Mitra Jalali Nelson is St. Paul's newest City Council member.
The 32-year-old claimed a decisive victory Tuesday in the race for the Fourth Ward seat, garnering nearly 54 percent of first-choice votes in the ranked-choice contest. She will likely take office in early September and start working with her council colleagues on the 2019 budget and the proposed citywide minimum wage.
The Fourth Ward seat was open this year for the first time in a decade, after Russ Stark left to work for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. Parks advocate Shirley Erstad, 51, took second place Tuesday with about 41 percent of first-choice votes. David Martinez, 38, came in third with about 5 percent of first-choice votes.
On Wednesday morning, Nelson said she was still processing the fact that the race was over and she had won.
"Everything was a push to get to 8 p.m. [Tuesday], so that's all we thought about," she said.
Nelson knocked on doors until polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, then joined her supporters at the Turf Club for what soon became a victory party.
Standing onstage wearing a tutu in her signature hot pink, Nelson reflected on the start of her campaign in February, when she gave more than a dozen rapid-fire speeches at her precinct caucuses at Central High School.
"I had one mission and that was to say: I really believe that this is a critical moment in our community and that we deserve bold, representative and progressive leadership going forward to guide our city," Nelson said. "And that's what tonight is about."
Tom Basgen, a Third Ward resident who supported Nelson and attended her victory party, said Wednesday he was "over the moon."
"The party last night looked like what the city is. I've been to a lot of political events where that's not true," he said. "Seeing the city as it is, represented at that party, that's what made me so hopeful and that's what makes me so happy about Mitra."
Nelson, who is leaving a job in U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's office to join the council, ran on a platform focused on housing issues, from the dearth of affordable housing in the city to tenants' rights. She won endorsements from unions, progressive organizations and Carter, as well as the DFL nod at the party's convention in April.
Erstad decided to continue running as a DFLer without the endorsement. On Wednesday, she said her campaign was "a leap of faith" from a group of people new to politics.
"The fact that we were able to put together such a great ground game and such a positive campaign really speaks to the efforts of the people involved," she said. "The commitment and the passion and the energy was just phenomenal and so unexpected."
Much of Erstad's support came from former city leaders, longtime residents and homeowners.
John Mannillo, who attended Erstad's party at Urban Growler Tuesday night, said he likes her thoughtful approach to city issues. Mannillo said he's concerned that Nelson doesn't have enough experience to do the day-to-day work of a council member.
"I worry that we're not getting an independent thinker, we're getting somebody who's going to probably go with whatever the mayor wants or what the party wants," he said.
Former Mayor George Latimer, who supported Erstad, said he was drawn to Erstad's passion for local government. But he also said that all three women who ran for the Fourth Ward seat — including attorney Amy Ireland, who dropped out at the DFL convention — were strong choices.
"If you live in St. Paul, you cannot be unhappy with the young people who are entering the fray for public office," he said of Nelson. "I think that we've been very lucky."
On Tuesday night, Nelson told her cheering supporters that even though the election is over, she wants and needs them to stay involved in city government.
"This is the beginning," she said. "I cannot wait to get to work."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509