I got up early last Sunday and traveled from the Wedge to St. Paul’s Ward 4 to spend the morning with City Council candidate Mitra Jalali Nelson. The next day I watched her answer questions at a 90-minute forum. I worried this was too much time to spend, and in such a short period, with a stranger I met on the internet who only wears pink pants.
But I learned a few important things. Mitra is unreservedly pro-city, pro-housing and pro-transit. She’s a renter who chose her apartment because she wanted to live on the light rail in a vibrant neighborhood. She wants a city budget that invests in people — in things like rec centers — rather than hiring more cops. She’s called for funding the remainder of the St. Paul bike plan. She feels a sense of urgency about passing a minimum wage ordinance right away, without exceptions or carve-outs, because “it’s time to pour cement under our feet of sinking wages.” She’s thoughtful, she’s compelling, she’s experienced. I understand why such a broad and diverse coalition of people have been drawn to help get her elected.
I asked Mitra what she would tell a constituent with concerns about adding more housing to address an ongoing shortage of homes. What would she tell people when they say things like “there’s too many people here already”?
Our city is already growing. We’re falling behind. It’s hurting everyone that we haven’t created more places for people to live. Homeowners feel it because they’re pinched by property taxes. Renters feel it because the citywide vacancy rate is two percent. It’s creating a suffocating choke-hold on our city, a situation where people feel like they can’t stay here. In our ward there are tons of seniors who will be selling their homes and need to find a place to live. If they can’t find an apartment to live in nearby, they’re going to be pushed out of the community they spent their lives in.
At the next evening’s candidate forum, the very first question was about “neighborhood character” and “preservation.” These are buzzwords used frequently to signal opposition to change. Though some of the audience was less receptive to her position than I was, Mitra delivered the same answer she gave me: neighborhoods aren’t “livable” if you can’t afford to live there in the first place.
When I asked about policy ideas she’d like to borrow from other municipalities, Mitra cited the example of St. Louis Park requiring landlords to provide relocation assistance to tenants in cases where buildings are sold. As council member, she is committed to strong anti-displacement measures.
[More: Mitra Jalali Nelson talks about exclusionary zoning and police]
In a very St. Paul moment during the candidate forum, Mitra gave an unwavering defense of organized trash collection as a basic city service. Compared to some of her other answers, it seemed more common-sense than courageous… until the only other serious candidate equivocated and pandered.
I spend a lot of time listening to local elected officials talk about housing issues. And even among the best of them, there is usually hesitation and hedging about doing the right thing. Mitra is fearless. She wears her values on her sleeve. She says, “I’m running to be a leader on housing issues for our city.” And it’s so refreshingly clear that she means it.
There are a lot of great candidates up and down the ballot in 2018. But lately, when people ask me which candidate I’m most excited about, I say Mitra Jalali Nelson. St. Paul needs a leader like Mitra. At a time when so many of our local problems — from high rents to low wages to inadequate transportation — are begging for collective and regional solutions, we all need more leaders like Mitra.
The election is August 14th! Unlike other races on the ballot that day, this is a special election, which means the winner is the next council member for Ward 4 in St. Paul. Mitra’s the sort of candidate worth going all-out to support: