I just made the decision to jump about 24 hours ago. I am for small business, civil liberties, and public safety. I would like our community to keep going down the right path.” That was in August.) He did not fill out any of the candidate questionnaires that I could find, and there are a grand total of four posts on his campaign Facebook page, one of which is a family picture and one of which is a “Michael Johnson for City Council” graphic.

And now we come to the two people who are actually running for the position: Rebecca Noecker and Darren Tobolt.

Rebecca and Darren both tried for DFL endorsement and the convention deadlocked. The problem I have making decisions in contests like this is that the differences between the candidates tend to be pretty subtle. Everyone is pro-transit, pro-living-wage-jobs, and pro-youth-development; everyone wants to be YOUR representative in all caps and they will listen! and respond! and by the way they hate parking meters just like you do.

Rebecca Noecker

Rebecca grew up in St. Paul, but attended Harvard, taught in Louisiana, and lived for a few years in Pune, India, which seems like a respectable amount of exposure to broader horizons. (She tells a story about standing endlessly in line in an office in India to get her visa renewed, and how this gives her empathy for non-English-speakers interacting with the government in St. Paul.) She now lives in the West Side neighborhood and notes her dissatisfaction with the fact that some of the core neighborhood businesses have closed in the last year, transit and bike connections are problematic, and they saw a spike in crime over the summer due to teenagers with nothing to do. (“And I know I’m not the only one who has felt infuriated at the lack of basic city services as I drove over horribly rutted streets last spring.” Actually, this past spring wasn’t nearly as bad as the year before. But the year before was the stuff of which legends are made. The road horrors of St. Paul that year were EPIC. There was this one pothole in Randolph Ave that I swear was the size and depth of a bathtub. They did at least patch that one quickly. I should probably add “bitching about road maintenance” to the list of issues that unite absolutely everyone in the city, though. I mean, it’s a cheap way to score political points but she’s also probably absolutely sincere.)

She’s got a little expandable section at the bottom of her About Rebecca page (easy to miss!) that counters claims that she says are being made about her. One of the claims is that she’s anti-teacher, which got me wondering if her Louisiana teaching experience was with Teach For America. She did, in fact, teach with TFA. I am not a TFA fan, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to hold the program against the recent college grads who get suckered into working for TFA (especially when the graduated in a recession, which I’m guessing she did). Under “Claim: Rebecca supports keeping incompetent teachers in the classroom,” I appreciate that she subtly but clearly points out that the St. Paul public schools are the domain of the school board, not the city council, and adds, “She also believes the City can support our schools by ensuring kids have outstanding enrichment opportunities during their out-of-school hours, at parks, rec centers and libraries.”

I do think it’s a little funny that under the claim “Rebecca thinks feminism is radical and outdated,” it doesn’t counter by saying that she’s a proud feminist, but rather, “Rebecca is a strong female leader who has worked tirelessly throughout her career to ensure that all people – women and men – are heard and valued. Rebecca has been endorsed for her pro-feminist positions by womenwinning, the DFL Feminist Caucus, and MN-NOW.” Apparently the “not really a feminist” accusation comes from an essay she wrote as a 17-year-old college freshman.

Over on her Issues page, she says she stands for transparency, inclusivity, and courage. (Transparency is big this year. I predict that in the next year the City Council and the school board will make some genuine efforts to be transparent, which will then slack off as they realize that most of the citizens really don’t want to see how the sausage is made.)

She goes on to break out four key issues: city services, economic development, investing in youth, and social justice. Under city services, she comes out strongly in favor of snow plowing and road repair, and on safety, says “Endorsed by the Police Federation, Rebecca has advocated for fully funding a model of policing where the police are a part of the community.” Community policing is one of those things that I’m strongly in favor of when it means what it meant in Madison when I was growing up. Depending on how it’s implemented, it can be just as problematic as any other model. This also made me wonder where she stands on the issue of body cameras for police: I didn’t find anything on her site about it, and Google didn’t help me here, so I tried e-mailing her.

Down in her “social justice” category she says she wants to set up “an advisory board of citizen leaders that reflects the racial, socio-economic and linguistic diversity of our community.” She also says, “Rebecca’s personal journey from the ivy-covered walls of Harvard University, to dilapidated school buildings in Baton Rouge, through the slums of India, and to the diverse West Side community has taught her to seek out different perspectives in order to appreciate the complexity of every issue.” Which … hmm. I don’t know, this is the sort of statement that sounds like a privileged kid’s college essay.

