8 candidates, heavy fundraising, Rondo land bridge, Summit bikeway heat up Ward 1 council race

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By early September, James Lo’s campaign for the Ward 1 seat on the St. Paul City Council had raised more than $115,000, significantly more than any of the other seven candidates in the race. That’s no small feat for a school guidance counselor in a political ward that spans low- to moderate-income corners of Frogtown, Summit-University and part of the city’s North End.

As fundraising goes, his totals are almost on par with that of the four council candidates in the wealthier Ward 3 area (Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, part of West Seventh) combined.

Lo, who has put former Ward 1 council member Dai Thao on his campaign payroll, has been able to rely on broad support from the Hmong community across the metro and into Wisconsin. But whether the cash translates into votes remains to be seen. His positions on several city council priorities include opposing a proposed Summit Avenue bikeway and a sales tax increase to fund road reconstructions and park projects.

“Right now, City Hall in St. Paul is not listening to you all to make our city better,” said Lo, addressing an audience during a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of St. Paul.

In addition to a large concentration of Hmong families, the racially and ethnically diverse ward includes Somali, Oromo and Karen immigrant communities, Black families that have called Rondo home for decades, middle-class white families, and the homes and businesses that line long swathes of Marshall, Selby and Summit avenues.

Other candidates also have made inroads with likely voters. Omar Syed, a Somali immigrant who sits on the city’s Planning Commission, had raised roughly $90,000 as of early September. When Anika Bowie — who can trace her roots in the historically-Black Rondo neighborhood back three generations — challenged Thao for the office four years ago as a first-time candidate, she landed 47% of the vote.

Then there’s Suz Woehrle, a vocal proponent of the proposed Summit Avenue bikeway who has said the seven other candidates failed to articulate a strong understanding of climate change.

“The people I’m running against don’t use environmental talking points at all,” said Woehrle, the only avid cyclist and public transit user in the group. “In some ways, I’m the only environmental candidate.”

Eight candidates

Eight candidates are vying for the open Ward 1 seat, which represents the neighborhoods of Thomas-Dale (Frogtown), Summit-University, the portion of Union Park that is east of Snelling Avenue, a portion of the North End, and the Lexington-Hamline and Snelling-Hamline communities.

The candidates are Bowie, Lo, Syed, Woehrle, Yan Chen, Travis Helkamp, Lucky “Tiger Jack” Rosenbloom and Jeff Zeitler. The ranked-choice election, which is officially nonpartisan, will be held Nov. 7.

Thao, who joined the council in a special election in November 2013, made history a decade ago as the city’s first Hmong council member. After Thao resigned his office last year to take a job out of state, the city council last August appointed Russel Balenger to complete the term, with the expectation that Balenger not run for the seat.

Five candidates fruitlessly sought the St. Paul Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement in April. After just three ballots in nearly 10 hours, the convention ended in a walkout, with Bowie leading Syed by a handful of votes.

During the recent candidate forum, each candidate was asked their view on the “ReConnect Rondo” proposal to cover multiple blocks of Interstate 94 with a cap, or land bridge, effectively reuniting portions of the Rondo neighborhood lost to highway construction in the 1960s. Candidates were also asked about a 5-mile elevated bikeway that the city has proposed installing along Summit Avenue as funding is found.

In a subsequent candidate questionnaire for the Pioneer Press, the candidates were asked their views on the city’s voter-approved rent-control policy, which was heavily amended by the city council last September; a proposed 1 percentage point sales tax increase to raise nearly $1 billion for arterial road reconstructions and parks projects; and a proposal on the 2024 ballot that would increase city property taxes to pay for child care subsidies.

Anika Bowie

Bowie, 31, a third-generation Rondo resident, is a progressive organizer and leader of the successful “Restore the Vote” Minnesota coalition, which reinstated voting rights for more than 50,000 felons on probation and parole. In 2017, she became one of the youngest vice presidents of the Minneapolis NAACP.

Anika Bowie, candidate for St. Paul City Council, Ward 1, in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

Bowie, who recently completed training to become a first-time community real estate developer, said her priorities include investing in public infrastructure, public safety, fair and affordable housing and working families.

“Ward 1 needs someone who is courageous,” said Bowie, during the League of Women Voters forum.

After initially raising cost concerns and fears about tree impacts, Bowie more recently indicated she fully supports the Summit Avenue bikeway proposal approved by the city council earlier this year. Asked to give a one-word summary of her feelings about the bikeway during a lightning round of questions at the end of the Sept. 28 candidate forum, she said she was a “no,” but later went on social media to say the question had been worded confusingly.

