This is part of a series on the 2019 St. Paul Elections
Where is Ward 1?
Ward 1 is St. Paul’s middle-est ward, the only ward that doesn’t share a border with any neighboring towns. Roughly speaking, it’s everything west of 35E, north of Summit, East of Snelling or Lexington, and south of Front ave. All of the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods are in Ward 1, as well as parts of Union Park, Como, and the North End.
Anika Bowie - vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP
Liz De La Torre - a Systems Advocacy Coordinator for Ramsey County Public Health and former staffer to Rep. Betty McCollum
Abu Nayeem - a programmer, community activist, educator, and local superhero
Dai Thao - the incumbent councilmember who has served since 2013; he also ran for mayor in 2017
Anika Bowie definitely hired the right people to do her website and campaign branding. Everything is vibrant and professional, there’s a great lead video showing Anika meeting with supporters and attending events, and lots of excellent photographs of Anika, her supporters, and the local politicians who have endorsed her. The little cartoon version of Anika near the bottom of the home page is also delightful.
Her issues page has a lot to like: she wants to diversify the St. Paul police force, help low-income people avoid fines that can be disproportionately damaging, and create “a justice system that values people more than punishment”, which is a phrasing that I really like. I’d like to see her tackle housing and transportation policy with more specificity, although she does want to “Establish affordable and sustainable housing near public transit”. Maybe I’m being too picky about an issue that I find personally important, but “affordable housing” is one of those things that’s easy to be in favor of in general (like “safe schools”, “responsible budgeting”, “transparency”, etc), but the opposition really gets fired up about the details, so I want to know that a politician is in favor of building more housing, even in places where neighbors might be in opposition.
The bigger concern I have with Anika, however, is on the events page on her website. As I’m writing this it’s less than 3 weeks from election day and October is looking… pretty empty, and the most recent “past events” on the page were in July. I checked her campaign Facebook page and she has a few fundraising/rally events coming up, and she did attend the Ward 1 Campaign Forum, but I’m not sure that she’s keeping up the campaign activity she’ll need to defeat an established incumbent or beat other challengers with a similar platform.
Liz De La Torre
Speaking of campaign websites, I’ve been reading a lot of candidate “Issues” pages this month, and I don’t think I’ve seen a better one than Liz De La Torre’s. It’s easy to scan, each issue has a clear problem statement and a bullet point list of specific solutions. You can tell at a glance what issues are important to Liz and what she plans to do about them if elected. Hats off to her campaign team, this is very good political communication.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I think she’s got very good solutions laid out for many of the issues her and I both care about. I love that she frames car access as an equity issue, for instance - car dependence prices many people out of access to jobs or basic city services, and prioritizing transit access is an excellent way to equalize those opportunities. She clearly advocates for increased housing supply, and I think “creating space to help people out of the cycle of chronic homelessness” is a great way of connecting the specific problem of unsheltered homeless with the overall problem of exclusionary zoning and lack of supply.
It’s also a smart move to clearly contrast yourself with the incumbent councilmember on key issues, like when she says “Unlike the Ward 1 incumbent, I fully support a minimum wage of $15 per hour with no tip credit”. Unlike CM Thao, she’s also in favor of Mayor Carter’s proposed narrowing of Ayd Mill road, which would save the city quite a bit on maintenance costs and make room for an awesome bike/pedestrian trail as a bonus.
I think these positions show boldness and thoughtfulness, and combined with her professional background - union member, advocate for sexual assault victims, previous experience in politics and organizing - it seems like she would make an excellent addition to the City Council.
Things that I like about Abu Nayeem: He’s young and a programmer/data analyst; too many tech types think that politics is beneath them and we need to get more involved in making the world a better place. I think it’s charming that he wears his “Frogtown Crusader” outfit to candidate forums to show off his pride in his neighborhood. I also think he’s doing genuine good by campaigning as “openly neurodivergent” - he’s overcome developmental disorders and gone on to earn a Master’s degree in economics and do some good work in his community, and I think being open about that is a great way to lessen the stigma around mental illness and neurodivergence in our culture. I’m glad that he’s running.
