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Election exposes deep divide in St. Cloud over refugees

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A child holds a sign during a city council meeting on refugees.
A child holds a sign during a city council meeting on refugee resettlement moratoriums Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, at city council chambers in St. Cloud, Minn.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

Two City Council candidates who vocally supported pausing the resettlement of refugees in St. Cloud lost their elections last week, but they still received considerable voter support — a strong signal that the issue remains unsettled.

John Palmer and Liz Baklaich lost to incumbents Dave Masters and Steve Laraway. Palmer, though, received 1,650 votes, about 43 percent , while Baklaich got 2,167 votes, 46 percent.

Their relative strength in the election comes more than a year after the city voted in support of being a welcoming community.

St. Cloud is home to a large Somali-American population that includes people who came as refugees and were settled by Lutheran Social Service  of Minnesota and other nonprofits. Others moved here or were born here. Most are Muslim.

Palmer and Baklaich are part of Concerned Community Citizens, a group whose members often speak at council meetings, questioning the public costs of refugee resettlement. They sometimes wear red hats reading, "Make St. Cloud Great Again," a nod to President Trump's signature phrase, and argue city officials aren't listening to them.

"I'm glad they're not part of our city leadership, but really, there were thousands of people that voted for them," said Natalie Ringsmuth, founder and director of the group #UniteCloud, which works to overcome racial and religious divides. 

"If there are thousands of people in St. Cloud who believe the right way to treat their neighbors is to dehumanize them, then we still have a lot of work to do," said Ringsmuth, who won a seat last week on the St. Cloud school board. 

"We're still a divided community."

The divisions run across greater Minnesota.

A 2017 survey by MPR News and its sister organization, the APM Research Lab, found people in the state's largest urban areas tended to say Minnesota was on the right track in welcoming immigrants and refugees. But in rural areas and St. Cloud, feelings were different.

In St. Cloud, only 39 percent of those responding believed Minnesota was on the "right track" with immigrants, while 49 percent said the state was headed the wrong way.

Views on immigration and refugees
Views on immigration and refugees
David Montgomery for MPR News

Abdi Daisane, a Somali-American business owner and graduate student at St. Cloud State University, took some comfort from the election results.

"It kind of shows that a majority of St. Cloud wants some common sense people in there," said Daisane, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council two years ago.

Daisane said he doesn't believe that most St. Cloud residents share the view that refugees are bringing problems into the community. 

"There's a lot of great people who we feel that they are really our allies and supportive to our community," he said.

People hold signs during a St. Cloud City Council discussion on refugees.
People hold signs during a St. Cloud City Council discussion on moratoriums related to refugee resettlement Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, at city council chambers in St. Cloud, Minn.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

A year ago, outgoing council member Jeff Johnson tried to get the city to pass a moratorium on refugee resettlement. The City Council rejected that proposal and instead passed a resolution in support of St. Cloud being a "just and welcoming community."

Daisane said many Somali-Americans were inspired to get out and vote this year in part because of DFL state Rep. Ilhan Omar, who last week became the first Somali-American elected to Congress in the Minneapolis-area 5th District. 

But he said there was also fear about candidates seen as anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim.

Other statewide candidates voiced support for slowing or pausing immigration and refugee resettlement, including Jeff Johnson, the Republican candidate for governor who lost to Tim Walz.

People hold signs while leaving after a city council meeting.
People hold signs while leaving after a city council meeting Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in St. Cloud City Hall in St. Cloud, Minn.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

Palmer said he didn't campaign for St. Cloud City Council on the refugee issue, but on broader themes like crime and economic development. He said he's worried about increased poverty and economic decline in St. Cloud.

"I don't want it to end up the way I've seen other communities that become core cities that lose tax paying citizens and gain citizens requiring high public service expenditures," Palmer said.

Baklaich declined a recorded interview but has spoken at City Council meetings about what she describes as the threat of Sharia law on American society, an argument commonly used by anti-Muslim groups.

Newly-elected council member Paul Brandmire said that while he's concerned Somali refugees have been resettled too quickly in St. Cloud, straining local resources, he wants to reach out to the Somali-American community and build trust. 

"It's going to be something that needs to be dealt with slowly," he said. "It needs to be dealt with with respect and conversations on both sides."

Masters, who defeated Palmer, said he hopes the city can move forward and focus on other issues, such as replacing the jobs that will be lost when major employer Electrolux leaves St. Cloud.

He knows refugee resettlement remains a divisive issue in the community, but added, "I think that we're working through it. My philosophy is that we come together work together and find solutions together."

Nov. 2017: MPR News hosted a conversation about immigration with St. Cloud citizens