Elections 2018: Ramsey County Commissioner, District 3

(By request.)

This was one of those races where I knew there had to be some backstory, because there’s an established (long, long, long established) incumbent who appears to be a DFLer, but who is not endorsed by the DFL, and two solid challengers, one with a DFL endorsement. Here’s who’s running:

Jennifer Nguyen Moore (endorsed by the Democratic Socialists)
Trista MatasCastillo (endorsed by the DFL)
Janice Rettman (incumbent)

In races like this, the incumbent will nearly always make it past the primary, so the primary is mostly to determine who they’ll be facing. (Occasionally the incumbent comes in third, but this is nearly always a surprise unless criminal charges are involved. No criminal charges are involved here.)

Janice Rettman

So the big question I immediately wanted to know was, what did Janice Rettman do that netted her two strong opponents?

She’s got a fair amount of history, but here’s something I found pretty quickly: she’s pretty terrible on transportation for anyone who isn’t inside a car. That article notes that she personally killed a plan to redo Dale because she was afraid it would lose parking, blocked bike lanes, and was the only vote against the “All Abilities Transportation Network” plan.

I want to talk a little bit about her opposition to the Dale plan because it’s the sort of thing that makes my head explode on multiple levels. The plan for Dale was called a “road diet,” which is a terrible phrase to describe what they wanted to do. Currently Dale is two lanes in each direction, with stripes down the middle. They wanted to restripe it so that there was a single lane for each direction BUT ALSO a turn lane in the middle of the street, plus bike lanes, and — I would guess, because this is pretty standard — a lane so cars can get around buses when buses are stopped to pick up passengers. There’s a whole extended document about road diets here, if you want to read more, and Streets.MN has an article exploring whether this type of redesign will actually work fine even on very busy streets.

As a driver, I hate the “two lanes in each direction” street design because no matter which lane I pick, it feels like I’m constantly getting stuck behind people. If I’m in the left lane, I get stuck behind people turning left. If I’m in the right lane, I get stuck behind buses. Back in the mid-90s, not long after I moved into Longfellow, the City of Minneapolis redesigned Minnehaha Ave using this approach, and it went from an absolute massive pain in the ass nightmare to drive on, to my preferred route. Also it got bike lanes and was safer for pedestrians. I’ve been a fan ever since. (Apparently the “constantly getting stuck” problem also makes drivers drive a lot worse: they’re focused on whether someone up ahead is about to turn left, and this distracts them from important questions like “is that a pedestrian right in front of me?”)

So that’s the sort of plan she threw up a roadblock to. (I’ll note that this is also an incredibly cheap way to improve a road! You don’t have to build anything, you just re-stripe.)

Rettman is frequently the one person opposing stuff the County Board votes on, and she likes to portray herself as a maverick. (“A ‘no’ vote is sometimes absolutely a ‘yes’ vote for the people.”) Other things she’s opposed: renovating county offices. She also opposed the contract for the County Manager (who is hired, not elected) because she thought he was being paid too much:

O’Connor, 34, will oversee 4,000 employees and a $700 million budget. […] County Board Member Janice Rettman cast the sole dissenting vote when it came to approving his contract, which calls for a base salary of $181,000. The job was advertised between $146,000 and $217,000. Commissioner MaryJo McGuire was absent from the meeting.

“This is not personal with me,” said Rettman. “I can’t see paying someone more than the governor’s salary, and this is a $180,000 contract. … Part of the job is public service, and that means you make a sacrifice to do public service.”

County Board Chair Jim McDonough said the contract represents a mid-range salary for the position.

This is less obviously stupid than the whole “but what about the CARS” approach to transportation, but I still want to tackle it. It’s ridiculous to treat the governor’s salary as a default ceiling; it’s ridiculous to treat any elected official’s salary as a default ceiling for jobs you hire for. You need to pay enough to get people who are good at their job, and while you can expect people to accept less than they might earn in the private sector, there are limits. Overseeing 4,000 employees and a $700 million budget is a CEO-level job. In private industry you’d make way, way, way more than the $181K that Rettman thinks is overpaying, which made me wonder about the nonprofit world. Conveniently, the Star Tribune publishes a list of the top 100 nonprofits in Minnesota and what their CEOs make. Overwhelmingly they make a lot more than $181K. The person I found who was earning a fairly comparable amount is the director of Books for Africa, which I’m pretty sure has under 20 employees (they have their board members listed on the same page, but board members are not staff) and they have a $36 million budget. Seriously, $181K is taking a huge, steep cut in the name of public service and pretending otherwise shows a really weird disconnect.

(If you’re struggling to make ends meet, all these salaries sound ridiculous, I know. But in point of fact, most of the people who say indignantly that they would do the job for $15/hour plus health benefits would not actually be able to effectively run a large urban county. I’m not going to pretend that I have the experience and knowledge necessary even to oversee the snow plowing part of the job.)

Did I mention her hatred of bike lanes?

She’s been County Commissioner since 1997 but her campaign site doesn’t have an “accomplishments” section, so I’m not sure what in her Biography to consider an “accomplishment” and what to consider an “ongoing goal.” In her Bio section she talks about working on equal opportunity hiring; requiring “prevailing/living wages” for county contracts; the Environmental Response Fund to clean polluted lands; and arranging for tree and wood waste to be accepted at four of the county yard waste sites.

She also says:

With Building Trades and Labor help as your Commissioner  worked to restore and transform a six bedroom foreclosed house into the first housing for veterans in Ramsey County.  A District 3 veteran and electrician provided the flag and a lighted flagpole to celebrate the opening.

I mean, that’s nice, but when I think about what I expect from my County Commissioner in the area of affordable housing, “worked to restore a single large house” is not all that impressive? When was this? If it was “the first housing for veterans in Ramsey County” is there a plan to create more?

