New voices emerge in Minnesota city, school board elections

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St. Louis Park City Council member Nadia Mohamed, pictured in May 2023, is Minnesota’s first mayor of Somali descent.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Updated 11:29 p.m.

Minnesota election officials continued to count ballots late into the night Tuesday in city council, school board and other local races across the state, but two elections were certain to make a little history.

The Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park elected council member Nadia Mohamed as mayor, making her the country’s first popularly elected mayor of Somali descent.

In Duluth, incumbent Mayor Emily Larson lost an intense race with former state Sen. Roger Reinert, a fellow DFLer. With nearly all precincts reporting, Reinert held nearly 60 percent of the vote. Reinert campaigned on a need for new leadership in the city while strengthening core services.

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Duluth Mayor-elect Roger Reinert poses for a picture with supporters on Tuesday during his election party at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“We want to move forward from a challenging election, and bring our community back together. Whether you supported me, or whether you didn't, I am still a mayor for this entire community,” Reinert told supporters after Larson conceded.

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“What I love tonight is I can look and I can see someone more to the right, I can see someone more to the left. And I see a whole bunch of people in the middle. And that is that is what I've always been about,” he added. “I am willing to work with you wherever you are at.”

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson speaks to supporters on Tuesday at Bent Paddle Brewing Company in Duluth. Larson conceded to opponent Roger Reinert.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"I sincerely say I wish him well,” Larson told supporters. “This is a very difficult job. We want him to succeed."

Change was happening as well in Minnesota at the school board level.

In Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest district, two candidates endorsed by the conservative Minnesota Parents Alliance won seats. Zach Arco and Linda Hoekman beat incumbent Erin Heers-Mcardle and Susan Witt — both of whom were endorsed by local unions and OutFront Minnesota, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

The third seat in the election was won by union-endorsed Michelle Langenfeld, who beat out Alliance-endorsed Scott Simmons. Candidates vying for three open seats in Anoka Hennepin, together with various parent, teacher union and other organizations spent close to $200,000 in the election.

The odd-year election was focused on municipal and school district governance, including 15 mayoral races across the state. Observers saw it as a subtle tuneup for 2024 as groups tested themes and messages they plan to employ when the stakes are raised next year.

Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils were also guaranteed to get new members, although incumbents were also seeking new terms. The outcomes could dictate the direction of Minnesota’s two biggest cities around housing, public safety and other city services. 

St. Paul had the potential to make history this cycle by electing an all-female City Council. Some of the ward races, though, were still too close to call under the city’s ranked choice voting system.

Minneapolis City Council races

One race being closely watched Tuesday night: The contest between Minneapolis political newcomer Soren Stevenson and City Council President Andrea Jenkins.

Jenkins, 62, has served as headed the council the previous two years, a term that brought such contentious debates as a rent stabilization policy and the location of a new 3rd Precinct police building.

Stevenson, 29, ran on a platform of increasing police accountability, promoting affordable housing and addressing climate change. His run was spurred by an incident in 2020 where he lost his left eye and suffered other injuries after being shot with a police projectile during a peaceful protest.

A woman speaks into a mic
Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins, Ward 8, thanks her supporters during an election night party at the Creekside Supper Club in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

While Jenkins and Stevenson received the most first-choice votes, neither won a majority of first-choice votes in the city’s ranked choice voting system, so the counting continued.

Jenkins told supporters the election was" “enormously close” and that results of the second ballots won't be released until Wednesday. “This is about spreading love, this is about bringing our communities together. This is about bridging the divides, the gaps that try to keep our communities separated,” she said. “But we are going to bring people together.”

Stevenson told supporters that his campaign proved that people are more important than money. “We do want to see our shared values put into action,” Stevenson said. “We want our shared values to be something that are represented day in or day out in City Hall.”

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Soren Stevenson speaks with supporters at the Soren Stevenson watch party held at Los Andes Latin Bistro in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Ten Minneapolis candidates were declared unofficial winners Tuesday night.

