Election 2019: St. Paul City Council, Ward 1

Ward 1 is currently represented by Dai Thao. He was endorsed by the DFL at the convention. On the ballot:

Dai Thao
Abu Nayeem “Frogtown Crusader”
Liz De La Torre
Anika Bowie

Dai Thao

Dai Thao ran for mayor in 2017; his campaign foundered on bribery allegations. To recap, briefly: his campaign manager met with a lobbyist who was concerned about a takeout-food-container ordinance that the City Council was considering.  The campaign manager solicited a donation with an implied quid-pro-quo. Dai Thao fired the campaign manager and denied that soliciting bribes was something he did. He was investigated and not prosecuted. The green-to-go ordinance passed in March; Dai Thao voted for it; I think the precise exemption that he was being lobbied for did not get added to the St. Paul ordinance.

In 2018, Dai Thao got in trouble for helping a constituent to vote at the polls. (Link goes to the St. Paul Public Library News Bank; log in with your library card to read. It was originally a Pioneer Press story and they allow a whopping one article per month and have some of the most obnoxious pop-up ads of any news site I’ve ever visited.) Under Minnesota state law, if you’re a candidate for office on the ballot, you can’t help a voter fill out that ballot. In this case, the voter was an older Hmong woman who didn’t speak or read English, and he was the only Hmong speaker present; he says that if he hadn’t helped her, she would have had to wait for someone else to come to the polls. His conviction was tossed on appeal on the grounds that Federal laws say you can have anyone help you vote that you want. Make of that what you will.

(Are you wondering, “wait, how was she able to get US citizenship when she doesn’t speak English?” There were some special exceptions made to that rule for the Hmong, because the Hmong wound up refugees because they sided with the US during the Vietnam War. I strongly approve of this exception, but it does lead to some really weird situations every now and then.)

The DFL endorsing convention was held in late April. On the first ballot, Dai Thao got 99 votes, just shy of the 60% needed. Liz De La Torre got 30 votes and Anika Bowie got 39 votes. From the PiPress article:

Before a second ballot could be tallied, however, the two first-time candidates took to the stage to ask that their supporters walk out in protest of what they deemed to be voting irregularities — including the fact there were at least a handful more votes than people.

With shouts and cheers erupting on all sides, many participants left the room.

A significant number stayed.

Thao soon won the party endorsement with 74 percent of the vote on the second ballot, and the Ward 1 convention moved onto statements from school board candidates.

(This was an attempt to break quorum that they should have known was doomed to fail!)

Bowie filed a complaint with the city DFL and asked to have the endorsement tossed. There were, in fact, some weird things that were going on — there were more ballots in the mix than there were credentialed delegates. This strikes me as more likely to be human error than deliberate shenanigans. I do find it really concerning that the credentials committee never actually got its shit together prior to the convention and according to De La Torre, not even the day of. What this says to me is that the DFL is losing experienced volunteers even as its gaining people who are showing up at the conventions — if this keeps happening it’s going to make the entire endorsement process unsustainable (which might be just as well).

Anyway, it wasn’t a close vote; irregularities are a bigger deal if it’s close, and this wasn’t. (I have found, when I go to conventions, that I can successfully predict most of the eventual endorsements just by eyeballing t-shirts. As can all the volunteers: you will notice this as volunteers from rival campaigns make a beeline for you to pitch their person as your fallback choice.)

As a City Council rep, Dai Thao voted in favor of a $15 citywide minimum wage but also pushed for a slower rollout for small businesses. He was apparently also in favor of a tip credit before eventually voting against it. He joined the majority of the council to vote to ease restrictions on ADUs (accessory dwelling units) and also wants to offer grants to help people build them. He’s been waffling on the Ayd Mill proposal (which is to turn half of it into a bike/pedestrian lane) and wants “more study,” which several commenters on Facebook suggested was just a way to oppose it without opposing it. WedgeLive noted that when the Ford Site was under debate, he asked the rest of the council for more affordable units, which he got, then voted against the plan in what Jonathan considered to be a last-ditch effort to pander to the NIMBYs in his mayoral race.

