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    A changing political face to the city’s East Side as filings open for St. Paul City Council – Twin Cities

    Nelsie Yang, left, gets a hug from a supporter when she arrives at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 and Ward 6 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. On the right sits Terri Thao (second from right, in white sweater) with her supporters. On the far left is interim councilmember Kassim Busuri. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

    For 22 years, former St. Paul police Sgt. Dan Bostrom represented much of the East Side as one of the more conservative voices on the St. Paul City Council.

    St. Paul City Council member Nelsie Yang during a swearing-in ceremony for Police Chief Axel Henry in the Council Chambers on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

    Not long after Bostrom left office at age 78, Nelsie Yang — a union steward with the progressive advocacy organization TakeAction Minnesota — was elected in his place. Then 24, Yang made history as both the youngest member ever seated on the city council and its first Hmong-American woman.

    When the face of the East Side’s representation changed, so did its politics. The traditionally working-class Ward 6 elected a council member who has taken an uncompromising pro-tenant stance on rent control, advocates for free public transit and says she wants to “abolish” the institution that gave her predecessor his career.

    Yang’s election in 2019 was a harbinger of what was to come for the East Side. Recent elections there for seats in the Legislature and on the Ramsey County Board and city council have gone to younger, more ethnically diverse and arguably more liberal candidates than the politicians who came before.

    That trend figures to continue this year as the council seat in Ward 7, which covers most of the rest of the city’s East Side, turns over. Jane Prince is not seeking re-election, and the politically dominant St. Paul DFL in April endorsed Cheniqua Johnson in a four-way race that had no white entrants.

    Likewise, with four of the city’s seven council members not seeking re-election, the DFL has endorsed 10 candidates for city council and school board, and seven identify as women of color. At least four have strong immigrant ties.

    “I’m just surprised it’s taken this long,” former state Rep. Tim Mahoney, a union pipefitter who represented the East Side from 1999 to 2021, said of the new faces in local politics. “It’s not even the immigrants — it’s their children.”

    Undated courtesy photo from the 2017-18 legislative session of state Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL- St. Paul. (Courtesy of the Minnesota House of Representatives)

    East Side politics

    Yang, who along with Rebecca Noecker and Mitra Jalali is a DFL-endorsed incumbent, has proven a reliable progressive vote in her first term.

    On rent control, she has called for rolling back city council amendments that exempted new construction, reverting the policy to a “strong rent control” that imposes a 3 percent cap on annual increases, “no exceptions.” She’s advocated for expanding city services through municipal sidewalk shoveling, alley plowing and child care subsidies that would require raising property taxes each year for 10 years. And she wants to “immediately halt encampment closures” and supports fare-free public transit.

    As for policing, Yang said the city should award “no new money for cops,” according to her written responses to a survey sponsored by the Democratic-Socialist organization Twin Cities DSA. “I am an aspiring abolitionist. This means I believe in the abolition of policing and other carceral, punitive institutions” in favor of diversion programs.

    As an elected Hmong-American on the city’s East Side, a corner long represented by a mix of political progressives, moderates and others with ties to working class, organized labor, Yang has plenty of company. St. Paul school board Chairman Jim Vue, state Reps. Liz Lee and Jay Xiong, and Ramsey County Commissioner Mai Chong Xiong all have taken office in recent years, and state Sen. Foung Hawj has represented the East Side since 2013.

    Johnson, the DFL-endorsed newcomer, said her family was one of the few Black families around when she was growing up in rural Worthington, Minn. That experience should make it somewhat easier to make inroads in a ward that lacks a sense of ethnic cohesion.

    “You can go from house to house and not have the same ethnicity living right next to each other,” Johnson said. “Our city council seat has never flipped for a person of color. And no matter who wins, we now have an opportunity to do that.”

    Racial, ethnic diversity

    To some degree, political change on the East Side reflects both the emerging racial and ethnic diversity of the city as a whole, as well as the political leanings of an urban Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party increasingly sensitive to concerns about the historical under-representation of key identity groups, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ people and immigrants.

    Yet, most of the newer political candidates are quick to note there’s plenty of ideological diversity between them. Only two candidates to date, for instance, have been endorsed by the Twin Cities DSA — Yang and Hwa Jeong Kim, another DFL-endorsed city council candidate in Ward 5, which stretches from Como Park through the North End.

    And the East Side differs from much of the city in that it has a more sizable concentration of Hmong residents, some of whom are a generation removed from the more traditional, conservative leanings of their Hmong elders.

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