You can find her East Metro Voter’s Guide questionnaire here.

Trista MatasCastillo 

Trista MatasCastillo is a veteran: sixteen years in the Navy and the Marines. She’s also worked for Habitat for Humanity and found a nonprofit to serve women veterans. She’s endorsed by the DFL, Melvin Carter, Mark Dayton, and some of the local City Council reps.

She has a detailed program for affordable housing and human services, which I like a lot. She wants to use data in decision-making, which doesn’t seem like it should be revolutionary and exciting, but the incumbent ignored the studies done on parking when she killed the plan to put a bike lane on Front Ave. She also mentions modernizing county equipment:

Unfortunately, much of the software and hardware that Ramsey County employees use on a day-to-day basis is decades old and barely functional. Database systems are run on MS-DOS terminals, for which new employees need extensive specialized training. Phone centers are still run using 1970s hardware, which lack support for modern features like Caller ID, call transfers, or even group calls. Client paperwork is still handled mostly on paper, and shuffled around county buildings in ancient pneumatic tubes.

…hopefully everyone reading here knows why that’s a problem.

In the East Metro Voter Guide she’s pro-streetcar for West 7th, which is not a plus for me. Although given that the streetcar push seems to have mostly stalled out, I’d mostly be concerned that she would let the BUT WHAT IF STREETCARS dream stand in the way of expanding Bus Rapid Transit. In her questionnaire for Streets.mn, she’s solidly pro-BRT, though, so that’s reassuring. (She also refers to improved bus service as low-hanging fruit.) The Streets.mn questionnaire specifically asks about restriping four-lane streets to three lanes, and she’s strongly in favor, and adds that last year the county used some really innovative ways to get feedback from residents, including having trucks handing out free popsicles (!!!) (that’s really cool!)

Her day job experience is mostly a mix of government and nonprofit work. She worked for Habitat for five years in Government Relations; she worked for the Minnesota Humanities Center; she was an aide to a different Ramsey County Commissioner.

Jennifer Nguyen Moore

Jennifer is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and grew up in Rondo; she mentions that her family needed a number of county services when she was growing up (from the East Metro Voter Guide: “I am running because the County board needs a person who have lived experienced as a recipient of county services.”) She lists affordable housing as her top priority.

She’s endorsed by the Democratic Socialists and she also lists a number of endorsements from area residents.

Other interesting things about her: she was entirely transit-reliant for most of her life (she got a car a few years ago). She serves on an Environmental Justice group for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Her day job is Public Works Project Coordinator for the City of Bloomington. Before that she worked for Eureka Recycling, so she’s got some solid perspectives on waste management and some of the other things the county handles.

She talks way more about racial equity issues than Trista does. Trista mentions trying to hire deputies that “reflect the diversity and values of our community” and she talks about transit increasing “equitable access to opportunity” and she talks about culturally-competent mental health care…but she doesn’t exactly call out disparities. Jennifer does. In the East Metro Voter Guide:

One of the biggest challenges faced within the entire county is how programs and services are equitably distributed. There are major disparities and parts of the county. It is apparent that certain areas within the county including Eastside, Frogtown and North End are disinvested. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty in these areas that typically affect residents of color the most.

and

As an environmental justice and racial equity advocate, I see a quality missing from how programs and services are delivered. There should be greater effort in addressing racial equity and acknowledging the impact of how BIPOC residents receive services based on implicit and explicit racial biases. The concept of equity needs to be applied to all facets of County programs, services, policies and initiatives.

and from her website:

I live and breathe advocating for environmental, racial and social justice.

I appreciate candidates willing to tackle issues like this head on instead of soft-pedaling them.

Where I felt like she was weaker: I felt like she straight up didn’t understand some of the trade-offs inherent in transit planning. In her Streets.mn questionnaire, she said:

To take the bus from Frogtown, North End of Payne Phalen to downtown Saint Paul, it may take up to 30 minutes on the bus as opposed to 10 minutes driving. I will prioritize funding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and look at how we can increase bus stop frequency to improve efficiency.

If you increase the stops, it reduces efficiency. That’s why the A Line stops in fewer places: it’s designed to go faster. This is a trade-off, any time you plan any sort of transit, and this is precisely why cars are usually a faster option than transit. There are lots of ways to manage these sorts of tradeoffs, from running both an “express” and a “local” route (the 84 runs along much of the A-Line corridor, slower and with a lot more stops) but if you start out thinking that you can improve efficiency by increasing the number of stops I’m not sure I want to trust you with transit.

It’s possible that what she means here is that buses should run more often? She also talks about this in her transit section on her website and I’m just not sure. It’s legitimate to emphasize accessibility over efficiency, because super-efficient transit is not actually efficient if the people who need it have to travel an unreasonable distance to get to a stop. But I want you to at least see the tradeoff here.

I’ll also note that Trista is endorsed by a genuinely diverse crowd, including people with a strong investment in racial equity.

Trista’s biggest strength for me is that she has a really detailed and solid understanding of a lot of the nuts and bolts of county governance, like the issues of outdated technology. Jennifer’s biggest strength for me is that she brings the insight of an insider, both in terms of having grown up relying on county services, and in terms of being an Asian woman in a city with severe racial disparities. I think they’d pursue similar goals in office, and even if Trista isn’t highlighting racial equity on her site, her work would lift up the people who most need it. (She talks about eliminating waiting lists for essential services, culturally accessible mental health care, aging in place…)

I would lean toward Trista, I think. But I would unhesitatingly support either Jennifer or Trista over Janice.

 

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One thought on “Elections 2018: Ramsey County Commissioner, District 3

  1. Thank you for this; I’m new to Ramsey county and was wondering what Reitman’s deal was. I appreciate all of this detailed information on this race.

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