I found few issues where he stood alone on the council — the one really major one was proposing the slower rollout for the $15 minimum wage. “Oppose the thing by asking for more study” seems to be pretty in-character.

When I started this post a month ago his website didn’t list accomplishments, but he seems to have added them. The things he highlights as major accomplishments:

  • Passing an earned sick and safe time ordinance. He was legitimately an early proponent of this. (The article also mentions his involvement with the soccer stadium and quotes him insisting that he’s not going to run for mayor. He then ran for mayor; see upthread.) He also voted with Rebecca Noecker (against the rest of the council) to increase staff to enforce sick and safe time.
  • Opposing higher property taxes.
  • Creating an opt-in Emergency Notification System. (You can sign up for automated calls or text alerts for things like missing children.)
  • Banning the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products from convenience stores. He’s also been working to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 and … I have a whole side rant about that, let me just sum up to say that he’s part of the problem where the adults stayed focused on the problem of Youth Tobacco Use while missing the MASSIVE VAPING EPIDEMIC. Almost no kids right now are getting addicted to nicotine via CIGARETTES, they are ALL getting addicted to Juul, and if you’re focusing on the problem of menthol cigarettes and missing the problem of candy-flavored nicotine vapes you are definitely missing the forest for the trees. Although this problem (focusing on tobacco, ignoring the problem of vaping) is so freaking pervasive I’m not sure how fair it is to hold it against him.
  • He says he “ensured that low-income families had free access to all St. Paul water parks.” I approve of this idea but I can find nothing on the St. Paul Aquatics website about how this works and I also couldn’t find anything that looked relevant in the library newsbank, although I did find some info about low-income swim programs in Minneapolis.
  • He doesn’t mention coordinated trash pickup as one of his accomplishments, but like all the incumbents, he supported the plan. He’s avoided the issue of whether he’s voting Yes or No in the fall referendum.

One of the things that’s really important about a City Council representative and very difficult to assess from the outside is whether they’re responsive to constituents. The level of responsiveness I expect depends heavily on what sort of elected official someone is, and my expectations are probably highest for City Council reps, because it’s a full-time, extremely local job. There are a million small quality-of-life issues that people contact their reps about, from bus routes to potholes to “I took my kids to the playground and there’s a hornet nest under the slide” to “the snowplows forgot my street AGAIN” to “I almost died trying to cross Fairview, please arrange some extra crosswalk enforcement.” Part of their job is handling this stuff; do not hesitate to call or e-mail your City Council rep.

How does Dai Thao handle this stuff? I am not sure, since I’m not his constituent, but both Anika Bowie and Liz De La Torre emphasize how eager they are to answer your e-mails, return your phone calls, and hold open office hours for constituents, which makes me suspect this is a Known Issue. That said, when I contacted his campaign (via their Facebook page because I couldn’t find an e-mail link on his website) to ask about his priorities for renegotiating the trash contract, I heard back within two hours. (Was this because he knows about my blog? Maybe. I have a lot more notoriety in Minneapolis, but Dai Thao ran for mayor and I wrote about him then, so…who knows.)

(I wound up sending this question to most of the candidates who seemed serious and weren’t pushing for a “no” vote on the trash referendum: it’s a five-year contract, we’re one year in, and you normally start negotiations well before a contract expires, so the contract will be being negotiated while you’re in office. What will your priorities be? Dai Thao’s response: “1. Pricing. It’s too high and we need to bring it down. 2. Shared cart. Qualify property(s) should be able to share cart. 3. Customer services. Haulers need to provide better service on billings and phone support.”)

Abu Nayeem “Frogtown Crusader”

In his favor: the St. Paul open data initiative is pretty cool.

To his detriment: he cosplays a frog-themed superhero everywhere he goes. Also, he opposes coordinated trash pickup because it “discourages neighborly behaviors,” by which I would assume he means that you no longer have to convince all your neighbors to go in on a single hauler to avoid having eight trucks down your alley every week. (Okay, possibly he doesn’t oppose coordinated trash pickup — he supports the referendum to repeal the ordinance and had an extremely convoluted proposal for a replacement plan. He also claims that a “no” vote would get rid of the contract. Per the Minnesota Supreme Court, it wouldn’t.)

