Nelsie Yang, left, gets a hug from a supporter when she arrives at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 and Ward 6 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. On the right sits Terri Thao (second from right, in white sweater) with her supporters. On the far left is interim councilmember Kassim Busuri. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)
For 22 years, former St. Paul police Sgt. Dan Bostrom represented much of the East Side as one of the more conservative voices on the St. Paul City Council.
Not long after Bostrom left office at age 78, Nelsie Yang — a union steward with the progressive advocacy organization TakeAction Minnesota — was elected in his place. Then 24, Yang made history as both the youngest member ever seated on the city council and its first Hmong-American woman.
When the face of the East Side’s representation changed, so did its politics. The traditionally working-class Ward 6 elected a council member who has taken an uncompromising pro-tenant stance on rent control, advocates for free public transit and says she wants to “abolish” the institution that gave her predecessor his career.
Yang’s election in 2019 was a harbinger of what was to come for the East Side. Recent elections there for seats in the Legislature and on the Ramsey County Board and city council have gone to younger, more ethnically diverse and arguably more liberal candidates than the politicians who came before.
That trend figures to continue this year as the council seat in Ward 7, which covers most of the rest of the city’s East Side, turns over. Jane Prince is not seeking re-election, and the politically dominant St. Paul DFL in April endorsed Cheniqua Johnson in a four-way race that had no white entrants.
Likewise, with four of the city’s seven council members not seeking re-election, the DFL has endorsed 10 candidates for city council and school board, and seven identify as women of color. At least four have strong immigrant ties.
“I’m just surprised it’s taken this long,” former state Rep. Tim Mahoney, a union pipefitter who represented the East Side from 1999 to 2021, said of the new faces in local politics. “It’s not even the immigrants — it’s their children.”
East Side politics
Yang, who along with Rebecca Noecker and Mitra Jalali is a DFL-endorsed incumbent, has proven a reliable progressive vote in her first term.
On rent control, she has called for rolling back city council amendments that exempted new construction, reverting the policy to a “strong rent control” that imposes a 3 percent cap on annual increases, “no exceptions.” She’s advocated for expanding city services through municipal sidewalk shoveling, alley plowing and child care subsidies that would require raising property taxes each year for 10 years. And she wants to “immediately halt encampment closures” and supports fare-free public transit.
As for policing, Yang said the city should award “no new money for cops,” according to her written responses to a survey sponsored by the Democratic-Socialist organization Twin Cities DSA. “I am an aspiring abolitionist. This means I believe in the abolition of policing and other carceral, punitive institutions” in favor of diversion programs.
As an elected Hmong-American on the city’s East Side, a corner long represented by a mix of political progressives, moderates and others with ties to working class, organized labor, Yang has plenty of company. St. Paul school board Chairman Jim Vue, state Reps. Liz Lee and Jay Xiong, and Ramsey County Commissioner Mai Chong Xiong all have taken office in recent years, and state Sen. Foung Hawj has represented the East Side since 2013.
Johnson, the DFL-endorsed newcomer, said her family was one of the few Black families around when she was growing up in rural Worthington, Minn. That experience should make it somewhat easier to make inroads in a ward that lacks a sense of ethnic cohesion.
“You can go from house to house and not have the same ethnicity living right next to each other,” Johnson said. “Our city council seat has never flipped for a person of color. And no matter who wins, we now have an opportunity to do that.”
Racial, ethnic diversity
To some degree, political change on the East Side reflects both the emerging racial and ethnic diversity of the city as a whole, as well as the political leanings of an urban Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party increasingly sensitive to concerns about the historical under-representation of key identity groups, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ people and immigrants.
Yet, most of the newer political candidates are quick to note there’s plenty of ideological diversity between them. Only two candidates to date, for instance, have been endorsed by the Twin Cities DSA — Yang and Hwa Jeong Kim, another DFL-endorsed city council candidate in Ward 5, which stretches from Como Park through the North End.
