St. Paul Mayoral Race, Part II

There are ten candidates on the ballot; here are the five that are doing enough fundraising and campaigning that they’re widely viewed as viable:

Elizabeth Dickinson
Melvin Carter
Dai Thao
Tom Goldstein
Pat Harris

The St. Paul ballot, unlike the Minneapolis ballot, doesn’t list party affiliations. Elizabeth Dickinson is a Green; the other four are all DFLers.

Tom Goldstein

Tom Goldstein is one of those candidates that frequently gets described using newspaper-appropriate euphemisms for “asshole.” (The word “gadfly” comes up a lot. Also “contrarian.”) Having read through a lot of online articles, here’s what I feel pretty confident saying about him:

  1. If you elect him, he’s not going to build you any stadiums. For real. I’m pretty sure he means it.
  2. He’s, hmm, he’s a real gadfly. (Here is an article from about a fight over a proposed teardown in Tangletown. I sympathize with the anti-teardown brigade, especially as most of the St. Paul teardowns involve taking out something small with character and replacing it with something huge and soulless. And yet Tom’s remarks down in the comments, and his follow-up, and his next follow-up, did not make me think, “oh yeah, I’m on his side.” Is he your kind of gadfly, or not? Possibly he is! And if you hate stadiums, he might be the guy for you!)

Everyone’s take on the $15/hour minimum wage has evolved over time to the point that I’m not sure what people’s stances are now, but back in March, Tom wanted an exemption for small businesses and start-ups. That same article talked about his thoughts on the Midway site being used for the soccer stadium; he would have preferred to see a Home Depot or Best Buy there. I am really not convinced that another big box store on that site would serve the community particularly well. There’s another article where he says he wanted a business incubator (something like the Midtown Market over in Minneapolis. I love the Midtown Market, but I think part of what made it work was that there was already a building there, and fixed up, it was really pretty nice.) He’d like citywide broadband: that would be awesome, actually.

Overall: not really my kind of gadfly, even if I’d love to see citywide broadband.

Elizabeth Dickinson

If I had been asked in 2000 to predict the future of the Green Party I would not have said, “they’ll be running for city offices as business-friendly liberals.” Asked about creating jobs (that’s a really interesting article, by the way — they cover a bunch of candidates and their positions are pretty distinct), she talked about wanting business leaders to feel more appreciated and helping businesses with bulk purchasing when things like new regulations on containers go into effect. She also suggested “exploring ‘Lean Urbanism,’ such as ‘pink zones,’ or small-business districts where certain regulations are softened to help commerce.” I looked up pink zones, and I’m not saying they’re a bad idea, I’m just struck by the fact that this is not particularly where I’d have expected the Greens to end up.

Her big plan is solar panels on the roof of every public building. Have we hit the point in terms of cost of buying panels and installing them that it’s worth doing that in Minnesota? I mean, these are going to be under a blanket of snow for a not-insignificant portion of the year. I know prices have come down significantly on rooftop solar installations; I’m not sure we’re quite there yet. (I looked up the break-even point and one site I found claimed it’s 4-8 years. They are selling solar panels, though. Still, this might be worth doing.) (One of my friends tells me that snow doesn’t matter! I’ll be honest, my expertise here is not high, even if I did play Solar Energy in a 4th grade school play.)

She has not held elected office previously. She is on the board of Clean Water Action, and it sounds like she was heavily involved in Becky Lourey’s campaign for governor.

Dai Thao

So, you probably got the edges of this if you live locally, but if not, a recap.

There’s a proposal before the St. Paul City Council to require all takeout food and drink containers to be recyclable/compostable. Dai Thao is currently serving on the City Council (unlike Pat Harris and Melvin Carter, who served in the past.) Back in February, he had a meeting with a lobbyist named Sarah Clarke and her client, some people from Dart Container. Dart sells a bunch of super-traditional plastic and styrofoam food and beverage containers, all of which I guess are recyclable under “certain circumstances,” so they wanted to try to get their stuff certified as legitimate to use under the proposed ordinance. During the meeting, Dai Thao may have solicited a bribe. In a followup message after the meeting, his campaign manager definitely solicited a campaign contribution, saying, “Dai asked me to see if I could get a donation from your clients or yourself for his mayor campaign? My understanding is that they are leaving tomorrow. We will certainly rethink this issue. We are also happy to support Jacob in his mayor run as well.”