Although Rebecca is clearly a Democrat, if you’re one of the six Republicans voting in Ward Two, she’s probably your candidate. She’s endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, she worked for TFA (which the teacher’s union loves to hate), and she’s endorsed by the Police Federation. That said, she’s not actually particularly conservative. (She doesn’t talk about taxes anywhere on her site, which is also kind of interesting and makes me realize that none of the candidates I’ve looked at yet have talked about taxes. It’s not actually a particularly conservative stance to complain about property taxes, though, since they’re regressive and St. Paul’s are some of the highest in the state.)

Looking for her stance on taxes brought up the East Metro Voting Guide questionnaire. Her bio on that one rather neatly sums up some of my issues with TFA. She got a BA from Harvard in Social Studies, which is sort of a generalist approach to the Social Sciences, I think. She taught 8th grade Earth Science (without a degree either in Education or in Geology or in fact any natural science) and notes in several places that a lot of these kids could barely read. (The argument against TFA is that the kids they’re sent to teach really need educated, experienced teachers and instead they get bright-eyed college kids with marginal credentials who are there for two years, max. Yeah, yeah, she went to Harvard. She was teaching 8th grade Earth Science with a Social Studies degree! That’s a marginal credential, right there.)

Anyway, she does get into taxes in that questionnaire: “Expanding our tax base is essential because generating additional public revenue can not be done solely by tax increases – residents and business owners have already seen their taxes skyrocket in the last decade. The way to address this challenge is to attract more businesses to Saint Paul and to prioritize commercial/industrial uses of available land. Commercial/industrial land use is the only type that gives more in revenue to the city than it takes in services. Because Saint Paul is a fully developed city, with little additional land available for redevelopment and 33% of its land untaxable, we need to use our available land for commercial and industrial uses whenever possible.” She goes on to suggest that St. Paul expand its business incentive program to cover small businesses, make it easier for businesses to navigate city hall, and “overcome our persistent reputation for being an unfriendly place to do business.” She’s on the Planning Commission, something that doesn’t get a lot of play on her campaign website but she mentions several times in the questionnaire.

See, that’s the sort of insider understanding of the details that makes me think someone could be really effective on the City Council. The risk is that she could be the next Jackie Cherryhomes (former Minneapolis City Council rep MADE OF PURE EVIL.)

Darren Tobolt

I just want to note that if he gets elected, there will be a Tobolt and a Tolbert representing adjacent wards, which is going to be confusing as heck. I don’t think Noecker has brought this up, and maybe she should consider pointing it out?

Darren has worked as a community organizer and a DFL Party Chair, and he’s been a legislative aide to a Ramsey County Commissioner. (I bet he knows our water comes out of the Mississippi.) He worked in a blue-collar job when he first graduated from high school, then joined the National Guard to pay for college.

Rebecca and Darren both have a long list of impressive endorsements, FYI. Rebecca is endorsed by several sub-groups within the DFL (the Stonewall DFL Caucus, the Feminist DFL Caucus, and Young DFL), State Senator Sandy Pappas, and the Police Federation; Darren got most of the Labor endorsements, Mayor Chris Coleman, and the Firefighters. Rebecca was endorsed by the Pioneer Press; Darren was endorsed by the Star Tribune. The Pioneer Press takes note of Rebecca’s pragmatic attitude toward business, and the Star Tribune likes Darren for his prior experience.

On Darren’s Issues page, he calls out:

* Citizen Engagement (“To build an active engaged citizenry, I will hold office hours throughout the ward during off-business hours, will return every phone call, and will be where I’m needed when I’m needed.”)
* Economic Development (“I will work to eliminate the complicated work of opening and running a small business by streamlining city processes across departments and expecting faster turnaround times. … I will put forth and passing an earned sick and safe time ordinance to support families who do not have the option of taking time off work if they or a family member are sick or in need.”)
* Public Safety (“Safety is more than police budgets; public safety is also about providing positive opportunities for all. I will fight hard to ensure all of our rec centers, parks and libraries are open and staffed when working families need these resources. … I will grow Saint Paul’s role in ending gender violence by focusing on early violence prevention, police and prosecutor training, and by providing cross-jurisdictional resources where people live.”)
* Public Services (“As a community-elected board member of the Fort Road Federation and a member of the Saint Paul Long Range Capital Improvement Budget Committee, I have worked side by side with other concerned neighbors to successfully advocate for [a long list of nice amenities including a rec center renovation and improvements to the 35E bikeway]… I am an advocate for curbside organics collection.”)
* Safe Streets (“A healthy transportation system for all means more sidewalks and safer crosswalks so that all people feel comfortable walking from their homes to schools and local businesses.” This is also where he stashes his opposition to Grand Ave parking meters.)