Things that I don’t like about Abu Nayeem: Yep, you guessed it, he’s an anti-trasher. I thought I could go a whole ward without having to link my trash post, but I guess not. I think it’s counterproductive to call yourself an environmentalist but advocate for a system that leads to many more miles being driven by garbage trucks all across the city. I’ll also note that since Abu and I wrote our respective position statements on trash, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the “force majeure” clause would not let the city out of the contract were the “No” side to win this year’s ballot referendum. In other words, we’re going to paying the contract one way or another, either to our designated hauler directly or through our property taxes. We might as well get the service we’re paying for while we’re at it.
Dai Thao is a little hard to pin down. There’s a lot about him that I like: he was a strong advocate for a minimum wage increase and mandatory sick leave, he fights for more civilian oversight of police, and I think he’s done a lot of solid work on Allianz Field and the surrounding area to attract valuable development without throwing gobs of public money at a sports team.
On housing and transportation issues, Dai says a lot of the right things: we need more density, I support the city’s bike plan, I want to build more affordable housing, etc. The problem is that, after following St. Paul politics for a few years, I’ve come to see What Dai Thao Says as a very unreliable predictor of How Dai Thao Votes. On too many issues, he appears to want to have it both ways
As a concrete example, let’s review the debate over the Ford Site master plan. If you’re just joining us now, the Ford Motor Company manufactured cars for about 100 years in St. Paul until they didn’t. As Ford wound down the factory, the city engaged in a decade-long planning effort that culminated in a master plan for a new neighborhood that came before the city council in 2017. Reflecting changes in urban planning and the city’s increasing need for housing, the plan called for a more dense, more mixed-use neighborhood than its surroundings at the time, and not without controversy.
Dai Thao’s first major action on the Ford Site was to propose an amendment that made the inclusionary zoning requirements in the plan more strict: the eventual developer would have to set aside more apartments to be rented at below-market rates. Thao argued that “we’ve got to make sure there is appropriate affordable housing on the site” along with higher-density housing. The council debated this amendment along with many others, and eventually Dai Thao’s affordability requirements made it into the final version of the bill. Big victory for Dai Thao, right?
Well, the next thing that Dai Thao did was vote against the final bill that included his amendment. This puts him in an interesting position, strategically. He can try to ally himself with neighborhood groups that opposed the Ford site plan, which he voted against, but he can also claim in the Streets.mn questionnaire that he “was able to push for deep affordable housing goals at the Ford Site”. Technically that is true, but I feel that phrasing it that way is intentionally misleading.
This is mostly normal politician stuff, but it gets a shade darker when you review the debate over sustainable to-go packaging over the last few years. Dai Thao was originally in favor of requiring restaurants to use recyclable or compostable to-go boxes, but in 2017 was accused of soliciting a bribe from a lobbyist opposed to the new rules. He then voted to delay the change, but told reporters he was “100% in support”. The rules eventually did pass the council with Thao’s support.
I don’t think that Dai Thao did anything criminal during that process (No charges were ever filed), but I do think asking for a campaign donation from a lobbyist meeting with you about an issue is sloppy and shows poor judgment. And it’s more evidence for me that Thao will say what the audience in front of him wants to hear, even if it’s not in line with his actions. I don’t think Thao’s a bad guy and he ends up voting the way I want a lot of the time, but I think we should demand leaders that give us clear reasoning for their actions and that follow up their words with votes when important issues come to the council.
I think that Liz De La Torre should be your first ranked choice if you live in Ward 1, but I can see a few different ways you might want to fill out the rest of your list depending on how much value Dai Thao’s experience and whether voting for e.g. a black candidate or a neurodivergent candidate is important to you.