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Election 2013, Volume 7, Issue 3: St. Paul Ward 1 Council

October 24th, 2013 (12:16 am)

So over in St. Paul, my neighborhood's races are utterly dull. We have the mayoral race and we have a school board race and that's it. We don't even have an unopposed City Council incumbent running (like Minneapolis Ward 8). I'll show up and vote because I always show up and vote, but it's not very interesting to write about.

But over in Ward 1 they have a City Council race, because the current Council rep resigned. This is a special election, so it's only for two years.

In Minneapolis, you get to add three words that appear in parentheses after your name on the ballot, so if I were running for office over there I could be be Naomi Kritzer (Democratic-Farm-Labor) or Naomi Kritzer (Sarcastic Progressive Writer) or Naomi Kritzer (Don't Elect Me) or Naomi Kritzer (Ha Ha Ha) or whatever. Although apparently I can't be Naomi Kritzer (Farming Is Awesome) because the DFL has a monopoly on farms, nor could I be a Moderate Progressive Republican if for some reason I wanted to do that although I could totally declare myself to be a Republican. Presumably they also wouldn't let me be a Conservative Green or a Socialist Libertarian although if I wanted to run as a Capitalist Laurist my guess is that they'd let me.

ANYWAY. In St. Paul, you just get the list of names. Here they are:

Noel Nix
Paul Holmgren
Debbie Montgomery
Dai Thao
Mark Voerding
Kazoua Kong-Thao
Johnny Howard

Also in St. Paul, you get to rank all of them in order of preference; you're not limited to the top three. The ballot design suggests a machine reader; I wonder if they're going to tally the data electronically and then do the actual preferential calculations by hand, or if they have software that can handle as many candidates as run?

The DFL didn't endorse anyone, though apparently seven people tried for endorsement and Noel Nix and Dai Thao came the closest.

Noel Nix

Noel doesn't highlight his DFL affiliation on the front page, which indicates that either it might be an advantage to have people NOT know your party affiliation, or he just assumes people know. His supporters include MN Young DFL, some labor organizations, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and a bunch of people whose names I don't recognize. (This is one of the hard things about changing cities. In Minneapolis, I recognize the Democrats I LIKE vs. the Democrats I really DON'T like. In St. Paul, I'm less familiar with the political landscape.)

His Vision for Ward 1 starts with thoughts about the Central Corridor. The whole project has been incredibly contentious and has hurt a lot of businesses, but I don't actually know what the controversial bits are at this point. Noel says he wants to "ensure light rail works well for our community by bringing additional on-street parking. options back to University Avenue and supporting Historic Rondo, Little Mekong, and other initiatives to bring new visitors to our local businesses." That sounds like a good idea; I'm not sure whether this is at all controversial (are area residents pushing for permit-based parking even though it would screw over the area businesses even more? Or is this like saying he supports kittens and thinks we should all pet adorable kittens?)

Most of his other vision items definitely sound like pro-kitten stances. ("Work with the Saint Paul Police Department to ensure our streets and neighborhoods are safe." Yes, that definitely helps to see how you're different from your opponents.)

He seems to have done a lot of outreach to young people -- hence the Young DFL endorsement. He also spoke at UST.

Paul Holmgren

Paul Holmgren is endorsed by the Republicans. Here's an interview he did with one of the neighborhood papers, and here is a questionnaire he completed for the local Republicans. He thinks the worst problem facing Ward 1 is that people think they're poor, and this is the fault of the government because the government tells them that they're poor and offers them stuff. (It couldn't possibly be that people think they're poor because they can't afford food, medical care, and adequate housing? NO OF COURSE NOT IT'S ALL THE FAULT OF BIG GOVERNMENT.) He wants to lower taxes and he's also anti-LGA ("Our city currently exists as a welfare recipient of the federal and state governments. Saint Paul needs to determine its own course and not rely on state and federal programs to fund its budgets and set its vision"). I think he thinks that it'll all work out financially if we just don't build any more ballparks. (LGA, for those not in the know, is Local Government Aid, money which is collected statewide and then given to cities throughout the state for various purposes. Because, in fact, if you live in Burnsville and work in Minneapolis, you're taking pretty hefty advantage of the snow removal, road repairs, fire and police protection, etc. of the big city and so you get to pay a very small amount to help support the services you're using here.)

