This is part of a series on the 2019 St. Paul Elections

Let’s take a look at Ward 4, home of my favorite concert venue, the world’s strangest everything store, and my favorite city council rep.

Where is Ward 4?

Ward 4 is in the Northwest corner of St. Paul, everything north of St. Clair or Summit and west of Snelling or Lexington as long as you’re not in the little Ward 5 hat north of Como Park. All or part of the Union Park, St. Anthony Park, Hamline-Midway, and Como neighborhoods are located in Ward 4, plus a little bit of Macalester-Groveland.

The Candidates

There are three candidates running for city council in Ward 4

Chris Holbrook - chair of the Libertarian Party of Minnesota

Mitra Jalali Nelson - the incumbent councilmember who won a special election for the seat last year

Tarrence Robertson-Bayless - A US Army combat veteran and member of the Minnesota National Guard

Chris Holbrook

Chris is the chair of the Libertarian Party of Minnesota and ran under the Libertarian party banner for Governor in 2014. He also ran for mayor of St. Paul in 2017. His issues page skips over a lot of the Libertarian Party greatest hits (opposing all gun control, opposing all minimum wage laws, advocating cutting all government services) and throws out three policy proposals for your consideration: “Fix Trash”, “Free Parking”, “Safe Police”.

By “Fix trash”, he means vote no on the trash referendum, and that is a very bad idea

Under “Safe Police”, he wants to increase civilian oversight of the St. Paul Police Department, something I’m generally in favor of. Good on him for that.

Then we get to “Free Parking” - Chris wants to devote more city resources to road maintenance (presumably by abolishing libraries or some other libertarian nonsense) and he wants to designate more free street parking in St. Paul. Now, free parking should be an issue on which a liberal urbanist like myself and a libertarian like Chris should agree. Free parking is a harmful government subsidy! It distorts the market and leads to poor allocation of scare resources (in this case, the space on public streets). When the city sets parking minimums on private businesses, it’s the exact kind of meddlesome regulation that causes higher prices for consumers that a libertarian should detest. Donald Shoup wrote a whole dang book about The High Cost of Free Parking, advocating market-based approaches to pricing parking, and he’s become an urbanist legend for it. But Chris Holbrook wants to give away more free parking, because his libertarian principles apparently don’t extend to ending a subsidy that disproportionately benefits middle-aged rich white people.

Anyway, don’t vote for Chris Holbrook.

Mitra Jalali Nelson

Mitra is the current councilmember in Ward 4; she won a special election just last year after her predecessor, Russ Stark, took a job in the Mayor’s office. So she’s been in office for only a year, and in that time she’s shown herself to be extremely competent and thoughtful. I live next door in Ward 3, but Mitra is definitely my favorite councilmember and I’ve contributed my money and time to her campaign.

Mitra’s top campaign issue last year and this year is affordable housing, and I’m impressed that she can talk about it in a way that is accessible to non-experts while still showing she has a full grasp on the issue. Mitra understands that adding overall housing supply is essential in a growing city and that smart incentives can shape more new and existing housing to be affordable at all income levels. She’s also not afraid to push back against bullshit arguments used to deny people safe and affordable housing in our city.

Really, that’s a recurring theme of why I love Mitra: she’ll give clear, unambiguous support to issues that other councilmembers seem to want to dance around. She gives loud support for bike and pedestrian improvements like an Ayd Mill Road fix and a Midtown Greenway extension through St. Paul. She’s not afraid to take police violence head on, reminding us on her campaign website that “The institution of policing is squarely rooted in our nation’s history of chattel slavery”. She campaigned on a $15 minimum wage without exception or delay, then it passed the council unopposed when that vote could have easily been 4-3 the year before. She advocates strongly for progressive policies and I think having her voice in the conversation makes a noticeable difference in how the city council operates.

Tarrence Robertson-Bayless

Tarrence is an interesting candidate, starting with the fact that he’s had a very unusual path to running for city council in St. Paul. He’s a transgender man who served in the army for 14 years and publicly stood up against Donald Trump’s ban on transgender soldiers. He’s also worked in diversity and inclusion and substance abuse prevention, and he’s been an outspoken adovocate for LGBTQ rights. His platform includes many of the headings that progressives would hope to see: “Eco-friendly city”, “Housing is a human right”, “Connection to public services”, etc.

Here’s the unfortunate thing, though: his policy positions under those headings are all pretty bad. He opposes reducing Ayd Mill Road to two lanes (link should start at 33:12) due to concerns about traffic. He’s also voting No on the trash referendum, which if he gets his way would substantially increase pollution and emissions from garbage trucks. The anti-coordinated-collection folks occasionally make the argument that removing the requirement to have city garbage service would help encourage people to try “zero-waste”, which is an utterly ridiculous reusable straw to grasp at while ignoring the larger problem of too many garbage trucks driving too many miles in St. Paul. I don’t think Tarrence is making the right moves on the environment.

Tarrence’s policy position on affordable housing (link should start at 43:55) is common, but equally wrongheaded. His call to arms is to “hold developers accountable”, blaming “market rate apartments” for driving up rents in the city. The implication is that if we banned or limited new expensive apartments, that prices would remain stable or go back down. Unfortunately, this argument has effect and cause exactly backwards - nice apartments don’t cause higher prices, demand for housing causes prices to go up, and new apartments at higher rents are a consequence of that demand. In order to solve our housing crisis in the twin cities, we need much more housing built at every price level, and market-rate housing is a necessary component of that. Blaming developers shows that Tarrence doesn’t understand the cause of our housing crisis and is likely to take counter-productive action were he elected.

I also can’t help but point out that when Tarrence says “We just saw four [apartment buildings] go up on Marshall avenue without a single unit of affordable housing”, he didn’t pick Marshall avenue at random. Tarrence launched campaign directly after opposing a new apartment building on Marshall avenue, where he lives, and calling for a moratorium on new housing in the area. I don’t think he can sincerely claim that “housing is a human right” when he responds to new housing in St. Paul with “Not in my back yard!”

Now, if Tarrence were running against an average councilmember, I might say that we should overlook these policy problems and vote for someone with a unique voice to bring to our city government and hope to change his mind on housing. But he’s not running against an average councilmember, he’s running against the best advocate for affordable housing that St. Paul has, who’s also the only renter on the council and the only woman of color. In a year on the council, Mitra has proven herself to be a huge asset to St. Paul and I don’t want to lose her voice in city government.


If I lived in Ward 4, I’d rank the candidates:

  1. Mitra
  2. Tarrence