St. Paul mayoral candidates talk up issues, press for endorsements

St. Paul mayoral candidates speak at a forum
St. Paul mayoral candidates Pat Harris, Elizabeth Dickinson, Melvin Carter, Tom Goldstein and Dai Thao speak at a mayoral forum at the Ward 6 bar and restaurant, moderated by proprietor Eric Foster on Sunday, March 12, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Candidates hoping to succeed St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman are starting to take to the campaign trail together ahead of key party endorsement battles starting soon.

Former city council members Pat Harris and Melvin Carter are in the race, as is current city council member Dai Thao. Also in are former school board member Tom Goldstein and Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson. The five contenders appeared at a forum at Ward 6, an east side bar and restaurant, for a 90-minute forum Sunday night. The candidates also participated in a joint radio appearance last week.

All five said they supported a key question in local politics in St. Paul and Minneapolis — a mandate for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Goldstein, a former sports memorabilia shop owner, offered a caveat: "I think the target is corporations that have the money and choose not to pay it, as opposed to small businesses that literally don't have the money," Goldstein said. "So I would want exceptions for small businesses and startups and I think we need to have a discussion to figure out how to implement it."

Harris, now a local government finance banker, said that he pushed a minimum wage hike already as a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, but also said he thought improving worker pay would require more nuance than a simple hike. "I do think we need to have a community conversation about its impacts to small businesses and take a look at how we can alleviate the impacts to small businesses."

Harris also said he has a plan to push $100 million in small business lending into targeted neighborhoods, leveraging the city's own financial investments to build the city's employment base.

"That's the cornerstone of what I'm going to be doing as mayor," Harris said. "We're going to have city contracting requirements on jobs in targeted neighborhoods. We're going to have requirements on city subsidies that include jobs in neighborhoods. Everything that we're going to focus on is providing jobs in neighborhoods that need jobs."

Dickinson, who ran for city council and mayor more than a decade ago, offered the most detailed environmental policy of all the candidates. She told the crowd she wanted to implement a climate action plan for the city and said she wanted to invest in local solar initiatives including what she called her "big idea."

"I would like to see every single school, all those flat roofs, all those 70 some schools, have community solar put on them," Dickinson said. "There is no reason we cannot do that. Provide local jobs for people of color and people from the neighborhoods ... we can address climate change. We can provide economic opportunity."

The other two candidates focused on their records as city council members — both from the same ward.

Carter was elected in 2007 and again in 2011, but stepped down to work at the Minnesota Department of Education and later as director of Gov. Mark Dayton's "children's cabinet." Carter was an architect of the city's Promise Neighborhood initiative aimed at improving support for children and families in Summit-University and Frogtown, two of the city's most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods.

Carter is vying to be St. Paul's first black mayor. In the forum, he returned often to what he said was the link between racial and economic equality and prosperity. He talked about his parents' opportunities to work as a St. Paul cop and public school teacher, about how he wants to make sure everything from police response to snowplowing is fair to every neighborhood in the city.

"I'm really proud of the opportunity that we took to get light rail done on University Avenue in a way that stopped in our neighborhood, hired our neighbors, and contracted with businesses in our community," Carter said.

Thao, a one-time community activist, succeeded Carter on the city council. He talked about his own family's flight from Laos and of American involvement in the Vietnam war, and the Hmong tradition of struggling with a bad government in their native Laos. Thao would be the first Hmong mayor in St. Paul if elected.

"My work on earned sick and safe time, my work to remove police off the civilian review board. I have a history of bringing community together across race and culture, across neighborhoods, to make sure St. Paul works for everybody," Thao said.

And in one of the sharpest contrasts of the evening, he defended the city's plan for a $150 million, privately funded professional soccer stadium at Snelling and University avenues, on the western edge of Thao's ward. He said it would serve as a catalyst for the area and put some of the city's most struggling commercial and residential districts back on the map.

The stadium drew sharp criticism from Goldstein, who has made fighting publicly subsidized sports venues a key component of his political career, offering detailed critiques at the Capitol and at City Hall.

"I mean, I'm not opposed to soccer. I'm not opposed to a soccer stadium being built in St. Paul. If we do it right, we can really get benefits. But traditionally stadiums do not provide benefits," he said. "I have been talking about something like the Global Market in Minneapolis, as a location for the Midway, where we would actually incubate businesses, but that's not going to happen without capital, and capital's not coming because of a stadium."

The candidates are appearing in a series of public forums and appearances in coming weeks. They're kicking off the public battle for the city's DFL endorsement, which is sometimes a deciding factor in St. Paul politics.

The city elected a Republican mayor in 1997, when Norm Coleman switched to the GOP during his first term and then ran for re-election. The incumbent Democrat, Chris Coleman beat a rival DFLer, Randy Kelly, by a historic margin in 2005 and has easily won re-election twice since.

Precinct caucuses will start to shape the race next month among the four DFLers ahead of a citywide party convention June 17. The race is open for the first time since 2001, and as cities are bidding to play a new role in state economic policy, with minimum wage and sick leave initiatives. It will also be the first time the city will use ranked choice voting to decide an open mayoral seat. Voters adopted ranked choice voting in 2009.