This much was clear at last night's Ward One candidate forum at the Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul: all eight of the city council candidates are in favor of affordable housing and economic development, and against crime. They also, to a person, want old people to remain in the neighborhood and young people to get a decent education.
The candidates, who are vying to replace Jerry Blakey, spent the majority of the two-hour debate mouthing these noble platitudes. A few distinctive characteristics, however, did emerge among the crowded field of contenders. Most obviously, Paul Holmgren distinguished himself by being the lone Republican voice, stating "I believe in conservative principles." Unfortunately for Holmgren, a conservative Republican has about as much chance of being elected in Ward One as Charley Walters does of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Ramsey County contract manager Bao Vang repeatedly referenced her Horatio Alger-esque life story. Vang arrived in the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp in 1980 when she was 10 years old. Her seven family members initially shared a St. Paul efficiency apartment in the Selby-Dale neighborhood. Despite these humble beginnings, she went on to earn a master's degree and has served as executive director of a St. Paul social services agency. "I didn't have to go to school to learn about poverty," Vang told the crowd of about forty people.
Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, staked out territory as a progressive populist, repeatedly focusing on "racial justice" issues such as predatory lending and racial profiling. Rosenthal was also the most specific in detailing what policies he would actually pursue to address issues such as housing and crime. He proposed creating a trust fund to provide a stable source of funding for housing programs, similar to what exists in Minneapolis. Rosenthal was also sharply critical of Mayor Randy Kelly and his unwillingness to vocally oppose cuts in state funding. "We need to be far more powerful in our demand for our equal share from the state," Rosenthal said.
Johnny Howard, who headed the Thomas-Dale Block Club prior to its dissolution earlier this year, repeatedly reminded the audience that he has been at the forefront in fighting crime in the Frogtown neighborhood over the last decade. Occasionally referencing himself in the third person, Howard pointed out the relative tranquility of St. Paul this summer by comparison to Minneapolis. "It's still raining out," Howard declared in his closing statement, "but the storm is over. The storm is over. I had an umbrella."
With less than a month left before the September 9th primary, and no DFL standard-bearer, the Ward One race remains a fascinating political scrum. The large field reflects the area's diversity, with three black candidates, two Hmong candidates and three white candidates. Not surprisingly, race hovers just below the surface, with ongoing tensions between the various ethnic groups, particularly over the long-delayed Pan Asian Urban Village slated for the intersection of Dale Street and University Avenue.
The best dope I've been able to gather puts Vang and Debbie Montgomery--who recently received the endorsement of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and is widely viewed as Mayor Kelly's choice for the post--as most likely to advance to the general election. But with only 4000-or-so votes expected to be cast, it will all depend on who can get their people to the polls.