The following are candidate responses to questions on topics important to Ward 4 citizens. Do you have other questions you would like to ask these candidates seeking the Saint Paul DFL endorsement? Let’s hear them in the comments! – Executive Committee
Mitra Jalali Nelson for Ward 4 City Council
Why are you running for the Saint Paul City Council Ward 4 seat?
My name is Mitra Jalali Nelson. I’m a lifelong Minnesotan, the proud daughter of immigrants, and have devoted my life to fighting for all families to have the same opportunities as mine. I would be honored to continue this work for progress in our Ward and in our City as our next Ward 4 City Councilwoman.
Over the past ten years, I have worked as a teacher, an organizer, a legislative aide, and now as a policy and outreach director to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. The lesson I have learned from that combined decade of experience is that good ideas don’t just happen on their own; you have to organize them into reality. I believe that our next City Councilmember needs to bring this ethic with them to City Hall, and actively work to break down the barrier between residents and government to address the problems that we collectively face together.
I am also running because our Ward is changing, and our city needs capable leaders who reflect that growth and will uphold our shared commitment to equity. Saint Paul is growing rapidly, and it’s on us to ensure that every resident of our city can benefit from that growth. That’s why we need a City Council that is laser-focused on equity, and a Ward 4 City Councilmember who will bring that focus with them.
In a city that is roughly 50% people of color and 50% renters, and in a ward with the fastest-growing renter population in Saint Paul, I would bring a perspective that is missing on the Council as both a woman of color and a renter myself. The future of our city is also inextricably connected to the future of our Ward, and our ability to end opportunity gaps that persist by race, gender, class, ability, and more. I am running to lead with urgency on these issues, with a specific focus on police accountability, increasing attainable and affordable housing, and building community wealth. Together, I believe we can build a city that works for all.
I would be grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about my vision for our Ward, and to hear from you on what you think are the most important issues facing the neighborhoods we love. I’m honored to be running, and I hope to earn your vote.
My full letter, Why I’m Running, can be read here: https://www.mitranelson.com/why-im-running/.
What experiences or positions do you have that prepared you for this role? This could include leadership positions, political or non-political roles, community-based organizations, etc.
I am excited to bring a combined decade of experience in direct work with communities, public policy, organizing, and political leadership to this work. As a former classroom teacher of three years, I have worked closely with students, families, and teachers to address the needs and challenges of our students both in and outside of school, from creating safe and supportive school environments to ending childhood poverty and ensuring every student can be stably housed. As an organizer, I have successfully fought for increased school funding, marriage equality, and against voter suppression, and have also worked on and managed campaigns for progressive causes and candidates. As a policy aide and outreach director to Congressman Keith Ellison, I have organized briefings, worked on legislation, turned community ideas into policy proposals, and partnered with state, county, and city government to drive change in our community.
I am running to bring all of these experiences to the City Council so that we can organize our Ward for progress on the issues that we care about.
What are some examples of your experiences and accomplishments working in Ward 4 and/or Saint Paul?
I am proud to be an active DFLer in Ward 4 and have worked for years in the DFL to improve inclusion and representation within our local party units so that more people who look like me and come from my background can be reflected in our party processes as well. As a Ward 4 DFLer over the past couple of years I have worked to make turnout calls for our school board candidates as one of many dedicated volunteers, participated in GOTV efforts, and served as my precinct caucus convener at the 2017 Ward Convention.
I also believe strongly in promoting democracy and local civic engagement for progressive causes outside of the DFL in addition to it. Between late 2016 to early 2017 I helped start a non-partisan resident-driven group along with a motley crew of other motivated young progressives who live in Ward 4 and neighboring Wards of Saint Paul to help newly interested voters plug in to the mayoral and school board races happening in our city. Our group functioned as a convener to bring fellow progressive residents together, create social space for people to talk about the issues they care about, and to peer-educate people on the levels of races happening across the city and how you can get involved. We also partnered with local groups to help educate people on ranked choice voting, the caucus and convention process, and other aspects of local elections. We helped train nearly 75 people throughout the course of the election and helped provide a non-partisan/non-campaign-affiliated source of information to people newly engaged in local politics in both Ward 4 and Saint Paul.
In addition to these efforts to improve local democracy, my proudest accomplishment has been working with Ward 4 residents and Saint Paul Public Schools teachers, students, and families to pass the 2012 SPPS referendum, a $39 million annual investment in SPPS and in our kids. As an organizer for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, I organized over 200 teachers to participate in regular phonebanks, doorknocks, and voter outreach events leading up to the election to make sure that we passed $39 million in annual funding for SPPS that pays for things like counselors, support staff, ELL teachers, and smaller class sizes. I would be proud to campaign heavily again for the upcoming referendum as a Councilmember for our Ward.
How do you plan to learn about and respond to concerns of Ward 4 residents? How will you engage with all residents, including communities of color, renters, immigrants, and young people?
A central reason that I am running is to elevate the concerns and aspirations of renters, communities of color, immigrants, and young people through direct representation on the Council. I am excited to build a new and inclusive politics for progress across our Ward that includes all of these perspectives and helps everyone in Ward 4 regardless of their background to have direct access to their Councilmember and their government.