And the East Side differs from much of the city in that it has a more sizable concentration of Hmong residents, some of whom are a generation removed from the more traditional, conservative leanings of their Hmong elders.
The area also hosts growing pockets of East African and West African families, new Afghan refugees and the Karen, an ethnic refugee group from Burma. U.S. Census maps show 22 percent to 28 percent of residents living within ZIP codes 55106 and 55119 are foreign-born, though the codes stretch into Maplewood.
“The East Side has always been a stepping stone for many immigrant groups. You had the Swedes, you had the Italians, you had the Irish,” said Kassim Busuri, executive director of the Minnesota Dawah Institute, a Muslim faith center, who was appointed to temporarily hold the Ward 6 city council seat after Bostrom resigned.
“The Hmong are the most, but the Somali and Black population is growing. For most groups, it takes one or two generations,” said Busuri, who was the first Somali-American to serve on the city council. “Usually, the first generation are still trying to get their feet anchored and establish a community. Usually, the kids of those immigrants are the ones running for these positions.”
Low voter turnout in a youthful East Side
Perhaps more than anything, the East Side skews young. Johnson, a new homeowner, said being in her late 20s is both an advantage in terms of relating to the concerns of the political ward’s many young families, and a challenge in terms of convincing skeptics of the promise of youth.
“Young people continue to be the heart of politics. On the East Side, half of the population is under 34,” Johnson noted. “That’s 54 percent in St. Paul and 58 percent on the East Side. Nelsie and I, we’re the same age. But it takes other folks to see folks of this age in this position.”
Given that much of the East Side is under voting age, Prince noted that a youthful population thins the target audience for candidates compared to higher-voter-turnout areas like Highland Park or Hamline-Midway. That could be to a new candidate’s political advantage.
“Due to low voter turnout, campaigns can focus more time and resources on fewer voters,” Prince said. “It takes less money and fewer volunteers to (reach) municipal voters, making these campaigns more accessible to newcomers, including me when I was a newcomer.”
While racial or ethnic ties are important, some candidates say they’re more likely to talk to voters about nuts-and-bolts issues like how to fund upkeep of the city’s aging infrastructure — potholes and parks maintenance — while navigating thorny concerns about rising property taxes hitting moderate-income homeowners.
The East Side and North End have been among the last areas in the city for home values to bounce back from the subprime mortgage crisis of a decade past, and tax burdens are catching up.
“We had a 14% property tax levy increase, but then home values also went up,” said Pa Der Vang, a candidate for the Ward 7 seat.
“People will typically vote for somebody who looks like them, who can relate to them, but across the board, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, everybody is concerned about the same thing — potholes, property taxes,” added Vang, an assistant professor of social work at St. Catherine University.
No political primary
Candidate filings for city council open Tuesday and close Aug. 15. There will be no political primary to thin the field before the ranked-choice election on Nov. 7, meaning each ward race could draw any number of candidates, some of whom have yet to declare.
“We need a city council member who has a cultural lens,” Vang said, “about how do we get the information out there — ‘here’s a person who looks like us and is inviting us to this community meeting.’ I’ve gone to community forums and there’s not a lot of people of color.”
Mahoney, the former state lawmaker, said he sees history repeating itself when it comes to immigrant-driven political movements, though his political platform always centered around schools, transportation and employment.
“That doesn’t seem to be the platform that people run on any longer,” he said. “In major cities, they’re running on more humanistic terms, for the more humane treatment of people. They’re running, I consider, on anger for those who were treated poorly in the past, and redlined, and given the crappiest city or county jobs. We as a society did not treat lower-income and immigrant populations fairly.”
“The Irish were treated like crap, the Catholics were treated like crap, and they rose up, became officials,” he said. “In St. Paul, they became the police force, and in New York City, they became the police force. And many of them moved to the suburbs. And that’s what these modern ethnic groups are doing.”