This "Diversity in Politics" coverage was made possible by Women Winning, which builds a coalition of pro-choice people of all backgrounds, identities, and political affiliations to run for public office.
The new seven-member Saint Paul City Council team was inaugurated at a ceremony on January 9 that included comments from Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a talk by Maggie Lorenz about making real change to restorative rights for Indigenous lands, a spoken word performance by Muna Abdulahi, and a Hmong dance troupe.
The ceremony filled Ordway Theater in Saint Paul with residents, advocates, family, and friends excited about celebrating an historic occasion — commemorating that an all-woman team, mostly people of color, and all under the age of 40, were stepping into city leadership — only a few years after there was an “only woman” and “only person of color” elected to those seats.
Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter introduced new City Council president Mitra Jalali, starting with a description of the impactful impression she made when she stepped onto the council for the first time after a special election in 2018. “We all noticed, because of her electrifying personality, because of her bright pink clothing, and because of the lightning bolts that she carries with her everywhere. It struck me that this is a different experience than we’re used to, and that is one of my favorite things about the council member,” he said.
Jalali spoke, sharing some of her background story. Her father Hossein was born in Tehran, Iran, and left his home country in 1979 to get away from social and political upheaval. He emigrated to Rochester, Minnesota, at age 16, and graduated from Rochester High School, where “he spoke a language that everyone else here spoken in common in an English language learner: it’s called soccer.” Her mother Sooki was born in South Korea and grew up in an orphanage in Seoul. She was in several foster care systems until she arrived in the 1980s to an orphanage in Owatonna.
Jalali’s parents met while attending Rochester Technical Community College. At an international club meeting, Hussain asked a friend — who was president of the club — to be seated next to Sooki so he could talk to her. Eventually the newlyweds moved to the Twin Cities and started a small business together. Mitra grew up on playgrounds in the Como neighborhood of Saint Paul and the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. “I’m a Twin Cities baby to the core. I’ve been an organizer, a social studies teacher, a congressional policy aide. I am so proud to join these leaders on stage as the incoming council president.
“Today we lift up history that Saint Paul residents made with their votes,” Jalali said. “For the first time in U.S. history, an American city of our size has elected a city council of all women and a super majority of women of color.
In an era where reproductive rights are under attack, where trans and queer children have been persecuted in public schools, where racial disparities persist across our country, this new class of leader sends [to the wider communities] a clear message from Saint Paul voters that ‘we trust the leadership of these women. We believe in their personal and professional experience and vision.’”
Jalali indicated that Saint Paul is a community of more than 300,000 people from dozens of countries who speak over 100 different languages in public schools, with a majority renting rather than owning their homes, largely cost burdened by spending more than 30 percent of their income toward housing.
She joked that if anyone read some of the comments on her social media account, “Let’s just say a whole lot of people who were comfortable with majority male, majority white institutions for nearly 170 years of city history are suddenly sharply concerned about representation. My thoughts and prayers are with them in this challenging time.”
Jalali has a light-hearted tone. She noted that the Como Zoo in her district now has a baby giraffe, “and I would love it if you can also get a red panda. Just some ideas while I’m up here, while I have the stage. This is what bully pulpit is — I love it.”
She also mentioned that the previous week at City Hall, with the seven new members getting ready for their next steps together, “it felt a little bit like a Barbie movie. ‘Hi, Councilwoman. Hi, Councilwoman.’”
She concluded on a more somber note. “I was thinking about what it means for women, how we’re treated, and how it doesn’t feel good to be treated like a Barbie. It doesn’t feel good for people to say ‘I put these words in your mouth,’ or take out my rage on you as if you’re not a person. We are embodied. We are elected. We are our communities.”
Spoken Word by Muna Abdulahi
This is an excerpt of a 7-minute performance. Click to see some of the performance.
