Election 2019: Saint Paul City Council, Ward 4

This was a surprisingly complicated one. Here’s who’s running:

Mitra Jalali Nelson (incumbent)
Chris Holbrook
Tarrence Robertson-Bayless

Chris Holbrook

Chris Holbrook is libertarian and something of an election hobbyist: he ran for Governor in 2014 as a Libertarian on a “fireworks are good, taxes and trains are bad” platform (or at least that’s how I summed it up at the time) and he ran for mayor of Saint Paul in 2017 on a “taxes are bad” platform.

He’s anti-coordinated-trash-hauling and thinks car drivers are treated as second-class citizens (in this city? are you kidding me? One of my Twitter friends had a car run into him on purpose and despite a photo with clear images of the car and driver he was unable to get the police to take an interest.) I do approve of the fact that he’s in favor of putting more civilian oversight over the police department, but overall, nope. He might get a few votes from the anti-trash-hauling crowd but overall I don’t think he’s a real contender in this race; it’s between Mitra and Tarrence.

Mitra Jalali Nelson 

Mitra was elected in a special election last August and took office in September of 2018. I was excited to see her elected for a number of reasons: she’s a young, queer woman of color; she’s a renter (a group that’s catastrophically underrepresented on the City Council and most elected positions); she’s pro-transit, pro-biking, pro-density, pro-meaningful-oversight-of-police. Since her election, she’s helped create an immigrant defense fund for Ramsey County residents facing deportation. She’s supported bike lanes, transit, and pedestrian improvements. She’s voted to fund affordable housing initiatives. I like Mitra a lot.

I’ll note that Mitra arrived in office almost exactly a month before the new trash hauling arrangement started. She had absolutely nothing to do with the contract negotiations but had all the implementation problems (and there were plenty in her ward) dumped in her lap just as she took office. Regarding my question about future contract negotiations for trash hauling, she said that first, she approved of organized trash hauling in general, but that she did not want to wait until the current contract was up to renegotiate. Issues she’d particularly like to deal with: allowing people 2-4 unit buildings to share bins (and to adjust things for townhome associations that had a dumpster or something but were dragged into the contract because they had 4 or fewer units); making the pricing structure steeper to give a bigger break to people who produce very little waste; “addressing challenges for low-income folks on fixed incomes.” She also thinks we might have had more luck addressing these things if the ballot question hadn’t brought everything to a screeching halt.

I would absolutely vote for Mitra if I lived in her ward. She has my enthusiastic endorsement.

Tarrence Robertson-Bayless

All that said, I didn’t dislike Tarrence Robertson-Bayless. Tarrence is a trans veteran (and member of the Minnesota National Guard). He’s been homeless, he’s struggled with addiction issues, he transitioned while serving in the military during the Trump years. I have some hesitations about his plans, his allies, and some of his stances, but if he were running in a ward where I disliked the incumbent, I might shrug those things off and endorse him.

Somewhere I read that he got into the race because he was opposed to the upzoning of Marshall. It wasn’t on his website, but his website doesn’t make it entirely clear what motivated him to run — if it’s an open seat, going in on a “let me tell you how cool I am” platform makes sense but when you’re running against an incumbent, there’s kind of an implied “also, the person currently doing the job isn’t doing it as well as I would,” but I think he got into the race in January of this year, when Mitra had been doing the job for all of four months. I don’t know what to make of this. ETA: found the source of him being an “opponent of the rezoning plan.” PiPress article from January. (Link goes to the St. Paul library database, which you can read with a SPPL library card.)

In terms of actual political differences between Mitra and Tarrence, here’s what I found.

There are multiple theories popular among progressives regarding affordable housing. There are people who believe that the first priority when you have a significant housing shortage is just to build more housing. There are others who will say that this won’t work unless there are regulations that require that new units be affordable (or some other regulations, like rent control or whatever). I would say that Mitra is more in the “start building, that will at least solve the problem where we straight up don’t have enough” camp and Tarrence is more in the “stop building until we have regulations in place that will make new units affordable” camp. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying both of their positions here — Mitra mentions inclusionary zoning in her goals (at least to study it). (Tarrence says, in his housing section, that he will “work to ensure future density and zoning plans around major transit hubs include mandates to make them affordable in order to proactively guarantee that our residents aren’t forced to move because they can no longer afford to live in the area.”) I think both positions here are defensible but there are an awful lot of Saint Paulites (who came out in droves during the fight over the Ford Site plan) who will use “but is that housing affordable or just more market-rate condos” as a way to object to any increase in density, even along transit corridors (Marshall Avenue is a major thoroughfare! it should totally have three-story buildings!) There are a lot of things that can throw off supply-and-demand, so I don’t think that just building a lot more housing will automatically solve all our housing problems but I do think that until we build a lot more housing, anything else we do isn’t going to work, because we straight up don’t have enough. The vacancy rate for St. Paul rental housing was at 3.3% in 2017 and I think it’s unlikely it’s gotten better in the last two years.

On trash hauling, Tarrence got back to me quickly when I e-mailed (and also followed up to see if I had any more questions, which I appreciated). He’s been campaigning with the Vote No folks but said he’d like to keep organized trash collection, although he really dislikes the current contract and I think he’s planning to vote no (his website doesn’t actually say). “If the ordinance remains in place and looking to future negotiations, we should prioritize cart sharing options, composting service, opting out, pick-up of yard waste, and vouchers for transfer station drop off (similar to what Minneapolis does). I also believe that the contract should include explicit language on customer service and expectations for providing trash service and tie the outcomes to penalties or payment against the haulers. […]  As it stands right now, the contract cannot be renegotiated unless all parties agree to come to the table. The haulers have already indicated on multiple occasions that they are not willing to renegotiate – so changes will have to wait another 4 years if the ordinance remains. The city claiming it will renegotiate before then is misleading because they have tried to get them to the table numerous times to no avail. A hauler was just quoted in the paper as saying, “If there’s not a financial benefit to opening up the contract, there’s not a reason to open up the contract.” Right now, the haulers hold all the cards.”

(He may be right that trying to get the haulers to negotiate is pointless! But since the Supreme Court said we’re still bound by the contract, I don’t think voting no is going to fix this, either.)

Tarrence campaigning with the Vote No crew brings up one of my other hesitations about him: he’s done a campaign event with Patty Hartmann and Kassim Busuri. I’ve covered my distrust of Patty — Kassim is the guy who was appointed to his seat on the explicit condition that he wouldn’t run for the office, went back on that agreement, and also posted a bunch of homophobic crap to his social media and called the people who called him on it Islamophobic. I mean, when you’re new, you’re an outsider, and you’re looking for an audience, and you get invited to an event, you probably just go. But his appearance at that event implies that these are the people he’s hoping to be working with after the elections, and that’s worrisome.

If you’ve read all this and are still feeling undecided, you could watch the Ward Four forum that was held a couple weeks ago and see if that helps.

Anyway, my pick for #1 is Mitra; my pick for #2 is Tarrence.

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.

1 thought on “Election 2019: Saint Paul City Council, Ward 4

  1. The connection isn’t 100% clear, but it appeared that groups associated with “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul” drafted Tarrence after Shirley Erstad lost to Ms. Jalali-Nelson and then made some tone deaf remarks about Ms. Jalali-Nelson’s lack of qualifications, attributing her win to “identity politics”.
    Ms. Erstad is ALSO a prominent supporter of Ms. Hartmann, and there is indeed a significant Venn diagram overlap between the support camps for the two candidates.
    He is quite closely aligned with the active and well organized no-to-everything crowd.

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