I'd say that this guy pretty well personifies the problem with the Republican approach to "fiscal responsibility." Saying that you're going to cut revenue and then pointing at a handful of high-profile projects you'd cut and pretending that the numbers add up is right up there with saying you're going to create hundreds of $15/hour jobs for teenagers and then pointing at a handful of high-profile projects you'd cut and pretending the money adds up there, too. Republicans: remarkably like socialists in terms of their actual budgeting process. Except I'm pretty sure that when you're a socialist, everything gets paid for with magical unicorn rainbow farts whereas when you're a Republican, everything gets paid for with the tears shed by hungry children when you snatch away their hope for the future.

Don't vote for this guy.

Debbie Montgomery

Debbie Montgomery was the former Council Member for Ward 1 -- she was beaten in 2007 by the guy who's now stepping down to take a different job. So, she's a candidate with serious and legitimate credentials and that makes it utterly baffling to me that she has no web site. I can't even find a Facebook page for her campaign.

She's done a bunch of interviews, like this one, where she talks about intervening with the Midway Target when they were converting it into a SuperTarget to get them to not lay off all their employees. Which is awesome.

But you know what, I cannot recommend voting for someone running for City Council who can't be bothered to set up a website. As I noted in the Meg Tuthill/Lisa Bender post, you are more likely to have personal contact with your City Council rep than just about any other public official, because they're the person you call when you're having some frustrating and annoying problem with your neighbors, or a local business, or the city. This means you need someone who's not pointlessly obnoxious (so: not Meg Tuthill) and it also means someone you can get in touch with. If someone doesn't HAVE A CAMPAIGN WEBSITE does that suggest to you that she'll read and respond to her e-mail or return voicemail messages? No. No, it really doesn't.

It's possible she has a website out there somewhere that somehow put in the code that keeps Google from indexing it; if I find it I'll update this post.

As a final note, I will mention that her Stonewall DFL questionnaire made me wince. (She refers to trans people as "transgenders," as in, "Transgenders should not have to face the public humiliation of being frustrated in the decision of public service use. I think that it would be smart to create gender neutral restrooms and other services similar to this, whenever possible, so that Transgenders feel comfortable when they use services in public." She also failed utterly to respond to the part of the question that was about dealing with trans people in the city jail. A lot of people are not up on nomenclature and terminology when writing or speaking about trans issues, and you'll note that I'm going here with "trans" rather than "trans*" and there are people who'd complain about that. But, yeah. You know what? Talking about how the TRANSGENDERS should feel comfortable when the question was about "trans* people" reveals a pretty hilarious level of tone-deafness.

After reading hers, I looked up Noel Nix's Stonewall DFL questionnaire and it's better in every way. He shows a genuine understanding of the issues and actually sounds like he gives a shit about them, rather than being willing to check off the "yay marriage equality" box in the most pro forma way possible. (Although they only gave him a B; their A-rated endorsed candidate is Dai Thao.)

Dai Thao

Dai's top priority is apparently living-wage jobs for ward residents, and he says that businesses receiving tax money need to be required to provide living-wage jobs and offer them to Ward 1 residents first. (I assume that he means that businesses in Ward 1 need to be offering them to Ward 1 residents first -- honestly, while I have no problem with saying that the city should only be subsidizing businesses that are creating GOOD jobs for people, I'm hesitant to demand that they MUST hire people from the ward where the business is located. There are other neighborhoods in St. Paul with a lot of poor people, and the Central Corridor business district, if revitalized, ought to have a whole lot of jobs which incidentally will be pretty easy to get to what with the transit route being right there.)

