Politics can be loud. With all the national media and punditry focused on the 2020 presidential primary, it would be easy to miss the significant local races on the ballot this November. However, with economic markers pointing towards a potential slowdown or recession, having a strong understanding of the local political landscape is essential for real estate and housing developers.
For example, three of the largest redevelopment projects in recent Twin Cities history are currently located in Ramsey County. They include the following project:
- Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (427 acres)—The most contentious of the three developments, by far, is the Twins Cities Army Ammunition Plant, or “TCAAP,” site in Arden Hills, Minnesota. Currently known as the “Rice Creek Commons,” negotiations over the development of the county-owned site have broken down as city and county officials have struggled to see eye-to-eye on issues such as housing density and the inclusion of affordable housing.
- Ford Plant (135 acres)—This is the former site of the Ford Motor Company assembly plant located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota. While the St. Paul City Council adopted the Ford Site Master Plan in 2017, there have been numerous efforts to revise or modify development plans since then (most recently in April, 2019) and, with the extended development timeline for a project this size, those efforts will continue to come before the council.
- Hillcrest Golf Course (112 acre)—Having ceased operations as a private golf course in 2017, the Hillcrest site is located on St. Paul’s east side. In recent months the St. Paul Port Authority has entered into development negotiations with the land owner and even gone as far as requesting a $10 million bond sale to facilitate redevelopment.
With significant issues for all three projects remaining to be settled, there are a number of key local elections worth noting on the ballot this November.
Ramsey County Commissioner (District 1): Following Commissioner Blake Huffman’s sudden resignation last May, a special election was called to fill the remaining year of his term. While the office of county commissioner is non-partisan, the Ramsey County Board is largely made up of commissioners with a history of endorsements from their local Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (“DFL”) units. Huffman was a notable exception, having previously held himself out as a Republican candidate for governor. Therefore, while the outcome of the election will have minimal impact on the political make-up of the Ramsey County Board, District 1 covers the TCAAP site and will place Huffman’s successor in an important post as parties look to break the current contentious gridlock.
Following a primary that saw a slate of nine candidates reduced to two, the November general election will pit former Republican State Representative Randy Jessup against the DFL-endorsed political newcomer, Nicole Frethem. Jessup has strong name recognition in the generally right-of-center district having run for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2014, 2016, and 2018 and having served in the House from 2015-16. However, Frethem was the top vote-getter in the August primary, coming away with a 41%-34.4% advantage. Turnout will be key come November as Fretham, an outspoken progressive, looks to flip the most conservative district in the county. The eventual winner will have to face the voters again in 2020.
St. Paul City Council (Ward 6): Longtime East Side City Councilmember Dan Bostrom surprised many when, in late December 2018, he announced his resignation. Many people thought Bostrom, 78, might retire instead of seeking re-election, and potential candidates were already lining up to seek the seat, but his decision to vacate the seat he had held since 1996 shook up the campaign landscape significantly.
Following a series of public interviews, Mayor Melvin Carter and the St. Paul City Council appointed Kassim Busuri, an educator and youth worker, to serve the remainder of his term, making Busuri the first Somali-American to serve on the city council. However, Busuri angered many, including a number of his city council colleagues, when he went back on a commitment he made during the appointment process to not seek the seat in the November general election. His campaign came under additional scrutiny in June when he was accused of making anti-gay posts on Facebook. Busuri now faces five challengers in an open ranked choice voting ballot.
Among the five challengers, the two who stand out as the most formidable are Nelsie Yang, an economic justice organizer for the progressive community organizing group, TakeAction Minnesota, and Terri Thao, a member of the St. Paul Planning Commission and former chair of the board for the East Side Neighborhood Development Company. The November ballot will also include small business owner Alexander Bourne, activist Greg Copeland, and housing advocate Danielle Swift.
Ms. Yang’s campaign touts a number of significant political endorsements, including Women Winning, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, Take Action Minnesota, Our Revolution, and OutFront Minnesota. Meanwhile, Ms. Thao has been endorsed by Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and multiple state representatives. The large number of candidates in the field make it difficult to predict who will ultimately represent the East Side, but it is clear that the eventual winner will likely have a significant voice in the Hillcrest development.
St. Paul City Council (Ward 1): One of the other hotly contested city council seats to watch is in Ward 1, which includes the Frogtown, Summit-University, North End, Lexington-Hamline and Snelling-Hamline neighborhoods. Ward 1 has seen significant new investment in recent years with the opening of the Green Line LRT as well as the construction of Allianz Field. However, this race is worth noting for its potential impact on future developments, both along the University corridor as well as throughout other parts of St. Paul.
The race pits incumbent City Councilmember and 2017 mayoral candidate, Dai Thao, against two well-organized challengers. Thao’s political career and tenure on the council has been tumultuous. An outspoken critic on issues of police office accountability, Thao has found himself the subject of more than one investigation into his conduct while in office—including being acquitted in late 2018 of multiple charges related to an allegation that he illegally assisted a voter in marking their ballot. In April, DFL delegates endorsed Thao’s campaign for re-election, though that too was not without controversy.
Thao is being challenged by Anika Bowie, the vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP, and former staffer to Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Liz De La Torre. Bowie’s campaign touts her strong ties to the community (she’s a fifth-generation resident of the Rondo neighborhood) as well as her service on the St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. She has also received a slew of progressive endorsements, including Women Winning, Our Revolution, and OutFront Minnesota.
De La Torre’s campaign has focused on her career of service, including her work with Congresswoman McCollum as well as current work with victims of sexual violence. She has been endorsed by AFSCME Council 5, the Stonewall DFL, and Ramsey County Chair Jim McDonough. With ranked-choice voting, it is difficult to handicap the Ward 1 race, but seeing as how Councilmember Thao currently serves as one of two members of the city council on the St. Paul Port Authority, his re-election could have significant impacts on multiple redevelopment projects in the city.