Incumbents Elliott Payne, Robin Wonsley, Jeremiah Ellison, Michael Rainville, LaTrisha Vetaw, Emily Koski, Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai won a majority of first choice ballots. In the 12th Ward open seat race, Aurin Chowdhury defeated two challengers.

City officials will also start tallying second choice ballots in the open seat race in the 7th Ward and the 6th Ward race starting Wednesday morning.

More than 100 school board seats hanging in the balance as well as ballot measures dealing with city taxes and classroom funding.

St. Paul voters also have a direct say in financing for roads and city parks through a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot. The tax measure appeared on its way to being approved, with nearly 60 percent of the vote with about two-thirds of precincts reporting.

School board races and levy votes

Some 60 Minnesota school districts had questions for capital project levies and operating levies on their local ballots.

One of the most closely watched was in South Washington County Schools, the sixth-largest district in the state, where races brought a surge in spending and an infusion of ideological clashes in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan campaign.

The three top vote-getters were Simi Patnaik, Melinda Dols and Ryan Clarke. Dols and Patnaik were endorsed by liberal and progressive organizations, like the local teacher’s union, OutFront and by Woodbury for Justice and Equality. Clarke was backed by the conservative Minnesota Parents Alliance.

Of the 11 candidates competing for the three seats, three people were endorsed by conservative groups and three others were backed by the local teacher union and a collection of activist and liberal groups.

South Washington County voters also gave the go-ahead on three ballot questions, meaning the district can move forward with school building construction and renovation projects as well as upgrade their cybersecurity and maintain technology infrastructure.

The approval from voters came after rejecting a multi-million-dollar request from the district in 2022 that, if it had been approved, would have been the largest in Minnesota history.

‘Every vote really does matter’

For some Minnesotans Tuesday, the act of voting was the main event. 

Minnesota invited people with felony convictions back to the voting booth sooner than it had before, with a new law letting people vote so long as they aren’t currently incarcerated.

Groups spent months getting the word out, in hopes of building awareness and allaying fears among people with felony records who had long been on the outside of the system.

Overall, voting numbers were about what officials anticipated in an election year focused on local races.

At the Highland Park Community Center polling station in St. Paul Tuesday morning, there was a steady line of voters casting their ballots soon after doors opened at 7 a.m.

“It’s been a great Election Day. We had voters waiting to vote at the beginning of the day. I think a lot of people show up and come in and vote on their way to work,” said Alexis Donath, the head election judge for the polling station. “But some people are just really excited to get the opportunity to vote and they want to do it right away when the polls open.”

David Dingman showed up shortly after doors opened to cast his ballot before heading to work.

People lean over their ballots to vote at voting booths.
Voters cast their ballots at Temple Israel polling station in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“To me it’s just important to stay involved, even when there's not a presidential election or a banner issue on the ballot. So — nothing out of the ordinary that brought me out here other than just, it's important to stay involved,” Dingman said.

Outside her polling place this morning in Ward 8 of Minneapolis, Anna Fox said she favors candidates who stand for equal rights. And that even in an off-year election, she said it's important to make a choice.

“Voting at all levels is absolutely imperative, especially given how things are going right now,” said Fox. “And if we don't vote, we can't be upset about what we're not seeing happen.”

A table covered in 'I voted' stickers.
“I Voted” stickers are ready at Temple Israel polling station on Tuesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Student voter turnout appeared low at polling stations near the University of Minnesota early Tuesday afternoon. Sophie Livingston, one student who chose to vote, said the opportunity to be involved is what drew her to the polls.

”Just to exercise my democratic right to, you know, participate in the democracy is why I voted today,” Livingston said outside the University Lutheran Church of Hope polling station.

In Duluth, Britta Bloomquist braved cold, rainy weather to cast her ballot Tuesday night.

“I came out to vote today because I have seen firsthand how local elections really do make a big impact,” said Bloomquist, a 35-year-old social work graduate student. “You know, we’ve seen with state reps and even closer, smaller elections, how close 10 votes can be, and every vote really does matter.”