Endorsement: Liz De La Torre and Anika Bowie for Ward 1 on the St Paul City Council

There are four candidates in St. Paul’s Ward 1: incumbent Dai Thao, Anika Bowie, Liz De La Torre, and Abu Nayeem.

Abu Nayeem campaigns in a hat with giant frog eyeballs attached to it. He calls himself the “Frogtown Crusader.” For a guy wearing frog eyeballs on his head, I think he’s an alright candidate. Though sometimes he says things that remind you he’s the guy wearing giant frog eyeballs.

My first impression from Ward 1 when I attended the DFL caucuses in March was that I liked Liz De La Torre quite a bit. This is especially true when she talks about affordable housing, zoning, and transportation. Rather than checking off a list of talking points, she talks like she’s actually spent time thinking about it. She pushes the envelope on things like parking reform and ending single-family zoning, even when she could easily answer the question without bringing it up. As a council member she would be a leader on these issues.

De La Torre works as an advocate for victims of sexual assault. She says what sets her apart from others is that she digs into policy. I believe her. She would be a big upgrade over Dai Thao. Of special interest to Wedge LIVE! readers: De La Torre currently rents an apartment with her three cats Chico, Jerry, and Petunia.

Anika Bowie is the youngest vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP and a 5th generation resident of the Rondo neighborhood. I’ve found her particularly compelling when she speaks passionately about eliminating disparities and breaking down barriers between her neighbors and city government. Bowie has demonstrated a commitment to criminal justice reform, including her work on “Warrant Forgiveness Day” in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

I don’t go to St. Paul often, but when I do, I tend to see Anika Bowie out campaigning (at Northern Spark, in the middle of the night; and at a random neighborhood meeting I happened to attend). Campaigns are grueling, often unrewarding, and she’s working for votes in a way that inspires confidence.

One issue where both Bowie and De La Torre disagree with Thao: the two challengers support Mayor Carter’s plan for Ayd Mill Road. Thao doesn’t. Carter’s plan would convert the four lane road into a two lane road and devote the extra space to bicyclists and pedestrians. Upkeep on the four lane configuration has “presented a financial and political quandary for several mayoral administrations.”

I find it hard to get a read on Dai Thao. He’s likable and seems earnest about his priorities. Rhetorically he’s rarely outdone by his two main challengers when it comes to presenting himself as an urban progressive. But if you pay attention long enough you’ll catch on to the performance. De La Torre makes this criticism of Thao, which rings true:

You should never be left to guess where your elected leader stands on any issues. And that’s exactly where we’ve been for the last several years. Left to wonder: what’s going on with minimum wage? What’s going on with the soccer stadium? You name it. And that’s not leadership. It’s failure.

Dai Thao said at a candidate forum last week that he fought to include more housing for households at 30% of area median income at the Ford site in 2017. This is technically true, but misleading. Just a few minutes after getting what he asked for, Thao voted against the Ford plan anyway. Thao said at the time: “My vote against this is because I think it’s against the principle of government for the people, by the people.” He said he believed the only winner would be the developer — ignoring the 400 units of deeply affordable housing he and his colleagues had just voted to include in the plan.

When I challenged him on this contradiction last week, he gave me a different explanation: he thought it needed more environmental study (the more likely explanation is that he was determined to vote no and the public reasons didn’t matter. He was scrounging for NIMBY votes during the homestretch of a third-place mayoral campaign). Thao wants to be on every side of an issue, sitting on the fence until he can tell which side brings the biggest return for Dai Thao. You might say that’s politics, but Thao takes soullessness to a maddening extreme.

In looking at Thao’s Ford site vote, I went back to watch video of the council meeting from September 27, 2017. The council had an extended discussion about reconfiguring the percentages of affordable housing required at the Ford site. Thao’s affordable housing amendment successful. Thao then brought forward another amendment related to inclusionary zoning. This was weird, redundant and a waste of time; the council had just passed affordability requirements that were the equivalent of inclusionary zoning. This was a stunt — clumsy and transparent. You can see the irritation on the faces of his colleagues. Thao wants to be seen taking up certain priorities but there isn’t much thought behind his actions.

In 2017, during his mayoral campaign, Thao was accused of soliciting a bribe from a lobbyist:

Thao, who is also a City Council member, met with lobbyist Sarah Clarke and some of her clients in February to discuss the city’s potential ban on Styrofoam and other food packaging, an issue that would come before Thao as a council member and on the campaign trail. During that meeting, Thao said he needed “resources to spread his message,” Clarke said.

It seemed clear he was asking for a campaign contribution, she said, and they were shocked. After the meeting, Angela Marlow, then Thao’s campaign manager, texted her.

“Dai asked me to see if I could get a donation from your clients or yourself for his mayor campaign? My understanding is that they are leaving tomorrow. We will certainly rethink this issue. We are also happy to support Jacob in his mayor run as well,” Marlow wrote, referring to Minneapolis mayoral candidate Jacob Frey, who is Clarke’s husband.

Prosecutors declined to press charges against Thao or his campaign manager, citing the lack of a clear quid pro quo.

Here’s a classic TV news investigative report where the reporter chases down Thao’s campaign manager outside of a DFL caucus to ask about the bribery allegation (3:35). Check out former Council President Russ Stark (5:15) confirming that he’s aware of Thao’s reputation as a “transactional” politician. And here’s part 2.

Thao’s former campaign manager, Angela Marlow, came up again when I looked back at the debate over the minimum wage. In 2018, Marlow was lobbying on behalf of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. She was assuring her members that Thao was one of four council members willing to support a tip credit under the city’s proposed minimum wage ordinance. A tip credit allows employers to subtract tips from their employees wages and avoid paying the standard minimum wage. Thao confirmed to the Star Tribune that he would support a tip credit. (St. Paul’s minimum wage ordinance ultimately passed without a tip credit.)

You can’t trust Dai Thao. You shouldn’t vote for him. You have alternatives.

In both De La Torre and Bowie I see the potential for real leadership, an authentic desire to serve people rather than entrenched interests, and the ability to make their work on the city council about something bigger than themselves. If I were a Ward 1 voter, I would rank Liz De La Torre first and Anika Bowie second.

It’s important to keep in mind that St. Paul is using ranked choice voting this year. There is a very good chance that Thao will have the most first choice votes but not a majority of votes, second choice votes could be decisive in Ward 1.