He also answered the Neighbors for More Neighbors questionnaire (which focuses on affordable housing, density, upzoning, and eliminating parking requirements) and I was not impressed by some of his answers. (They asked about implementing some of the Minneapolis 2040 type changes in St. Paul, like allowing quadplexes throughout the city and eliminating parking minimums; he opposes both. Also, he blames St. Paul’s shortage of affordable housing on Minneapolis, which is certainly a take.)

I’ll be honest, I’d probably take him more seriously if he weren’t billing himself as a superhero and dressing as a frog. I’d also take him more seriously if he had any endorsements. I probably shouldn’t write him off as a candidate since if you’re in Ward 1 and you really hate coordinated trash he’s kind of your guy.

Liz De La Torre

Liz De La Torre works as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and she’s been involved in politics since working on Betty McCollum’s reelection campaign in 2012 as a field organizer. (This led to a job working in McCollum’s office.)

Her Issues page leads with affordable housing (she’s pro-upzoning, which means changing zoning laws to permit more multi-family housing in areas which are restricted to single-family. She also responded to the Neighbors for More Neighbors questionnaire.) She’s in favor of expanding transit and bike lanes; she supports the plan to split up Ayd Mill Road and dedicate a lane to bikers and says she wants it to “serve the needs of Ward 1 residents and not commuters cutting through the ward.”

We basically need Ayd Mill once a year, when Summit Avenue becomes an impenetrable wall of marathon runners and Ayd Mill’s underpass is the only way to get past it. I mostly just stay home on marathon day until the thing’s over but I do drive on Ayd Mill pretty regularly and from what I’ve seen, it would be just as functional with one lane, especially if they repaved it.

Her website’s statement on trash collection is that she wants to “better accommodate households that are committed to waste reduction.” I’m open to proposals here but I’m not all that sympathetic to people who want to be able to opt out entirely.

She responded promptly to my e-mail about how she’d renegotiate the contract. She supports the basic premise of organized trash (“It’s the most fiscally and environmentally sound solution to garbage collection”). I asked about customer service issues and she had a really good response there: she said she was “quite frankly disappointed that the customer service problems alone haven’t been grounds enough to improve the contract. […] In case we are stuck in this arrangement as is until the contract is over, we must remember that these haulers weren’t willing to be better partners with the city. I don’t think we should be awarding the next contract to any of these haulers. Not in a retaliatory sense, but because of a proven track record of negligence and unwilling to improve customer services. I’m assuming that perhaps some of these details were not included or may have been overlooked in the contract so I would ensure that we have some way to measure and account for customer service failures in the new contract.”

She’d also like citywide composting and to look at ways to include larger (more than four unit) multifamily buildings and businesses. She’s a YES on the ballot question.

Her endorsements list is AFSCME; Jim McDonough, Ramsey County Board chair, who I don’t know a whole lot about; and Jon Schumacher, who was elected to the St. Paul School Board four years ago and decided not to run again. I looked up what I had to say about Jon when he ran. I was not super impressed, although I eventually voted for him. His website was largely aphorisms rather than content. I dug through the news archive to see if he’d done anything interesting while on the board. I found basically nothing. He clearly goes to meetings but has taken no particularly interesting or controversial stances and said nothing of note that I found.

Anika Bowie

Anika Bowie is the VP of the local NAACP, has served as a St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commissioner, and organized for Restore the Vote (which is working to restore the vote to people who are on probation or parole).

She has a “vision page” rather than an issues page, and I’d have to describe it as heavily lefty-generic. Like it’s full of things I agree with but light on the specifics, both specifics of what she wants to do and specifics of how she expects to accomplish them. (She wants to “establish affordable and sustainable housing near public transit for seniors, families, and people seeking to make St. Paul their home,” which — yes! totally! but she’s not saying if she’s planning to do this by devoting money to public housing, passing an ordinance requiring a certain percentage of affordable apartments when a new building goes up, or what.)