“Without us moving forward with a plan, we’ll just be in the same place where we’re at now,” Bowie said.

On rent control, she said she would work on maintaining but “refining” it, without deep changes, while “championing a substantive, fair housing policy” that centers tenants rights.

She planned to vote for the sales tax increase for roads and parks, which would capture revenue from city visitors, as “our city thrives when we invest in robust infrastructure. … We are worth the penny.”

Bowie said she would host listening sessions on the question of property tax-funded child care subsidies. “I recognize the need for affordable childcare but question the property tax strategy,” she wrote. “Our budget should prioritize essential city services.”

Her campaign has been endorsed by AFSCME Council 5, Take Action Minnesota, Women Winning, OutFront MN, student climate advocates with Twin Cities Sunrise, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran, state Sen. Sandy Pappas and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, among others.

Yan Chen

Chen, 53, came to the U.S. from China on a student visa at age 19 and worked her way through school despite financial hardships, earning a doctorate in biophysics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Yan Chen, a candidate for the Ward 1 seat on the St. Paul City Council in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

Chen, a researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, said “the city council position is about solving problems for the voters. … I have learned to solve problems for myself, my family and in science with minimal resources ever since I came to America 34 years ago.”

Her priorities include strengthening core city services, working with neighborhoods and police to reduce crime and stabilizing the city budget.

“Once we have a sound budget, my goal is to fight for affordable first-time homeownership for the residents of Ward 1 and the rest of the city,” said Chen, who believes the city has too many apartment buildings but lacks condos and townhomes. “It’s possible to solve problems in our community with a few modifications, without changing what you love about St. Paul.”

She opposes the “ReConnect Rondo” land bridge proposal:

“When I talked to the neighborhood in Rondo, the overwhelming response for the land bridge was negative,” Chen said. “They’re concerned it will change their neighborhood, and they’re concerned about gentrification.”

She has said the city should not focus on the Summit Avenue bike trail, given that existing in-street lanes are in “excellent condition and doesn’t need much modification everywhere except from Lexington to Arundel” where they could be widened, wrote Chen, in a policy memo.

Chen, who owns multiple rental properties in Ward 1, said she would maintain the city’s current rent-control policy “until we find a better solution. We need to protect renters by making rent pricing transparent,” a proposal she outlines on her campaign website. She said rent control creates an incentive for renters to stay put, creating a stagnant market closed to newcomers.

She plans to vote against a proposed sales tax for roads and parks: She also plans to vote “no” against property tax-supported child care subsidies as they should be “universally provided by the state.”

Service St. Paul, a coalition of Teamsters, heavy equipment operators and the construction trades, has endorsed Lo first and Chen second on the ranked-choice ballot.

Travis Helkamp

Helkamp, 40, who works in commercial construction, is a former buyer and senior manager in the retail industry. He was born and raised in St. Paul and said in a candidate questionnaire that he can balance his compassion toward others with a strong work ethic and understanding of “history both local and global, ancient and recent.”

Travis Helkamp, candidate for a Ward 1 seat on the St. Paul City Council in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

Helkamp, who has been endorsed by the Republican Party, said he opposes many of the mayor’s “foolish, experimental policies,” such as a universal basic income pilot program, which he said would be difficult to fund on an ongoing basis on a limited city budget.

“St. Paul has always had a reputation of having this quiet, small-town feel. … We are losing that more and more,” said Helkamp, during the recent candidate forum. “If you ride the light rail in this city, it’s disgusting. … And that is squarely on the shoulders of City Hall. … We are capable of (fixing) all these things, and within a reasonable budget.”

In a candidate questionnaire, Helkamp said his top priorities include getting crime under control, “clean(ing) up the light rail and ensuring at the same time that all citizens’ civil rights are respected; and attracting new businesses to the city while retaining existing ones.”

On the “ReConnect Rondo” proposal over I-94: “Spending $1 billion to build a land bridge in Rondo, I don’t know how you can possibly square that economically with how it is going to pay itself back.”

On the Summit Avenue bikeway, he opposed any changes to the existing in-street lanes.

On rent control: “This policy has failed everywhere it’s been tried,” wrote Helkamp, a renter. “Price controls don’t work. Housing availability and affordability is very important to me. … We can increase average incomes by improving the business environment. And we can incentivize good development.” He said he’s personally aware of real estate projects that were canceled because of rent control.