So, okay. I guess I’m seeing some differences showing up, at this point.

* Both Rebecca and Darren talk about streamlining stuff for businesses opening but Rebecca puts more emphasis on making the city more business-friendly (and gives some good reasons for it, i.e., you can tax them); Darren puts more emphasis on requiring paid sick time, though Rebecca is also a supporter. (I am a big fan of mandatory paid sick time; I think it’s a win/win. I don’t want my sandwich made by an employee who was barfing in the bathroom five minutes ago but can’t go home because he’ll get fired or because he really needs to get paid. I mean, this is just basic epidemiology: if sick people can go home they are a lot less likely to share their germs. It’s also the right thing to do as decent human beings, to make sure people can take time off when they get sick, but even aside from “basic human decency” factors, there is a self-interest element here you’d think would be obvious.) Both support living wage ordinances.

* They are both fans of transit and eager to get better transit options into Ward 2, which is good because the situation right now is kind of ridiculously terrible. (I don’t live in Ward 2, but it’s where my kids go to school, and I’ve looked to see what would be involved in having my high schooler ride the bus to the U. I was not impressed with the options.) Darren avoids talking about amenities for cars as much as possible; Rebecca puts a lot of emphasis on basic street stuff like patching potholes and plowing snow. (I will note that those are not just services for cars. Potholes are potentially lethal to bikers, and a lot of Minnesotans bike year round. Buses also use those streets.) Both Darren and Rebecca filled out a questionnaire about transit for the Smart Trips voter guide. In that, I was pleased that Darren specifically noted that St. Paul is riddled with spots that don’t have sidewalks and that we needed to fix that. I was happy they both talked about pedestrian safety but a little dismayed that even though Ward 2 includes the West 7th neighborhood, neither got into pedestrian safety on West 7th. (West 7th cuts diagonally across a lot of streets and creates all these five-way intersections that are nervewracking to cross on foot and frankly pretty irritating even in a car.) If transit is important to you, it’s probably also worth noting that Darren and his wife own only one car between them and use transit for a lot of their trips; they have genuine skin in the game. (Rebecca says she gets around by car, bus, and bike, which is exactly what I’d say. I don’t actually ride the bus very often at all and my biking is purely recreational.)

* They both talk about public safety but Rebecca puts more emphasis on policing than Darren does. (They both talk about providing productive activities for teenagers to keep them out of trouble.)

* Darren wants curbside organics collection; Rebecca doesn’t show any particular interest in it. (For the curious out-of-towners, I will note that one of the really odd things about St. Paul is that the city doesn’t picks up recycling but not trash. You can theoretically haul it to the dump yourself, but most people hire a company to pick up their trash weekly and sometimes also their yard waste. There are six different companies that come down my alley picking up people’s garbage. I think some mayor tried to implement municipal trash pickup a few years before I moved to St. Paul and that went down in a flaming mass of aversion to any sort of change. St. Paul also does not plow the alleys; you have to get together with your neighbors and hire a guy. It does at least plow streets to the curb, rather than expecting you to shovel out the parking lane.)

* Rebecca makes a point of her willingness to disagree with the mayor; Darren is clearly long-time friends with Chris Coleman and has his endorsement.

* Both of them claim they’re running a positive campaign but being attacked by their opponent. In Darren’s “News” section he objects to the “unfair criticism” of Rebecca in the most passive-aggressive sideways way possible: “my opponent was unfairly criticized simply because she has the endorsement and financial support of an organization that is fighting against the paid family leave and living wage ordinances.” (In context, I don’t think it’s intended to be sarcastic.) There was an article in the Press that noted that the swipe at Rebecca came from the AFL-CIO (the organization that opposed living wage ordinances is the Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Rebecca); the Police Federation, meanwhile, sent out a flier suggesting that Darren would be Chris Coleman’s yes-man.

* Darren has strong ties to Ramsey County government, which will definitely be a plus in terms of getting things accomplished. Rebecca’s experience is on the City Planning Commission, which is not bad, either. (Hilariously, Darren’s wife is also on the planning commission.)

Anyway, I e-mailed both of them to ask about body cameras. The election is Tuesday, though; I’m not going to be surprised if I don’t get a response.

I am leaning toward Rebecca Noecker.


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