(“Jacob” = Jacob Frey, Minneapolis mayoral candidate and husband of Sarah Clarke. I went looking for info on Sarah’s lobbying work, and found a list of groups she’s lobbied for and also the somewhat hilarious detail that her boss (I think?) is Amy Koch, who you may vaguely remember as the former Republican State Senate Leader who resigned in a sex scandal.) (Because she’s a woman, I think all she had to do was sleep with a coworker — no harassment, assault, coercive attempts to get someone to terminate a pregnancy, etc., required. SO WEIRD how that works. I mean, not that I was a fan of hers or anything, but.)

ANYWAY. Back to Dai Thao’s scandal. He fired his campaign manager immediately after this came to light, and they both said that she always asked people for contributions after he met with them, this was just how it went, and at least one analysis of this noted that because Sarah Clarke set this up by calling his campaign manager, vs. his Council office staff, he may have been legitimately thinking of this as the sort of meeting where you ask for contributions, as opposed to the sort of meeting where you definitely do not ask for contributions. That same analysis had someone else saying that Thao was in really big trouble, this was not defensible as a rookie error by his campaign manager or the lobbyist.

This analysis was also pretty interesting; they note that bribery convictions are hard to get (because if you’re smart, you don’t ask for a bribe, you do exactly what Thao is alleged to have done, talk about how you “need resources” and expect the person being solicited to figure out that the quid pro quo is on the table if they write a big enough check). They also note that apparently Clarke is not the one who went to the press; she shared the messages with someone who leaked them. I think it’s still not known who that was; Melvin Carter’s campaign denied that it was them, and it’s not clear whether the other mayoral campaigns were contacted.

If you want to read the actual text of the messages that went back and forth between the lobbyist and the campaign manager, they’re in this article. There’s an interview with the lobbyist about what happened at the meeting here.

The actual meeting was in February; the scandal broke at the end of April/early May; in September, the prosecutor’s office declined to file charges. (It was the Scott County prosecutor that handled this because of some conflicts of interest with the Ramsey County office.) Their statement: “The mere request for a campaign donation, without some evidence of a proposed quid pro quo, is not illegal.” Context alone is not enough, which right there illustrates why it’s so hard to get a bribery conviction unless one person in the transaction is literally wearing a wire, and the other person completely sucks at making requests discreet.

MPR referred to this as Thao being “cleared.” I’m not sure I agree. I mean, I don’t think I’d have prosecuted but if you agree to a meeting with a lobbyist who clearly wants something from you, and you use that meeting to repeatedly ask for money, and then your campaign manager follows up with “hi, my boss asked me to see if I could get a donation from your clients…we will certainly rethink this issue” — that’s not the sort of approach I want to see from my politicians.

So to be honest, I haven’t closely followed Dai Thao’s campaign, because for real, I feel like this is as much as I need to know about him.

Having gleaned stuff about Thao from researching the other candidates, though, I’m not sure why he’s so wildly popular among progressives. (Which he is! Endorsed by Take Action MN — possibly because he used to work there — and Our Revolution.) He’s a fan of the soccer stadium. He wants to “go to the mat” to bring Amazon’s HQ2 to St. Paul. He was the one person on the St. Paul City Council to vote against the Ford Plan, and although I think it would be oversimplifying to call this a NIMBY vs. YIMBY fight, in general I think the more-progressive candidates tend to support dense development rather than opposing it. (I have some concerns about the development but I also have some concerns about the rhetoric I’m seeing from people opposing the development.)

So, this brings me to the last two candidates:

Melvin Carter and Pat Harris

who are the two I’ve been deciding between for my #1 spot.