The most impressive page is her endorsements page, which is lengthy. She’s endorsed by Our Revolution; Keith Ellison; Ruth Richardson (state legislator); Andrea Jenkins (Minneapolis City Council Member); Mayor Carter’s father; and one of her high school teachers. Among other people.

I e-mailed Anika the same questions about trash but haven’t heard back. I tried her Facebook page but I don’t want to wait forever to post this — I’ll edit if I get an answer. I’ll note that she didn’t respond to the Neighbors for More Neighbors questionnaire, either.

(ETA: Heard back! Here’s what she said in response to my question about what she’d want to prioritize when it was time to renegotiate the hauling contract: “I am prepared to look into echoing the voices of the people at city hall and pushing the mayor to recognize the changes that many people are asking for. The city council doesn’t have control over the contract but does have control over how we move forward with a better organized way of hauling our trash.” I would describe that as a thoroughly nonspecific answer and one that suggests a lack of knowledge or interest. Mind you, this is overall a bogus issue — but it’s a high-profile, endlessly-discussed bogus issue that we’re literally voting on simultaneously with this City Council race, and given that, I’d have expected more substance in her response.)

I was feeling sufficiently undecided that I watched the video of a debate held last week. After watching this, I was more impressed by Liz. She seemed to be working with a large base of knowledge, both on a personal level and as someone who’d done policy-related work in the past. She and Anika are mostly in line with each other politically, but I think Liz is better equipped to be more effective on the City Council.

My recommendation for Ward 1:

  1. Liz de la Torre
  2. Anika Bowie
  3. Dai Thao
  4. Abu Nayeem

If you’re finding these useful and would like to make sure I know how much you value my work to help keep me motivated, I have two options for you this year. I have a novel coming out in November, CATFISHING ON CATNET, which you can pre-order. Also, you may remember that last year I linked people to a couple of fundraisers on DonorsChoose for Minneapolis teachers — there was one, in particular, who was raising money to take fifth-grade students at Green Central Park School to Wolf Ridge Environmental Center. My readers really came through for her, and her students were able to make the trip, which is amazing. She has another class of fifth graders, and is fundraising again for another trip. It would make me very happy if my readers supported this project.


7 thoughts on “Election 2019: St. Paul City Council, Ward 1

  1. During the candidate forum on October 4th, Dai Thao said that he is going to vote yes on the referendum.

  2. What I am seeing is that the trash hauling contract is a way for the big haulers to force out the small haulers and establish a monopoly. The two small landlords I know (I do the books for one of them) have had their rates raised by almost 2.5 times by the new contract. This doesn’t make sense for a system that is supposed to be saving the trash hauler’s time, gas and mileage.

      • It was a combination of the two things. Before they had fewer and larger cans with close to the same total capacity. By the way, since I enjoy F and SF I’ll keep an eye out for your book when it comes out.

      • Another thing I’ve noticed. The contract was supposed to protect the small independent garbage haulers. Now they are down from 14 to 6, and that is expected to shrink further.

      • There were some who threw in the towel because they didn’t like doing business under the new arrangement but others just took buyouts and retired.

        Anyway, basically every council rep and candidate I asked about what they’d like to renegotiate in the next contract said they’re in favor of trying to arrange for cart-sharing options, which is something nobody really thought about discussing because technically, under the old rules, it wasn’t legal, there just wasn’t any enforcement to stop you. So that should get solved. If their rates went up more than a little bit per can, that suggests they were getting a serious sweetheart deal. (Our rates went up, but only slightly.) There were people who had long-running deals with haulers where they were paying like $10/month, which is literally like a THIRD of what most of us were paying. I’m totally OK with those people now having to pay the same as the rest of us, because we were the ones picking up the overall tab for their discounts. (I mean, OK, if they’re an 80-year-old on a fixed income I have sympathy for their situation but if they’re a landlord? They can pay the same bill as the rest of us.)

  3. Not to argue, but I noticed something very interesting. The precincts that voted no on the contract were almost entirely in the areas served by Republic.

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