When Kathy Lantry’s mom was growing up in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul in the 1940s, the Sacred Heart Church held Masses in both English and German. Today the Roman Catholic parish still conducts Mass in a pair of languages, but the non-English service has changed to Spanish.
This change is a reflection of how dramatically the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood has changed in recent decades while nonethless retaining its core identity. Mexican, Hmong and Somali residents may have replaced their Scandinavian and German predecessors, but the area remains a haven for immigrants.
“There are lots of things that have changed, yet in so many ways it’s stayed exactly the same,” noted Lantry, the St. Paul City Council president, who represents the area. “The country of origin for immigrants has changed, but that’s it.”
The field of challengers for the state Senate seat in District 67 — a post occupied by Lantry’s mom, Marilyn, in the 80s — also reflects the new demographic reality of St. Paul’s East Side. Of the nine DFL candidates currently running in the primary contest, only two are white. The crowded field of contenders are vying to replace retiring state Sen. Mee Moua, who became the first person of Hmong origin in the country to be elected to a state legislature when she won a special election in 2002. Whoever survives the DFL primary will square off against Republican and Independence Party challengers in the general election.
It’s a sprawling district (at least by urban standards) that also includes the Payne-Phalen, Battle Creek and Highwood Hills neighborhoods. The district leans strongly Democratic, but with a more conservative bent than most other Twin Cities districts. Moua’s two predecessors in the post, for instance, Lantry and Randy Kelly, were both consistent pro-life votes. The district also has a pronounced working-class bent, with nearly half of households reporting annual incomes of less than $35,000 during the 2000 census. The grim economy is foremost on residents’ minds, followed by the foreclosure crisis and crime.
“The East Side, in particular, has been hit by high unemployment, which has had a ripple effect,” said Jim McGowan, one of the DFLers vying for the Senate seat. “They’ve lost their jobs, but they’re also losing their homes.”
Because Moua didn’t announce her retirement until the final day of the legislative session, it left less than a month for candidates to jump into the race. The compressed election schedule also was a major factor in the local DFL Party’s decision not to hold an endorsing convention. Most other interest groups that typically seek to sway elections have also chosen to take a pass on the race, at least until after the primary. The Minnesota Nurses Association and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, for instance, both sent out questionnaires to the candidates, but opted not to immediately endorse. The area’s two DFL state representatives, Sheldon Johnson and Tim Mahoney, have also decided not to publicly back any candidate prior to the primary.
The upshot is that very few district residents have much of a grip on the nine-candidate field. “I’m not a big-time name,” acknowledged Cha Yang, who works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is one of four Hmong candidates in the contest. “I think the main thing is going to come down to getting the word out there.”
Compounding the lack of political awareness is this year’s strange political calendar. For the first time in the state’s history, the primary will take place in August, well before most Minnesotans have turned their attention from fishing poles to politics.
“There are just a bunch of different things that contributed to a very odd process,” said Lantry, the city council president. “The general public is going to have a very difficult time.”
One door at a time
Avi Viswanathan has his 30-second stump speech down cold. “My name is Avi and I’m running for the state Senate here in the district,” he began on a recent weekday afternoon, as a wary resident peered out from the front door of a house on East Fifth Street. Viswanathan then quickly mentions that his in-laws founded the Swede Hollow Café, a social institution in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, and that he previously worked on criminal justice issues in U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s office. In the end, he gets a noncommittal response: “We’ll keep you in mind,” the man says.
At other doors the response is less promising. One woman is moving out of the district prior to the August 10 primary. Another man doesn’t speak enough English to carry on a conversation. And Viswanathan’s pitch to an elderly woman is pretty much drowned out by her incessantly yapping dogs.
So it goes in the search for votes in Senate District 67. Viswanathan’s garnered some significant endorsements, including Lantry and Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who represents a small slice of the Senate district. He’s also earned the backing of NARAL Pro Choice America and Stonewall DFL, the party’s gay and lesbian caucus. But most residents don’t have a clue who he — or just about any of the other challengers in the field — is with barely a month left before the primary.
“Any time I get time, I’m out door-knocking,” Viswanathan said. “I need to be introducing myself to the voters.”
There is one well-known contender in the contest: retired St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington. With three decades on the police force, including the last six as the city’s top cop, Harrington has been a fixture in newspaper stories and TV news broadcasts. In addition, his tenure as chief largely drew strong reviews from both police insiders and community activists. Harrington’s been endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, as well as Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer.
But the former chief acknowledges that the transition from cop to pol has been difficult. Harrington says it was easier to seek out donations to build a new recreation center than it is to solicit funds for his own campaign. “I’m so new at this that it’s all still a little baffling,” he noted. “I’m learning a ton about what it takes to run a campaign.”
One detail that could trip Harrington up is his flirtation with the Republican Party . In the past, he’s publicly declared himself a “Buddhist Republican.” But Harrington insists that the line was designed to draw chuckles more than illuminate his political and spiritual leanings. “I feel very comfortable that, for my first time really getting into serious party politics, this is where I belong,” he said of the DFL Party. “That’s where I feel comfortable. That’s where my values lead me to be.”
Other challengers have deeper DFL ties. Foung Hawj helped found the Hmong-American DFL caucus more than a decade ago and made a documentary film about Moua’s initial Senate campaign. He also spent five years as the information systems manager at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and currently runs a multimedia consulting firm. Hawj boasts support from retiring state Rep. Cy Thao and St. Paul City Council member Lee Helgen.
His campaign has its volunteer center on Johnson Parkway in the northern half of the district, and its headquarters on Suburban Avenue in the southern half of the district. “I have to be strategic,” Hawj noted. “I have to be in 67A and 67B. I care so much I’m willing to invest in both locations.”
Trayshana Thomas touts her resume, including stints working for both U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and state Sen. Linda Higgins. “I am the only candidate who’s got both federal and state legislative experience,” Thomas said. “None of the other candidates have that. What I bring to the state Capitol is experience, someone who knows the ropes.”
*McGowan also cites his Capitol bona fides as a prime reason why voters should back his candidacy. As volunteer chair of government affairs and advocacy for the American Diabetes Association’s Minnesota chapter, he’s lobbied for changes to state laws to improve medical care. In particular, he helped push through legislation that required insurance companies to cover any services recommended by the American Diabetes Association. “The Minnesota legislation served as a model that has now been passed in 46 other state across the country,” McGowan said. “Because of what we did, it has really changed the lives of million of people around the country.”
Vang Lor has been active with TakeAction Minnesota’s Hmong Organizing Program. In particular, he chaired a successful drive to incorporate Hmong history and geography into the curriculum of the St. Paul Public Schools. The Hmong Organizing Program has also lobbied to extend veteran’s benefits to Hmong soldiers who fought on the side of the U.S. during the Vietnam war.
The political melee in Senate District 67 is believed to be the second-largest legislative primary field in modern state history. (The record: Current state Rep. Matt Dean survived a 10-candidate GOP primary in a special election in 2003, only to lose in the general election.) It’s also not entirely surprising given the unique wrinkles of the St. Paul contest. “That’s what happens when you have an open seat — and when you have an open seat with absolutely no vetting,” said Lantry. “Open seats always generate a ton of interest.”
*The description of Jim McGowan’s work at the Capitol has been changed to fix a reporting error.