I really liked his responses to the Stonewall DFL questionnaire and I can see why he got the endorsement. He talks about how he worked in the Hmong community doing outreach against both of the proposed constitutional amendments, and how this was difficult because he was up against the traditional norms of the community: "I risked long-standing relationships with conservative clan elders because I believe the freedom to love is as powerful as love itself—and that the pain I experienced through racial discrimination in my life was akin to the pain my LGBT friends were experiencing. It was a matter of clarifying for Hmong Americans that the two amendments were two separate issues meant to achieve one single outcome: the further marginalization of groups already accustomed to oppression. Loyalty, courage, and awareness of intersectional identities are the kind of values and convictions I will bring to City Hall."

So, yeah. Okay. He gets extra credit there.

Mark Voerding

Mark Voerding was apparently an aide to the Ward 1 Council Member in the 1980s and is currently an aide to Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman. You'd think that at least his most recent boss would have mentioned to him that if you're running for office, you might want to put up a web site.

He does respond to questionnaires, anyway, like this one from the MN Progressive Project, where he says that his first step into public policy was to pressure the city to fix the storm sewers in Frogtown and then notes that he "worked on the effort to allow women to work as Saint Paul firefighters," so clearly he's been at this for a long time. (This is no excuse for not having a website, mind you.) I am not impressed by his answers to the Stonewall DFL questionnaire.

Kazoua Kong-Thao

Usually when a candidate describes herself as "faith-based leader" they're an extremely conservative Fundie Christian type Republican. Kazoua is clearly not in that category, though, and while her responses to the Stonewall DFL questionnaire weren't brilliant, she's clearly liberal.

The MN Progressive Project's questionnaire suggests that she is not great at following instructions (either that, or MN Progressive Project isn't great at formatting interviews). Their instructions were to answer each question with a paragraph of no more than 300 words; she skipped to the end but her paragraphs seem to match up with the questions pretty well.

One of the things I like about MNPP's questions is that they request specifics ("Please provide an example where you stood up for people or for rights against a powerful organization") -- Kazoua doesn't really give them ("I have been an advocate for woman's rights within the city at large and in the Hmong community and I will continue to advocate for public policy that supports this position.") And that sort of sums up my issue with all her material -- lots of vague warm fuzzy stuff, no specifics. She seems like a nice person and she'd probably do an OK job, but I'm less impressed with her than with others.

Johnny Howard

Johnny Howard is Green-party endorsed, although he apparently initially sought DFL endorsement. He's a neighborhood organizer who put together block clubs in a part of town that had a lot of prostitution, so in his statements he talks about working with the police and doing a John Education program where people convicted of soliciting prostitutes get to learn about the harm they cause.

I like his enthusiasm and his willingness to embrace specifics. (On the Central Corridor, he says, "Light rail related development means that hundreds of new residents will soon be living in our neighborhoods. There will soon be hundreds of new customers, looking for restaurants, clothing stores, coffee shops and dozens of other businesses that most of us can hardly imagine right now. This is an amazing opportunity. Now is the time to make it easy for Ward One residents to get in on this gold rush. We need entrepreneur training and loan programs that help new business people get started while we support existing locally-owned businesses." Yes! Exactly!!) He gives a markedly better answer than Kazoua on the MN Progressive Project questionnaire when they ask about standing up for people: "At the Thomas Dale Block Clubs I successfully organized hundreds of people. Because we had numbers and a means of communicating with members, we were able to convince public officials that it made more sense to join us than to fight us. We got huge improvements for our neighborhood that included John School (for customers of prostitutes), community policing that brought beat cops to Frogtown, a special community prosecutor to handle quality of life cases that are key to creating a sense of neighborhood security, excessive consumption of police services laws and much more."

The Pioneer Press article that provides short summaries about the candidates says that Johnny has said that "the city comes down too hard on landlords with its property inspections," and that he was part of a team of plaintiffs that filed a federal complaint against the city for housing discrimination and "forced gentrification." I kind of want to know more about this -- I think in Minneapolis we see the reverse problem, housing inspectors that don't enforce codes that really need to be enforced. Vigorous code-enforcement can raise the cost of housing, but are we talking about landlords being required to do lead mitigation and provide smoke alarms or are we talking about landlords being harassed because their houses are not pristine and manicured? Here's the article I found about the lawsuit. I'm still not sure, actually.

