The quiet Ramsey County Elections Office filled with excitement and chatter on an early Wednesday at the start of the month, as five women entered one by one to file to run for St. Paul City Council. After hugging families, friends and campaign staff, they lined up for a photo in front of an American flag.
"Did you ever think our city leadership would look like that?" an onlooker said.
"We're manifesting it," replied Hwa Jeong Kim, who is running in St. Paul's Fifth Ward.
With four of seven members stepping down at the end of the year, the council is poised for its biggest shakeup since the '90s. As the November election draws nearer, a group of women are supporting each other on the campaign trail in the hopes of becoming the youngest, most diverse and first all-female council in city history.
Kim filed alongside fellow newcomers Anika Bowie, Saura Jost and Cheniqua Johnson — who are vying to represent the city's First, Third and Seventh wards, respectively — as well as incumbent Council Member Mitra Jalali.
Across-the-board victories for the slate of candidates, which includes incumbents Rebecca Noecker and Nelsie Yang, would herald in a council entirely under the age of 40. All seven members would be women, and a majority would be women of color.
"What drove me to run is that I didn't see myself or the people I care about reflected in city conversations," Jalali said, noting that the demographic shift would reflect the changing makeup of St. Paul's population.
"But it's not just about representation — it's about how are we going to use our governing power to deliver for the communities that entrust us to make sure that everyone is cared for and stable in this city," she added. "I do feel like this potential future council that I'm currently campaigning with could be the most ideologically aligned, representative, unified, progressive council that our city has ever had."
When Noecker first campaigned for her council seat in 2015, she said voters considered her "a bit of a novelty" as a then-29-year-old mom running to be the first woman to ever represent her ward. To her, the watershed moment came after Donald Trump's presidential election in 2016, when a new sense of political urgency drove more young, female candidates of color across the country to seek elected office at all levels of government.
Jalali said she considered herself part of that wave when she first ran for office in 2018. Her election felt like "a salvo of firsts," she said, as she became the first Asian American woman to sit on the council, the only renter at the time and the first member to openly identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
When Yang was elected a year later at age 24, she became the council's youngest and first Hmong American woman.
"I feel like the reason why we are seeing this wave of change so much is because it just really is time for people from marginalized communities to have a voice at the decision-making table," Yang said.
This year's elections could bring more representation milestones, both in individual wards and across the city. Kim, who's worked as a campaign organizer in St. Paul for the past six years, said she thinks community organizations and grassroots candidates have helped push the city's political culture to where it is now.
"There are people that have come before us that have envisioned this happening in some regard and have been investing in the change around women running for office" Kim said. "They've been speaking it into existence years before a squad of ladies decided to run together."
Jost echoed her, pointing to the newly elected state legislators who helped Democrats take control of both chambers this year.
"Lots of progressive women of color were elected, and we can see what happened — like really great things happened for everybody," she said. "I just never would have thought that I'd see something like this, let alone be a part of it."
Over the past few months, this slate of candidates has started group text chats and snapped photos together at the Humphrey-Mondale Dinner, one of the state DFL's largest annual gatherings. Many appear in a new promotional video for Women Winning, a longstanding pro-choice political organization that provides support for female candidates across Minnesota.
Though the three incumbents appear to be running unopposed, the races for the open seats are competitive, with 15 people vying for four spots as of Friday. Candidates can continue to file to run through Tuesday.
Noecker, Jost, Jalali, Kim, Yang and Johnson all received the historically key stamp of approval from the St. Paul DFL. In the First Ward, where Bowie is running, no candidate was endorsed by the party after delegates walked out of an hourslong convention in the spring.
The group of candidates has also received endorsements from current council members, Mayor Melvin Carter and even one another.
"This is my second time running, and what I really appreciate about this time around is that we have each other's backs," Bowie said. "I'm super excited to go into a council where we can still cultivate that."
That's not to say candidates aren't expecting differences.
"We're not always going to agree — and that's OK," said Johnson, who described herself first as a strong advocate for the East Side. "As long as we respect one another and understand that we're going to have to make decisions that are respectful to our ward and accountable to our people, I think that's going to be in the best interest of the city."
"There's not a single person that's running that thinks exactly the way that I do," she added. "But we have similar values."
Johnson, Jalali and Kim all said housing issues, including a stronger rent stabilization ordinance, are a top priority. Jost, a civil engineer, is especially interested in diving into infrastructure and climate change policy. Yang and Noecker want to push forward the early child care funding proposal that could be posed to voters in 2024. Bowie, who grew up in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, said she wants to establish a cultural arts district and work closely with the city's new reparations commission.
"Also, what works to fill a pothole in St. Paul might not be the most exciting, progressive vision, but it also needs to be done," Noecker said. "So there's also a focus on the basics that I think we can't lose sight of."
With just seven members, she added, it's often not wise to form factions.
Council President Amy Brendmoen, who is stepping down after her third term wraps up at the end of the year, said she'd give the incoming council the same advice.
"I feel like in a strong-mayor system, there is only one way for the council to be strong — and that is working in a united way," Brendmoen said.
While the council is losing a lot of its institutional knowledge, which could slow down action for a while, Brendmoen is optimistic about the future. Her potential successor — Kim — previously served as her council aide.
"You can't set people up to lead and then not give them room to do it," Brendmoen said. "This group will be bringing in the new guard, and I'm excited to watch what they do."