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.
When the seven Saint Paul City Council members are inaugurated today — to an uncharacteristically large audience of 800 people, based on RSVP count — they stand up as people who prioritize affordable housing, economic development, public safety, climate action and sustainability, and working infrastructure.
They come from backgrounds that include Hmong, Korean, Iranian, Indian. They are of Jewish faith, LGBTQ+ identity, with backgrounds in a rural community and as adoptees. They have worked as policy aide, political organizer, teacher, voting rights advocate, and engineer. They come from families that have experienced incarceration and foreclosure. Some of them are moms of young children. They are renters and new homeowners.
They generally were in their 20s when they first ran for office.
They are all women, and together represent a very diverse Saint Paul.
Says Mitra Jalali, who was first elected to the council in a special election in 2018 and is now poised to be the council president: “I was the second woman of color in city history to be elected. And that was in 2018. That is a pretty appalling track record in terms of diversity when you consider who is in our city. I forged my way alone in those times. So, to see this new normal on that stage on Tuesday will be powerful. It is a testament to how far we’ve come.”
Says Rebecca Noecker, senior-most member of the team, who was elected in 2016 when she was 29, “It feels so different to be coming in with an all-women council. It’s amazing how quickly that change has happened. … [But] I think there’s so much more diversity than just being women and mostly women of color. It’s saying something about Saint Paul, which has been so much more open to people from all different backgrounds than many other places.”
None of the members ran for office with the idea that they would eventually be part of a diverse, all-women council. Now that they are, several of them have expressed high expectations about what it will mean for the city they represent.
Says Hwa Jeong Kim, “I feel like we will govern differently, not simply because of our gender, but also because of our experiences, our identities, our ethnicities, our religions. Many of us represent people that have been left out of the process.”
Kim also believes that they will govern differently because “women create a different culture around relationships. It is gender normative to say that women are the caretakers, but we will have a council full of caretakers, looking out for one another and the residents of the city. That’s my expectation, and my hope. By doing that, we can demonstrate that you can do things differently.”
Says Nelsie Yang, one of three incumbents, “I expect change with the election of an all-women’s city council. I already feel that shift. We really value work-life sustainability. I have a one-year-old, and I plan to have a large family. I absolutely can and should be able to do that as well as being a council member. That’s what we should be building towards — a caring community and economy. We can build that if we have leaders ingrained in the value of building care for every person.”
A priority cited by council members relates to housing. Says Yang, “Half of our residents are renters, and many households in my ward have families paying $600 to $700 a month just on their energy bill during the winter. I was one of them.”
In her ward, a large apartment complex has displaced many of its seniors. “It’s heartbreaking. As somebody whose family home was foreclosed when I was in high school, that’s personal. It’s devastating.”
To naysayers — including those who have already pushed back against Saint Paul’s progressive renter’s rights measures — Yang says funding priorities for the city need to focus on how dollars are spent in the first place. “We have the resources we need for folks to live in abundance. Where we spend those dollars, that’s what our role as council members is.”
Saint Paul residents voted in 2021 to cap residential rent increases at 3 percent annually — one of the strictest rent control measures in the nation. Some developers indicated they cannot get financing to build with current restrictions. Yang, however, says, “The fear-based rhetoric,” she adds, “I do not give it my time and energy. To be honest, development is happening in our city. We have developers who are excited to build in Saint Paul.”[We will continue to follow the story of Saint Paul housing measures as part of our “Foundations in Housing” series.]
In 2018, Cheniqua Johnson was 22, living in her hometown of Worthington, when she decided to run for state legislator. She was the first person of color to run for that office in the southeastern region of the state.
Johnson believes that political office is for anyone to step into, because it is everyday needs — including the farmers and immigrants at the local pork plant in her hometown — who are served by public office.
Nobles County, where she grew up, is the third most diverse region of the state, behind Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. It is filled with people who came from all over the world for jobs, whether it was 100 years ago or ten. “It’s the same story,” Johnson says. “We all want to be able to afford where we live. We want streets to get to work that are pothole-free. We want our kids to access quality education. We want elected officials who communicate with us.”
Council members, new and returning, look forward to serving the public in a year that perhaps has less drama than the past four, with crises from the pandemic and civil unrest behind, and committees led by people with fresh eyes and energy, diverse expertise, and from families of color.
They have different visions of what can come next, and point to different strengths in personal expertise as well as strengths the city is starting off with in 2024.
Noecker appreciates the public safety response Saint Paul has offered its residents, including youth programming and proven methods for gun violence prevention. She represents the downtown ward. “Coming out of the pandemic, I am thinking about incentivizing conversion of vacant office buildings to housing and other uses, as well as co-working spaces and new ways to bring people back downtown.”
She is proud of the city’s Homeless Assistance Response Team, “which has been phenomenal at taking a dignified and humane approach to homelessness — using encampments as an opportunity to build relationships, rather than something that needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.”
“I come from a faith and a culture that values question-asking and critical thinking and doesn’t see argument as a negative thing or a hostile thing,” Noecker says. “I think that’s important in this work, because you need to be able to disagree constructively while still being respectful and courteous. Being able to express disagreement and question things is how we make progress.
Kim says, “It is really necessary — particularly now given our political climate — to watch smart, capable people disagree.”
Looking Forward to Being ‘Precedented’
Says Kim, “I’ve got four years of city budgeting under my hat, looking under the hood. I am a longtime organizer in my neighborhood — I knock doors every year because that’s how you get to know people. Many of us are used to being where the buck stops.”
Saura Jost, who comes from a 12-year career as an engineer, is a newcomer to government. “I am bringing a different perspective, as well as expertise that’s directly applicable to city government, like public works and development. I’ve worked on different projects across the country. That brings not just technical expertise, but project management, budgeting experience, knowing how to bring people together to get things done, and how to work collaboratively on a timeline, under pressure.”
Jalali says this is an important time of turnover in Saint Paul. “I’ve been a council member and led through landmark chapters in our city’s history. I served in unprecedented times, I’d really love to serve in some precedented times.”
She says the historical election that brought this seven-member team to office in 2024 is because voters, ward by ward, trust “our vision, our values, and our experiences. We get to choose our leaders, and the issues and the ideas that we ran on were supported — with trust that comes from feeling ‘this person shares my life experiences, I feel like they can uniquely address these challenges.’ So, I think it’s about trust. That’s really what every election is about. I’m grateful to our community for modeling the values that got us here.”
Sign up for the Changemakers Alliance newsletter to be updated on the work of the Saint Paul City Council, which will be a continuing part of our “Diversity in Politics” series this year.
Editor’s Note: The one newcomer to the Saint Paul City Council who we were not able to talk with prior to inauguration was Anika Bowie, who has frequently appeared in our magazine. As she told us in October, after returning to Saint Paul from California where she went after graduating from Hamline University, “I saw that my community was still in crisis. A lot of people were falling into the cracks. People had lost hope. I reconnected with a teacher from Central High School who helped young people in foster care transition into adulthood. I supported her foundation and learned how to write grants and create organizational power. I saw how people’s stories literally drives the social equity that we are building here. That’s when I realized my resources as a young person are valuable — how I was able to navigate in my own capacity on my own. It doesn’t always take a march or a big rally to help people get their day to day figured out. That’s what I love about city council. It’s the small things that matter.”
She was our cover story in the April 2018 issue.