Abu Nayeem comes across as a well-meaning, regular guy — rents a house, eats mac & cheese. Likes digging around in data.
But the onetime education data analyst has an alter ego, one he donned to ease tension and make folks smile as he ran for St. Paul City Council in 2019 and for St. Paul mayor in 2021: the Frogtown Crusader.
If you think this soft-spoken, unassuming 33-year-old is joking around, you're wrong. In running for elective office with no money and little name recognition, this neighborhood activist — who organized alley cleanups and is pushing the city to draw more balanced ward boundaries — said he used the costume to lighten the mood while discussing serious topics.
In 2021, he convinced more than 1,500 St. Paulites — 2.57% of voters — to make him their first choice for mayor.
In a recent interview with Eye On St. Paul, Nayeem talked about what brought a kid born in Bangladesh to Minnesota and why, even though he hoped to win office, running really wasn't the point. Oh yeah, and that costume.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: You live in Hamline-Midway now [a few blocks from Frogtown]. When did that happen?
A: I'm coming up on my one-year anniversary here.
Q: Are you from St. Paul?
A: I was raised in New York City. My family came from Bangladesh when I was 2.
Q: What brought you here?
A: I got a job with the South Washington County Schools as a data analyst. It was my first time being trapped in the suburbs. I didn't know how to drive [while living in Cottage Grove] and public transit really wasn't an option for me. I needed rides to and from work from colleagues.
Q: When did you leave that job and come to St. Paul?
A: 2017. It was specifically related to the Trump election. That was pretty much the nail in the coffin where I needed to do something different. Prior to working in Minnesota, I considered myself a liberal. A bit of a radical. An activist.
In high school I was one of those kids who was bright but really didn't care about anything. Then I had an epiphany, when I got lost in a park. Went for a school trip. Got lost by myself. I looked at the Hudson River and figured out how to get back.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: After I left the school district, I was trying to explore a career doing entrepreneurship. A lot of activists felt burned out and I noticed a need to support activists with technology. Later, I did some field research where I interviewed several City Council members on how to get everyone involved. How do you let them be heard?
I'm between jobs now. I want to reach out to the city Charter Commission and talk to them about redistricting city wards, where there are clear inequities with representation.
Q: Such as?
A: In Ward 5 [North End and Como Park], most of the votes cast are in the Como area, with retirees and wealthier people who have fewer obstacles to voting. There is a clear divide. It's systemic and I want to see if you can create boundaries for wards that are [similar] to all the people who live there.
Q: Did you run for office to win, or to get a message out there?
A: Message. I'm not delusional [Melvin Carter easily won a second term]. Soon after filing, I had a serious shoulder injury and that spoiled my plans. At that point, I was all about organizing the Frogtown community.
Q: Like the neighborhood cleanups?
A: The principle is, how can we create welcoming walking spaces? There is an amazing opportunity to walk the alleys, to have that view of the city. How do you build relationships where people come together to clean up their own space, take ownership?
I had an idea to do a fireworks response squad, try to talk to people who were setting off fireworks. I started wearing the [frog] costume to get people to smile. It lightens the mood. In those types of situations [fireworks], it can be very testy.
Knocking on doors changed things for me. I'm not so great at prepared stuff. I'm not a great communicator. But then that gets reversed when I am door-knocking and just talking to people.
Q: Do you still have the frog stuff?
A: [Laughs] Yes.