I am also running as an organizer who believes that our next Councilperson has to act like an organizer in order to do their job well and be a dynamic voice for change at City Hall. Our community holds the necessary perspectives on and solutions for the issues facing our city, and I would like to organize forums in the community regularly before votes happen to gain as much input as possible from residents on my decisions. Not everyone can attend a public meeting in-person for any number of reasons, and I would also like to heavily utilize online strategy and organizing tools to help expand the number of opportunities Ward 4 residents have to share their voice with City Council. I would also be excited to host regular open office hours, host regular issue-based forums that proactively drive a conversation on solutions and ideas we can turn into policy, and hire an engaged and representative staff that operate on a 24-hour response turnaround period to multiply the number of avenues through which residents can reach and hear from their Councilmember. I am running for Council to be a Councilmember full-time, and to address the challenges and needs of our community in partnership with all of you. Through every means possible, I hope to work hand-in-hand with neighbors of all backgrounds toward citywide progress that brings all of us along.
What is your opinion on Saint Paul’s history of using tax-increment financing (TIF) districts for development projects and what is your perspective on TIF?
Tax Increment Financing can be a helpful tool to spur development in areas where neighborhoods can benefits from new investment, but we should also proactively work toward broader policy solutions that increase our overall revenues and can better sustain our growth so as not to over-extend city resources on TIF. As St. Paul continues to grow, we can use a moderate amount of TIF to serve new and existing residents, but those decisions should always be made in a way that fully leveraged private funds, carries as little risk as possible, and maximizes community benefit in the immediate and long-term. We may even need to consider a formal or informal cap on TIF investments to manage that risk citywide.
If you had $250,000 to spend in Ward 4, how would you spend it?
I would be excited to use these funds toward direct grants and loans that help homeowners and businesses make improvements to their homes or buildings. These funds could help close the gap for people lacking up-front funds and create tangible, lasting improvements for our community that everyone benefits from.
Our Ward is also helping lead the citywide work to address climate change locally and I would be excited to convene a diverse group of residents at the forefront of these issues to explore how these funds could support efforts to get to zero waste, support a community solar project in our Ward, be used to hire resident organizers who lead Ward-level resident education efforts that help teach us how we can be better stewards of our resources and more. Local investments can spur breakthrough projects that are proof points for more public investment, and I would like to dedicate some of these funds toward Ward level projects that promote sustainability.
Lastly, our Ward is an amazing place to live, but also in some areas significant disparities exist that are obscured by the overall higher quality of life and average income level that most of our residents experience. I would like to dedicate some of this funding to improving gaps in needed city services for some of our most vulnerable residents, including expanding access to food shelves, improving public transportation access for people with disabilities and mobility challenges in key areas, and other efforts to reduce these disparities locally.
Mayor Carter has stated that he wants to sign a law increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this year. What is your position on this goal?
I am proud to support one fair wage for Saint Paul citywide that is $15 hour without any carveouts. I believe that this change cannot happen overnight and that every stakeholder who will be impacted by this ordinance needs the city’s support to make sure we all benefit from this policy. I look forward to working toward this goal with the Mayor, my colleagues on the Council, residents, workers, businesses, non-profits, and everyone else impacted.
Housing is increasingly unaffordable for too many Saint Paul families. With a growing population, prices and rents will continue to rise unless changes are made. What ideas do you have or what existing ideas (such as new housing units or broad based upzoning to allow greater density and more multi-family housing) do you support to make housing more available and affordable?
Our city’s affordable housing shortage is one of the top issues that propelled me into this race. We have 20,000 new residents in our city but just 4,000 new units of housing, and need to urgently increase the amount of affordable housing and density in our city to meet these needs. Using our land more efficiently is also better for both our tax base and the environment; density creates more demand for transportation options, which in turn create fewer emissions and improve air quality. As a city councilor, I will push for the city to explore a number of different options that allow denser, more affordable housing. Density bonuses can incentivize the addition of affordable units, reducing or eliminating parking minimums – at least in some areas where transit is already readily available – to reduce the cost of development and cost for tenants. General upzoning along major corridors can allow for more housing and jobs. Tools like inclusionary zoning can help ensure that as we grow our density, we are dedicating truly affordable and attainable units to residents to meet the affordable housing crisis of our city head-on. Changing the restrictions on building heights and other such limitations makes more room for our city to grow, too. We can also make it easier to create and maintain ADUs, streamline processes for committed individuals to become landlords, and should explore converting existing housing to multi-unit housing like quadplexes, triplexes, and duplexes.
For existing homeowners and tenants, the city can also make greater investments in rehabilitation and energy efficiency programs that help improve homes and reduce monthly costs. I’ll continue the conversations that have already begun between the city and affordable housing developers to improve the process for building more affordable units. My polling place is the Seal High Rise, one of the most well-known and successful examples of subsidized public housing for residents of all backgrounds in the city; we need to keep supporting and strengthening housing options like Seal, and I will advocate for them as such on the Council. I’ll use my experience working across all levels of government to better utilize existing resources at the city, county, state, and federal level, such as bonds and other sources of funding.
As a city councilmember, I will actively look for ways to expand our housing stock so that everyone in our city can be stably and affordably housed.
What do you want Ward 4 to know about you that you haven’t already mentioned above?
I am deeply honored to have earned the support of our Mayor Melvin Carter, Councilmember Dai Thao, Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar, Saint Paul School Board Chair Jon Schumacher, and Take Action Minnesota. I am also proud to have built a campaign team and cabinet that reflect who our city has been and who our city is becoming – from my staff who are all millennial leaders of color living in Saint Paul like myself, to my cabinet and network of advisors in Ward 4 who are former and current heads of district councils, labor leaders, longtime residents and more.
I am running the way that I hope to govern: by building a powerful coalition for change that represents the full range of perspectives of residents who live in our Ward; that unites us across the experiences shared by longtime residents and newer ones alike; so that our Ward and our city can address the most pressing challenges in our future, and achieve citywide progress for all of us. I would be most honored for you to become part of the movement that we are building.
Thank you for being a participant in this process. I would be honored to earn your support.