He also opposes the proposed sales tax for roads, as well as proposed child care subsidies backed by St. Paul property taxes. “The current city government has wasted enough taxpayer money,” he wrote. “Why should they be trusted with more of it? … They can’t even plow the streets, but you’re going to entrust your children to them?”

James Lo

Lo, 38, immigrated to St. Paul from Thailand as a child refugee in 1994. “Navigating the system here in St. Paul was very difficult,” said Lo, now a guidance counselor at Harding High School, licensed residential and commercial Realtor and a father of seven children.

James Lo, candidate for Ward 1 St. Paul City Council in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

From 2020 to 2022, he was a representative of the Lo clan to the Hmong 18 Council, where he helped facilitate conversations between the Hmong community, City Hall and St. Paul police around gun, community and domestic violence.

He said his priorities are promoting public safety, essential city services and property taxes, as well as “saving Summit Avenue from the expensive $12 million revision plan,” referring to the city’s proposed bikeway. “Friends, family, and neighbors are moving out of St. Paul because of high property taxes. Our money should go towards potholes, plowing, policing and our other core basic services.”

On the land bridge: He said he would support the “ReConnect Rondo” proposal if the state pays for it.

On rent control: Lo said the policy needs to be revisited “in every aspect. It needs to be fair for both sides. … Tenants need to be protected from predatory practices. Landlord investments should be economically fair.”

He’s planning to vote against the proposed sales tax for road reconstructions and park projects. “Our businesses cannot handle reduced sales and our people can’t afford to pay more,” he said Wednesday.

Lo said the city should first look to state funding, rather than property taxes, to support child care subsidies.

Lo has been endorsed by the St. Paul Federation of Educators, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Union of Operating Engineers, Teamsters Local 120, state Sen. Foung Hawj, state Sen. Susan Pha, former Ward 1 city council member Dai Thao and former St. Paul school board Member Keith Hardy.

Lucky ‘Tiger Jack’ Rosenbloom

Rosenbloom is a longtime St. Paul firearms instructor, social studies teacher and paralegal who has been active with the Minnesota Internship Center and other youth outreach efforts. He is a past chair of the governor’s Council on Black Minnesotans Legacy Committee and a past recipient of the Children and Family Services community service award. He’s been recognized by Pillsbury United Communities, Ramsey County Corrections, the Stillwater state prison and the National Society of Leadership and Success for his youth and community work.

Lucky “Tiger Jack” Rosenbloom. (Courtesy of Lucky Rosenbloom)

Rosenbloom, who did not share his age, said his priorities include increasing funding for law enforcement, promoting “victim rights over criminal rights,” implementing restorative justice practices for low-level crimes and encouraging the use of “stop and frisk” police procedures.

On the land bridge: “The only people to benefit from this goofy idea will be the contractors, and all other entities involved in the construction,” said Rosenbloom on Wednesday. “The neighbors that had their homes taken, their descendants shall have zero benefit.”

On the Summit Avenue bikeway, he called it a “fast no-go” if he’s elected.

On rent control: “The outcome of this policy is too early to evaluate,” he wrote. “Establish and sustain new sources for state funding to support affordable housing.”

Rosenbloom said he opposed a proposed sales tax for roads and parks, as well as proposed child care subsidies that would be funded by city property taxes: “No tax hikes without careful impact study on our neighbors. … Tax cuts increase disposable income, encourage businesses. Tax increases do the reverse.”

Omar Syed

Syed, who manages a staffing service for personal care attendants and runs Chilly Time Coffee on McKnight Road South, sits on the city’s Planning Commission, where he serves as the vice chair of the zoning committee. Syed, a former pharmacy tech, described himself as the only Ward 1 candidate with hands-on experience in drafting zoning, transportation and business regulations.

Omar Syed, candidate for St. Paul City Council Ward 1 in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

If elected, Syed, the father of a 13-year-old boy, would be the first Somali-American on the council and one of its only renters. He said his priorities include building affordable housing, improving public safety through “community investments, better police relations and improved accountability,” and increasing community engagement with city offices.

On a land bridge over Rondo: Syed, in the candidate forum, said he supports the “ReConnect Rondo” proposal as “I want to see businesses in Rondo, and a Black history center built here on I-94, and affordable housing on I-94.”

On the Summit Avenue bikeway: Syed voted for the bikeway when the proposal came before the Planning Commission, but later expressed reservations about tree impacts. In a phone interview Wednesday, he said he is still generally supportive of the proposal despite ongoing concerns.