So given all that, here's how I would rank the candidates if I were voting in Saint Paul Ward 1.

1. Dai Thao
2. Noel Nix
3. Johnny Howard
4. Kazoua Kong-Thao
5. Mark Voerding
6. Debbie Montgomery

Election 2013 Index of Posts


Posted by: stargoatpdx (stargoatpdx)
Posted at: October 27th, 2013 12:01 pm (UTC)

“Also in St. Paul, you get to rank all of them in order of preference; you're not limited to the top three. The ballot design suggests a machine reader; I wonder if they're going to tally the data electronically and then do the actual preferential calculations by hand, or if they have software that can handle as many candidates as run?”

It sounds like you’re conceptualizing the counting process as being much... bigger than it actually is.

Most computer programs that count a Single Transferrable Vote election work the same way regardless of whether the voter gets 3 choices or 100 -- there’s nothing difficult or sophisticated about “handling” a large number of choices. The elections office might need to specify the number (e.g. in a settings window) so the program will know how many bytes of memory to allocate to each voter. And yes, we’re talking just a few bytes per voter for each contest; so even if you’re running a statewide election in California, I would expect a basic office computer -- or a smartphone for that matter -- to be fully adequate as far as computing power is concerned. (I've seen a small party election counted on a laptop, using commercial software, and that was 10 years ago.)

Writing a bare-bones program to count a Single Transferrable Vote election is pretty simple; it wouldn’t surprise me if Molly could do it. (Admittedly I don't know much about her level of interest in programming or about the extent to which kids her age typically learn programming, so that's definitely a guess on my part.) That said, it takes a great deal of work and programming savvy to write a program that is smooth, robust, flexible, transparent, and straightforward, and that can work in a variety of government elections with idiosyncratic local laws.

Posted by: Naomi (naomikritzer)
Posted at: October 27th, 2013 03:36 pm (UTC)

And yet it took like two weeks for them to count the Park Board votes after the last election in Minneapolis (because they did it all by hand) but there are some specific hoops they have to jump through with getting permission to use computer software (I think they have to demonstrate to someone's satisfaction that they're not rigging the election, and you know, I'm all for that) so maybe it was just that they didn't have time to jump through the hoops.

(The Park Board does this goofy thing where you have three open seats and you get three preferential votes and then stuff gets allocated in a complicated way that made you squee with joy last time when you heard about it. Anyway, it may be more complicated to count, but I think they were counting it all by hand four years ago in any case, it's just that counting the mayor race didn't take long since RT had a majority in the first pass.)

Posted by: stargoatpdx (stargoatpdx)
Posted at: October 27th, 2013 06:08 pm (UTC)

Right, an election that takes seconds to count by computer (once the preliminaries have been taken care of) can take weeks to count by hand.

I have not for one second forgotten that there’s a board in Minneapolis that’s elected using my preferred form of proportional representation. As for complication, I recommend a shopping analogy:
• You walk into a store with your one vote. So do all the other voters.
• The candidates are on sale (each for the same number of votes).
• You get together with all the other voters who want the same candidate, and count your votes.
• If it's not enough, you each go find another group.
• If it is enough, you buy the candidate. Then you divvy up the change and each go find another group.

About the noun “vote”: In most U.S. elections, it doesn’t matter whether you define a vote to be a mark on a ballot or a unit of decision-making power, because they’re effectively the same thing. Once you bring in preferential voting, that changes, because each person is allowed multiple marks but still just one unit of power. Minneapolis and St. Paul have both come down on the side of “a vote is a unit of power, not a mark on a ballot” by using the phrase “single transferrable vote” in their charters (thanks for the links). So to avoid conflicting with the official terminology in your region, I would suggest referring to marks on a ballot as “choices” or “marks” or whatever, rather than as “votes”.

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