Here’s how the Highland District Council election in St. Paul was pitched to me as the perfect hyperlocal story: 70-year-old former Vikings tight end Stu Voight was going to be there to campaign for one of the board candidates. And I said, “That’s great! Brain damage is exactly what neighborhood politics needs more of.”
But first you’re probably wondering: what is a District Council? In Minneapolis we have 70 neighborhood associations. In St. Paul they have 17 district councils. And the best way to explain the difference: district councils are like if a dozen Minneapolis neighborhood associations got together to form a NATO-style military alliance. If you’re doubting this military alliance analogy, you should know that one of St. Paul’s other district councils calls itself the “Fort Road Federation.”
Funded by the City of St. Paul, district councils serve an engagement and advisory function similar to Minneapolis neighborhood organizations. They have no official policy-making power, other than whatever clout might be ceded to them by individual members of the city council.
On my arrival at Highland Park Middle School I was immediately reminded of a DFL convention, just with better food. There was an all-you-can-eat sandwich buffet provided by Jimmy John’s. Days later, I’m still recovering. I think I had 13 of those little sandwich sections.
Kind of been distracted with Jimmy John’s. No news to report yet. pic.twitter.com/NlQtLD84DB— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) April 10, 2019
In the way that DFL conventions are organized by precincts, Highland District Council elections are organized by grids. Highland’s 12 grids are about the same size as a typical Minneapolis neighborhood. During the first portion of the event residents of each grid elected representatives to the board.
I was told by an informed source that Grid 1 would be the most action-packed, so I grabbed as many Jimmy John’s sandwiches as I could carry, before watching two candidates debate the issues. The issues in Highland these days are dominated by the redevelopment of the sprawling former automobile plant now known as the Ford Site.
The six tweets embedded directly below are from the Grid 1 question and answer session. The candidates are Sally Bauer and Howard Miller (referred to as “guy”).
As predicted, incumbent Sally Bauer was too reasonable to win her grid election (Sally: We have a shortage of housing and should provide housing for people who need it). But Sally refused to suspend her campaign, and she would come back later to win an at-large seat.
Older white people dominated the overall turnout, and this was especially true in Highland’s Grid 1. This supports my theory that this is not a good way to organize city-sponsored influence over our local political process. According to census data provided by mncompass.com, Highland Park is 23% people of color. But if you had guessed the percentage based solely on your experience of this event, you’d have said it was close to zero.
In Grid 5, the winning candidate ran a fear-based campaign where he asked everyone who’s been a victim of crime to raise their hand. Winning Candidate was there with his friend, Guy Wearing a MAGA Hat. And remember, he was the winning candidate!
The at-large election featured five candidates running for two seats. The most quotable among them was a 28-year resident and scoutmaster, who I’m pretty sure was on his way to an election victory until he took a hard right turn, referencing “the Taj Mahal and downtown Cairo” as places that smell very bad — and reasons to avoid density at all cost.
Losing candidate Tom Basgen said it was notable that grid 11 — a place with many apartment buildings — failed to elect a representative. Having a district council that represents the whole community would mean outreach and bringing people in from grids where few people showed up on Wednesday night.
Last candidate is a scoutmaster who’s lived in his house for 28 years. He’s calling out @SustainWard3 as a problematic force in the district council. He (older white guy) wants to take some seats away from their “control” on “equity” grounds.— Wedge LIVE!™ (@WedgeLIVE) April 11, 2019
At least the winner was NOT the guy who explained to everyone that density was bad because Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, smells bad.— Naomi Kritzer (@NaomiKritzer) April 11, 2019
(I think that was probably the most offensive moment of the evening. Worse than the MAGA hat.)