On rent control: Syed said that he voted for the 2021 ballot measure and supports it in its current form. “I know ensuring buy-in from all parties has been difficult,” he wrote. “I believe in a balanced approach that protects renters while still bringing in new development and housing supply. The changes made since implementation have brought the policy in line with that vision.”

On a sales tax to fund road reconstructions and parks projects: “As a small business owner, I am willing to take a hit in my margins if it means that we will have better, safer roads in St. Paul,” said Syed, in a written questionnaire. “I do not want this to be a precedent for more sales tax increases in the future. We need to be thinking about how we expand our tax base long-term as opposed to continuing to squeeze our most disadvantaged communities.”

On child care subsidies funded by property taxes: “I am still listening. All families deserve quality, culturally responsive early learning options. However, I also know people are also struggling to keep up with continual tax increases.”

Syed has been endorsed by St. Paul City Council member Jane Prince, state Sen. John Hoffman, former school board member John Brodrick and other community members.

Suz Woehrle

Woehrle, 41, is a personal care attendant for a wheelchair-using St. Paul resident. A longtime DFL Party and campaign worker, she assisted former Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham for two years. Woehrle, who commutes predominantly by bicycle and public transit, said her 70-year-old father, also an avid cyclist, moved to Roseville recently because “he couldn’t deal with another St. Paul winter without plowed streets.”

Suz Woehrle, candidate for Ward 1 St. Paul City Council in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

“I would like to make our streets, buildings and websites more accessible,” said Woehrle, who has been the most resolute supporter among the candidates of the Summit Avenue bikeway, as well as of biking infrastructure in general. “Getting around St. Paul should be safe and easy whether by foot, wheelchair, bus, train or bicycle.”

Woehrle said rather than a land bridge, she’d like to see the freeway replaced entirely by an at-grade boulevard “integrated into the community.” She supported the general concept of “a Black commercial corridor. That’s the least that we can do after I-94 destroyed a prosperous Black community.”

On rent control: “As a renter for 20 years, there are several times I would have been made homeless by a sudden, unexpected increase in my rent. … I support a 3% cap on rent increases.”

On a sales tax to fund road reconstructions and parks projects: Woehrle called herself a reluctant “yes” vote, given that sales taxes tend to hit the poor hardest. At the same time, “we have a short time to come up with matching funds for the (federal) Inflation Reduction Act funds our city could qualify for. We cannot afford to leave that money on the table.”

On child care subsidies funded by property tax increases: “Early childhood education is the best possible investment a community can make for its future health and prosperity. … Parents are able to work without worrying about their children, who get a high-quality education before starting kindergarten.”

Woehrle has been endorsed by Our Revolution, former state Rep. Susan Allen, Columbia Heights Mayor Amada Marquez Simula, former candidates for St. Paul City Council Elizabeth Dickinson and Bob Blake, former Planning Commissioner Bill Lindeke (who chairs her campaign) and Andy Singer, longtime co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition.

Jeff Zeitler

Zeitler, 51, a landscape architect by training, launched the Urban Forage micro-winery in South Minneapolis. He is running for city council at the same time his wife, Gita Rijal Zeitler, runs for St. Paul school board.

Jeff Zeitler, candidate for the Ward 1 seat on the St. Paul City Council in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

“I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and only fiscally conservative because I see St. Paul running into some issues with high taxes, the inability to plow our streets, fill our potholes or provide police services,” said Zeitler, in the candidate forum.

Zeitler said his priorities include improving public safety, maintaining and improving infrastructure such as streets and sidewalks and “keeping taxes at the same level.”

Zeitler said the “ReConnect Rondo” land bridge “looks to be an excellent proposal … (to) create a bridge between these two neighborhoods that have been cut off from each other.”

On the Summit Avenue bikeway: “It’s a strong no. The money would be better spent elsewhere.”

On rent control: “We need to respect the will of the voters,” said Zeitler, a landlord. “I’d be in favor of keeping rent control as it is now.” He said that if rent increases are capped at 3% annually, property taxes and city utilities should be capped for landlords, as well.

On a proposed sales tax for roads and parks: He’ll vote no. “Increasing the sales tax will make doing business in St. Paul more difficult, and we already are losing small businesses at present. The sales tax is the most regressive tax. … Those with cars may well decide to drive to the suburbs to shop.”

On child care subsidies: “No. This is a great initiative, but this is the sort of service that should be provided by the state of Minnesota, with our large budget surplus. This isn’t a core city service.”

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