Melvin Carter got off on a very bad foot with me by inundating me with e-mail in late December. I complained about this on my blog in early January. Apparently someone from the campaign saw my post, because I was almost immediately removed from the mailing list. They did not, however, pick up on what I thought was a pretty obvious cue here and e-mail me with an intro to who this guy was and why I should think he was awesome.

In August, after getting an annoying phone survey (it wasn’t the survey itself that was annoying, but the repeated RING RING RING silence click experience thanks to an aggressive autodialer), I e-mailed the Harris, Carter, and Thao campaigns to ask if they’d hired the survey group. I heard back immediately from Thao (nope) and Harris (yep). About a month later I sent a question to both the Harris and Carter campaigns asking them one “big picture” question and one “details of running the city” sort of question and promptly heard back from the Carter campaign, on my e-mail about the survey. I have never gotten a response to my “talk to me about police shootings; also alley plowing” e-mail, sent a month ago.

I did get a response from Pat Harris. I think the problem I hit with these e-mail messages was that they were specific enough that the campaigns felt like it needed to be answered by the candidate and Melvin Carter didn’t have time. But — these things are decisions. If you want people to believe that you’ll be a responsive mayor who will care about their problems, do you make the time to answer these sorts of e-mail messages? How many e-mails do people get, while campaigning? I don’t honestly know. Probably a lot.

My sense of the two candidates, formed early on, was that Pat Harris was a details guy, and Melvin Carter was a big-picture guy. And I think this is a reasonable assessment. I went to meet-and-greets for both of them. At one point, Pat Harris talked about his passion for playgrounds; at one point, Melvin Carter talked about his passion for Early Childhood Education.

The meet-and-greet I attended for Pat Harris was at a park near my house. Pat arrived late, so I chatted with the volunteers. I asked the young woman who was handing out literature to tell me why she supported him.  (“You must be really excited about this candidate to be volunteering for him/her; tell me about why you like them so much?” is the best question I’ve found to get genuinely helpful information from campaign volunteers.) She said that she used to babysit for his kids, and he’s awesome. It wasn’t a particularly crowded event, so I was able to chat with him for a while when he arrived, which reinforced my sense of him as someone hands-on, eager to dive into the details of running a city. I asked him about the Ford Plant and he said he thought it was a mistake to zone it before selling it, because zoning is how you wring concessions out of developers. (This is a point he’s made in multiple interviews; Chris Tolbert, the City Council rep for our ward who holds the seat Pat Harris used to hold, disagrees strongly and seems to feel that developers use those negotiations to wring concessions out of the city.)

The meet-and-greet I attended for Melvin Carter was at a house near Macalester. (A quick walk from Coastal Seafoods.) It was crowded; I had the chance to talk to Melvin but I had to be selective with my questions, since lots of people were waiting to chat with him. I asked him what he thought had gone well and poorly with the Ford Plant site plan, less because I wanted to know his stance and more because I wanted to know whether I could get a detail-oriented answer vs. a big picture answer.

I got sort of a mix. He talked about door-knocking and talking to people in Highland about the development, and having people say to him that they hated density, and trying to get them to drill down on what problem it was they were worried about, exactly. Like, traffic? We have a traffic department; this is a solvable problem.

Which is kind of a good answer and kind of not, because traffic in Highland has been a problem forever, it got a fair amount better after the Ford Plant closed, actually, and I don’t think Highland residents are unreasonable to distrust the traffic department, especially since there are all these relatively simple fixes that they could implement, and don’t. (The biggest bottleneck is the Ford Parkway / Cleveland Ave intersection. Heading east on Ford Parkway, there are three lanes: one (very short) left-turn lane, a middle land that only goes straight, and a right lane that can be used to either go straight, or turn right. This is an intersection that gets heavy pedestrian use and as a result, the right-turn cars have to wait a long time, which causes everything to back up. The simple fix: this light has a left-turn phase where both directions get to turn left, and pedestrians aren’t supposed to cross. They could add right-turn green arrows and let the Ford Pkwy cars turn right while the Cleveland cars were turning left, and by the same token let the Cleveland cars turn right while the Ford Parkway traffic is turning left. Why hasn’t anyone done this? There are a ton of intersections in St. Paul that don’t work well, where simple fixes could make a big difference; I have a mental list, and periodically resolve to send suggestions to the Traffic department, but never have.)

