St. Paul mayoral candidates discuss East Side issues

Six of the 10 St. Paul mayoral candidates discussed issues related to the East Side during a forum at Metropolitan State University on Sept. 22. 

The Friday evening event included Tom Goldstein, a former St. Paul Public School board member; Tim Holden, a real estate investor; Elizabeth Dickinson, the Green Party-endorsed candidate; Dai Thao, current St. Paul City Council member for Ward 1; Pat Harris, a former St. Paul City Council member and senior vice president at BMO Harris Bank; and Melvin Carter, a former St. Paul City Council member who is now executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet. 

The candidates talked about trash collection, promoting the East Side, city subsidies and more with questions from  both the audience and from the moderator, Metropolitan State University political science professor Matthew Filner. The forum was organized by the Metropolitan State University Student Senate.

The three-hour forum was split into two, 40 minute sessions, one about the East Side and one about education, with time before and after the forum for visitors to speak one-on-one with the candidates.

While the original order was going to be higher education and then East Side issues, the sessions were flipped as more audience members were interested in discussing the East Side.


East Side investment

The forum began with Sen. Foung Hawj asking the candidates what specific plans they have for East Side investment.

Goldstein said there are many opportunities to invest on the East Side because of the many available vacant lots. “[The] East Side is a prime place where jobs are needed,” he said, adding he sees job creation as an important East Side investment. 

Thao said the first thing he would invest in on the East Side is public safety, installing adequate lighting to create “peace of mind.” He said he’d also like to invest in affordable housing and would propose a soda tax at the distribution level that would be used towards education.

Dickinson said her East Side investment plan would be to attract more wind and solar power installations, located in empty lots like the old 3M site. She said she would also invest in high speed bus lines along White Bear Avenue and increase funding to grassroots organizations like the East Side Neighborhood Development Company. She said she’d also like to invest more money into parks and recreation centers.

Carter said he wants to invest in education by partnering with schools and recreation centers, adding he also wants to increase infrastructure investments on the East Side for things like bus lines and bike lanes. He said businesses could be assisted by helping them navigate the processes at City Hall.

Harris said that in addition to investments in public safety, libraries, parks and roads, he wants to create an investment program where targeted neighborhoods, like the East Side, Frogtown and Summit/University, would have access to capital.

Holden said he sees poverty as being the biggest issue on the East Side and wants to invest in creating jobs, and in recreation centers.


Tackling the ‘food desert’

An audience member described the East Side as being a “food desert,” meaning there are limited grocery stores and limited access to fresh food. The person asked how the candidates would address the issue.

Holden said it was the first time he had heard the term but believed the issue goes back to poverty, explaining that he wants to see more jobs being created.

Harris said he wants to make sure all neighborhoods have access to quality grocery stores. He pointed to the Cub Foods off Johnson Parkway and said he would like to replicate the “large-scale community effort” that created that development, for future grocery stores.

Carter acknowledged the East Side is a food desert, and said one way to solve the issue is to access the “deep agrarian traditions” of many of the cultures found on the East Side by encouraging more community gardens and urban agriculture. He pointed to the success of the Frogtown Farm and Park, an urban farm in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. He said investment should not just be geared to big grocery stores, but also smaller businesses owned by local families.

Dickinson said she would like to increase funding for buses that bring fresh food and produce into neighborhoods that have little access to them. She agreed with Carter that smaller, locally owned businesses should benefit, not just chain grocery stores.

Thao said he sees food deserts as a big problem, explaining they lead to obesity and health issues. He said he would like to see more community gardens and would encourage the Planning and Economic Development Department to use empty lots for such gardens. 

Goldstein questioned the way city subsidies are used and who they benefit, giving the example of the Penfield, a luxury apartment complex in downtown St. Paul that includes a Lunds & Byerlys grocery store. He said he wants subsidies to benefit neighborhoods, adding he’d like to create an ordinance where if a lot is left empty for five years, it becomes a community garden. 


Trash and police body cameras

Another audience member asked about trash collection and how the candidates would improve it in the city. 

All of the candidates, except for Holden, said they support organized trash collection. Holden said he does not support it because he worries about increased costs and the affect on local trash haulers. Currently, the city is in negotiations with St. Paul trash haulers to have one company serve one neighborhood, reducing the number of trucks on the streets and to establish a uniform trash collection rate.

The moderator asked what the candidates thought about the effects of police body cameras on the East Side and on policing in general. Most of the candidates said they would support body cameras, adding cameras are only part of what should be a multifaceted approach to changing police culture, involving more diverse officers and changing police training.

Thao added there needs to be clear policy about when body cameras should be turned on, while Harris said police need support from a budget standpoint, as well.


Promoting the East Side

The East Side session wrapped up with a question about how to promote the neighborhood. Dickinson said she sees a lot of similarities between the East Side with where she lives on the city’s West Side. She said she sees the East Side’s greatest asset being its affordability and its great people.

“I think a mayor that talks positively about the East Side could help bring investment,” Dickinson said.

Carter said the city needs to better embrace its diversity and believes it needs to “open up the ceiling for a global economy that ought to exist in a city as diverse as St. Paul.” 

“If we look at St. Paul in that type of lens,” Carter added, “the East Side is not a problem to solve — it’s our biggest opportunity neighborhood.”

Harris said he would promote the East Side by encouraging people to travel to and spend money in the neighborhood. He said as a mayor, you need to sell the city and its neighborhoods

Holden said “the East Side, in my eyes, is no different than Highland Park.” He said all the neighborhoods in St. Paul should all be treated equally and receive equal funding. 

Goldstein said he would give a media tour of the neighborhood, because the media tends to label the entire East Side negatively when something bad happens on one street. “The East Side is a pretty large place,” Goldstein said, adding the mayor has a lot of power to change the overall image.

Thao said he loves the East Side and would be its champion as mayor, spending a lot of time at its restaurants and parks. He added that he has a lot of family members who live in the neighborhood and that if he were mayor he would use his media team to promote the East Side. 


The city and eduction

The last half of the forum involved education, with audience members asking about a variety of subjects such as free community college, the role the city should play with undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, campus sexual assault and how to promote equity in St. Paul’s schools. 

While the city doesn’t have much control over school policy — that power lies with the St. Paul School Board as well as the state and federal government — candidates did bring up a need for more partnerships between recreation centers and libraries, and schools in the city.

The forum got off to a rocky start when two other candidates, Sharon Anderson and Trahern Crews, questioned why they were not on the panel to speak.

Anderson eventually left, despite Holden offering his seat to her, explaining that he had a problem “morally and ethically” with her not being on the panel.

Student senate president Dhibo Hussein explained that each candidate was sent an invitation. She said invites were sent around Aug. 22 and that candidates needed to RSVP by Sept. 5 to be included in the panel.

While the mayoral candidates will be participating in many forums across the city, the next forum to take place on the East Side, a League of Women Voters  meet-and-greet, will be on Tuesday, Oct. 17 from 7 to 8:30 p.m at the Minnesota Humanities Center, 987 Ivy Ave. E.

Election Day is Nov. 7.


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto


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