St. Paul's City Council elections are still months away, but Sunday will mark a key moment for this fall's candidates: The city DFL will hold caucuses and conventions to determine who gets the party's endorsement.
All seven council seats are up for election in November and four of those seats are open, with races that don't have incumbents. Four St. Paul school board seats will also be on the ballot.
How much weight does the party's stamp of approval carry in Minnesota's largely liberal capital city? St. Paul DFL Chair Dieu Do said candidates who receive the party's endorsement get support and resources, including coordinated campaign organizing and volunteers to help with phone banking and door knocking.
"It also says something to a city that's widely Democratic — that they align with our values of equity, inclusion, of racial justice and economic and climate justice, and are supportive of the policy priorities that we hold true," said Do, 23, the first woman of color to serve as the city's DFL chair.
Kathy Lantry, a former City Council president who served on the council from 1998 to 2015, said she considered the DFL endorsement "essential" during her campaigns. When she first joined the council, St. Paul's mayor was Norm Coleman, a Republican — a prospect that now seems unlikely with an electorate that gave DFL Gov. Tim Walz 80% of its votes last fall.
"I don't know that the DFL endorsement is as critical as I once thought it was," Lantry said. "It's still important. But now we're all from the same party, basically."
Council President Amy Brendmoen is living proof that a local candidate can get elected without the St. Paul DFL's backing. When she ran for the council's Fifth Ward seat in 2011 and again in 2015, neither Brendmoen nor her opponents mustered the 60% of delegate support needed to receive the endorsement.
Without state or federal offices on the ballot, city elections often draw relatively low turnout, noted Brendmoen, who is not seeking re-election this fall.
"It ends up being so much more about who you connect with at the door and who you can convince," she said. "Because you're talking about street maintenance and plowing and police and housing — stuff that's a lot less partisan. You can get people on both sides of the political fence to support you if they like your position on local municipal issues."
The caucuses remain an important chance for DFLers to vet candidates and learn their stances on issues, especially since the city stopped holding primary elections once it switched to ranked-choice voting, Brendmoen said.
Any St. Paul voter who identifies as a Democrat can attend the caucuses, so the endorsement process at the very least can provide an introduction to those seeking office in their ward.
Connecting with voters
Saura Jost, a 34-year-old engineer and resident of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, is hoping to make new connections with voters Sunday — though she's been reaching out to Third Ward residents by phone for weeks already. When Council Member Chris Tolbert announced late last year that he would not seek another term, Jost swiftly launched her campaign.
Jost has been involved in DFL politics in St. Paul since she served as vice president of the Young Democrats at Central High School. After many years caucusing for other candidates, Jost said she is seeking the endorsement because her values align with the party's.
"I really believe strongly in organizing people together to make change," she said.
The stakes are high. Jost's opponent, Isaac Russell, public policy director at the Center for Economic Inclusion in St. Paul, is also seeking the DFL endorsement. Jost said she plans to honor the party's decision, meaning the April 3 convention could leave the Third Ward with a sole candidate months ahead of Election Day.
In the Second, Fourth and Sixth wards — where Council Members Rebecca Noecker, Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang are seeking re-election without opposition — the St. Paul DFL will hold conventions Sunday immediately following the caucuses.
Even without a challenger, Jalali said she's been gearing up for the caucuses for weeks by reaching out to people in the Fourth Ward — particularly new residents, renters, young voters and people of color.
"Conventions are a chance to have those conversations with all those people, bring new people into politics and talk about issues important to us. I think the best campaigns take responsibility and bring new people to the process," Jalali said. "With this year's candidate field, I really think that it's going to be a different ballgame than it has been — and I think that's great and exciting."
St. Paul DFL precinct caucuses
All caucuses begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, with registration starting at 12:30 p.m. Uncontested wards will hold conventions immediately after the caucuses.
First Ward: Capitol Hill Magnet School, 560 Concordia Av.
Second Ward: Humboldt High School, 30 Baker St. E.
Third Ward: Highland Park High School, 1015 Snelling Av. S.
Fourth Ward: Murray Middle School, 2200 Buford Av.
Fifth Ward: Washington Technology Magnet School, 1495 Rice St.
Sixth Ward: Hazel Park Preparatory Academy, 1140 White Bear Av. N.
Seventh Ward: Harding High School, 1540 E. 6th St.