After chatting with individuals for a while, he spoke to the whole group.

The volunteer who called my house for the Melvin Carter campaign said that he joined because Melvin was such an amazing speaker, and holy shit, Melvin really is an amazing speaker. He made me tear up talking about his family history. I left feeling like I definitely wanted this guy as our next mayor, and also, if Amy Klobuchar quits to run for President, I want him to be our next Senator. (He’s 38. He’s got plenty of time.)

The two questions I asked both candidates via e-mail were, “are you interested in working on citywide alley plowing?” and “If there is an incident like a fatal police shooting while you are mayor, what do you see as the role of the mayor in the immediate aftermath of something like that?”

Pat Harris’s response on alley plowing was the sort of encouraging-yet-waffley answer you get when you say “hey, are you going to work on my pet project?” and it’s a reasonable idea and yet definitely not that person’s pet project. (He sees why people might want it, he thinks the citywide trash collection efforts are good and he wants to wait and see how that goes before he tries to implement some new citywide service.) On police shootings, he said:

Regarding a fatal police shooting – I wish I could say there will never be such an incident while I am Mayor, but tragedy strikes when you least expect it.  I believe the role of Mayor is to confirm the incident is isolated; ensure anyone involved or adjacent neighbors are safe; and to work with the Saint Paul Police Department and community on efforts to stop such a shooting from happening again.  I am proud to be endorsed by our first responders – both the Saint Paul Police Federation and Saint Paul Firefighters Local 21 – and will work with them closely BEFORE a shooting occurs to avoid tragedy.

I don’t find this an entirely satisfying answer; I’ll note that I generally view a police union endorsement as a negative and not a positive. (I mean, the St. Paul Police Federation defended the assault on Christopher Lollie in the skyways in 2014. I take the endorsement as an indication that this candidate is the one they most expect will let them continue to act without accountability. Although the Minneapolis police federation endorsed Governor Dayton in 2014.)

Melvin Carter didn’t respond to my e-mail, but I found an op-ed he wrote after Philando Castile was killed. He wrote about his own mistreatment at the hands of the police in St. Paul and other cities. (“I can’t articulate the impact, the feelings of disrespect and disregard that those encounters invoked.”) But his father was a police officer, and he also wrote about his fear for his father’s well-being during the manhunt in 1994 when a man killed two police officers, plus one officer’s K-9 dog.

The role of a mayor in a crisis is often to be a lightning rod. To manage community anger, to ask people for patience even when they shouldn’t have to be patient, to be a visible symbol of sorrow and strength. Whether that crisis is a police shooting or a collapsed bridge. I honestly can’t imagine a better person for that role than Melvin Carter.

So my ballot will probably go:

  1. Melvin Carter
  2. Pat Harris
  3. Elizabeth Dickinson
  4. Dai Thao

(I really would like to see alley plowing, probably by running contracts with all the people currently contracting with homeowners — I think this is how they plow the alleys in Minneapolis — but it’s not a do-or-die issue for me. Most of the time, when I’m talking to a politician, my questions are less “please agree with me on XYZ issue” and more “I want to see how you think, and finding out how you answer a question is a way to suss that out.”)



3 thoughts on “St. Paul Mayoral Race, Part II

  1. So helpful, thanks as ever! It turned out in online conversation last week that about a half-dozen of my friends now also follow this blog for their yearly intelligent local politics analysis…

  2. Thanks for this, super helpful to get some high level info. I was originally impressed by Dai Thao when I talked to him (he is passionate for an all day kindergarten solution), but I find the idea of policy being flexible based on donations troubling. Even if it is just a bland non-commitment to get funding, I think even taking money is a comittment to the lobyists position.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s