Saint Paul Electoral Opportunities




There has been a quiet political earthquake developing in St. Paul over the past few years that you can hear if you are listening closely. Over the past decade, St. Paul went from a majority-homeowner city to a majority-renter city. As landlords began to put the squeeze on renters, activists started to fight back.  

Two years ago, in 2019 a group of nonprofits and activists organized to get the city council to pass a renters’ rights ordinance. In the spring of 2020, when the ordinance would take effect, landlords sued the city, declaring that the ordinance was an illegal imposition on their property rights. They found a judge who agreed with them, and he served an injunction against the ordinance. Instead of fighting for renters, the mayor, through the city attorney, decided not to fight the lawsuit. Shortly thereafter, the city council gave in as well and repealed the ordinance, and the landlords dropped the lawsuit.

A year ago, some of the same activists and nonprofits, with a big boost from TCDSA, got a rent control initiative on the ballot. The residents of St. Paul then stunned the whole country by passing it, thereby codifying the nation’s strictest rent control ordinance. It passed by a decent margin as well (53 to 47), despite being the first time that something like this was tried in a Minnesota city. 

Right away there was pushback against this victory. The mayor, who came out in qualified support before the vote (he spoke then of adding an exemption for new construction), put together an advisory council to make recommendations as to how this ordinance would be implemented. Of course, the advisory council was stacked with developers, landlords and their advocates with enough community members to make it plausibly described as balanced. The recommendations that came out of that council were to ease the rent control on landlords.

As pro-developer as the recommendations were, somehow they weren’t pro-developer enough for city council members Amy Brendmoen and Chris Tolbert. They couldn’t wait to shred the initiative that voters passed to make it acceptable for the city’s developers and landlords. At hearings for this modified rent control ordinance, a packed chamber was 80/20 against the changes, yet they ignored the outcry and passed it anyway. 

Liberals like to go on and on over January 6th and the threats to democracy. While it is true that the Republicans are a grave threat to our democracy, so are Democrats who make promises with no intention of keeping them. At the national level they make promises for $2,000 checks and deliver $1,400 checks. They promise a $15 national minimum wage only to be stymied by a measly parliamentarian. When it comes to worker democracy, a Democratic president just forced a labor agreement down workers’ throats. Locally, they ignore the will of the voters on rent control and wonder why people are skeptical of democracy.

Now one by one the city council members who voted for it, are electing not to run for re-election, (Jane Prince and Amy Brendmoen for starters) or are rumored not to be running. Perhaps they realized what they did was incredibly unpopular and impossible to defend, or maybe they were already paid off. Who knows? Regardless, these resignations are providing a well-organized left with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Open seats are much easier to win than having to fight the power of incumbency. Second, a slate of candidates running on a simple platform of respecting the will of the voters and taking care of renters in this majority-renter city could be incredibly powerful. The Saint Paul City Council has seven members, five of which voted to destroy the rent control initiative. If a slate of five candidates were to run on a platform of respecting the will of the voters, only two of the five would have to win to put a progressive majority on the council. If three or more win, it would be a veto-proof majority.

– by Steve T.