To be a woman in a space that was not built for you is to know how to fold yourself into a million perfect pieces. Hoping you fit, hoping somehow you just fit, where you folded yourself so much to be palatable. You forgot how to recognize yourself unfolded. …
You realize you were never meant to fit, the soles of your feet were never meant to follow their foots, but to touch dirt and watch a garden rise at our footsteps. To pave a new path where you can speak, a lioness roar, for your communities and the generation after. You see representation has never been a destination. It’s always been the road. …
All my life we’ve been fighting for just a seat at the table, told to say please and thank you for the crumbs of our voices, and yet today, today, today we are the whole table …
The truth is, to be a woman in a space that was not built for you is to know how to build space with your bare hands, to demand the attention of any room you step into … to be a walking figure of change, of growth, to know how to rise and rise again and rise again and rise again and again and again and again
You see, the only thing I have to say is for future references
Do not interrupt us
Because we are just getting started
Expanding on the Values of a Progressive City
Mayor Carter acknowledged the more than 3,000 City of St. Paul employees who work together in public service, as well as the Minnesota legislators in the audience. “It’s because of city employees that we can brag about having nationally recognized parks, libraries, and water services. It’s because of those city employees that we are leading groundbreaking initiatives to combat climate change and are embedding 21st Century Community First policing practices to build a safer community. It is because of all of you working together that we are experiencing one of the most prolific expansions of housing and commercial construction in our city’s history.”
Carter, who was elected to the city council 16 years earlier at age 28, noted that he was the only person of color when he served with former council president Kathy Lantry, who was the only woman. “My, how things have changed,” he said. Lantry served for almost 18 years — including council president for 11 years — before working for the city in other capacities, including co-chair of the committee to find a new police chief in Saint Paul.
Carter has acknowledged — in his inauguration comments and an interview with Minnesota Women’s Press (coming soon) — that this unique council comes on the heels of other progressive council leadership. Past council president Amy Brendmoen, first elected in 2011, announced in December 2022 that she was stepping away “to clear a path for new candidates to step up to represent Ward 5.” Hwa Jeong Kim, council vice president, now represents her ward.
Nearly 70 percent of city offices in the U.S. are held by men, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Although Minnesota has a two U.S. Senators, a lieutenant governor, and many members in the state legislature who are women, Minnesota’s municipal seats statewide are primarily held by men — at 35 percent. Although that percentage seems low, it actually places the state as 16th highest in the country for women’s city leadership. The states with the highest numbers of women in municipal leadership are Alaska, Nevada, and Colorado, at roughly 45 percent; the lowest are Nebraska, Mississippi, and North Dakota, at roughly 20 percent.
Said Carter at the ceremony: “As public servants, we bear a profound responsibility to expand the set of decision makers to ensure the city we build is one we build together, each voice a vital thread woven into the vibrant fabric of our community. It’s that close collaboration with our community that brought us an array of initiatives that challenge the conventional wisdom of how city government can be relevant in people’s lives.”
Some of the recent accomplishments in Saint Paul, he said:
- Raised the minimum wage.
- Changed our police use of force rules.
- Started college savings accounts for every child born in the city and made libraries fine-free.
- Centered in a nationwide conversation on how guaranteed income can help raise the floor for our most vulnerable families.
- Launched the inheritance fund, putting descendants of the Rondo neighborhood on the path to homeownership.
- Recently passed a medical debt reset initiative to leverage $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds to eliminate over $100 million of medical debt for Saint Paul.
Carter added: “One of the challenges that we will face together is the desire to make improvements, balancing that with the discomfort that change inevitably brings. As I think about the historic moment that this is, as we think about the history that you’ve all made, that we’ve all made through this past election cycle, I cannot help but think with excitement about the future we will create together.”
He also joked that after the 2023 city council election, a voter told him, “Hopefully soon we’ll see a woman mayor. … As I sit looking at this stage, as I experience this community gathering and celebration, and certainly as I listen to Muna’s words, it strikes me that we probably won’t have to wait too long.”
Some of the comments made at the inauguration
Closing remarks came from the currently longest-running City Council woman, Rebecca Noecker, who was first elected in 2016. She noted that the oath they just took included the promise to “discharge faithfully the duties devolving upon us.” She said that the “devolving” has always struck her as a strange word.
“We think of it as negative, like devolving into chaos, but it literally means rolling down like a stream, pouring down a mountain,” Noecker said. “It reminds us that we’re links in a chain, that our duties have been passed down to us from those who come before, and that we are only here because of the energy, the time, and the love of others. That knowledge shouldn’t make us feel frozen in time, beholden to the way things were, but just the opposite. We have an obligation to keep that momentum going; to take the progress that has been passed to us and keep rolling with energy and vision that we will one day be able to pass on to others. We can never forget that we’re part of something much greater than ourselves.
“So as we roll up our sleeves and get to work, which I know we are all very eager to do, let us remember that we may be a first, but we are not the beginning and we are not the ending. Rather we, and this great city we have the privilege to serve, are always an ever becoming.”