No matter who wins the DFL primary contest in House District 65A, history will almost certainly be made. The victor – either Jeremiah Ellis or Rena Moran — will stand poised to become the first African American ever to represent St. Paul in the Legislature.
“It’s time and it’s needed,” said Johnny Howard, a veteran community activist in the Frogtown neighborhood, which is part of the district. “Race plays a role in everything — whether we want it to or not.”
The seat is open owing to the retirement of four-term DFL Rep. Cy Thao, who became the first person of Hmong descent to serve in the House when he was elected in 2002. Initially there were four DFL challengers for the post, but Ellis emerged from the endorsing convention in March with the party’s official support. Moran, however, announced prior to the convention that she intended to run in the primary.
While Ellis is the DFL-endorsed candidate, Moran has also picked up a broad base of organizational support. TakeAction Minnesota, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, the Somali Democratic Alliance and WomenWinning are all backing her campaign.
The winner will face perennial Republican candidate Paul Holmgren in the general election. Holmgren has run in each of the last three election cycles, never garnering more than 21 percent of the vote in the strongly Democratic district.
The central St. Paul district is among the most diverse in the state, with minorities constituting two-thirds of the population at the time of the 2000 census. It’s also among the poorest: Barely a quarter of households make more than $50,000 annually. Crime, jobs and the housing crisis are issues of paramount importance. The looming arrival of light rail along University Avenue is also on the minds of many voters. “You’ve got people from all walks of life and all different incomes,” said Howard, who is backing Moran.
There’s little difference between the candidates ideologically. Both are likely to be reliably liberal votes if they make it to the Capitol. But their backstories differ significantly.
Ellis’ roots in the district run deep. His great grandfather ran the Booker T. Café & Tavern in the old Rondo neighborhood, which was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94. The 29-year-old cut his teeth working in U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s St. Paul office. More recently, he’s worked for the St. Paul Public Schools, both in the district headquarters and at Maxfield Magnet school.
“I’m genuinely committed to this district,” said Ellis. “I’m not a fly-by-night. I will be here.”
John Brodrick, a member of the St. Paul School Board who lives in the district, says he was impressed by Ellis’ intelligence and work ethic. “I’m very, very happy that we have two strong DFLers running in this primary,” Brodrick said, “but my choice is absolutely Jeremiah because of my personal connection with him and the fact that I had the opportunity to see him in action.”
Moran, by contrast, arrived in the Twin Cities a decade ago with six of her seven kids in tow. She had no job and no place to stay. The family initially lived at a Minneapolis homeless shelter.
Moran initially found a job at Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America. She subsequently became an organizer with Urban Embassy, a group that seeks to encourage African Americans to get involved in politics. Currently she’s the parent leader coordinator with Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota and serves on the board of the Summit-University Planning Council.
Moran argues that her personal encounter with homelessness will allow her to bring a unique perspective to issues at the Capitol. “I see government as having a place in people’s lives,” she said. “When people are down and out, government is there to help sustain them and get them back to a place where they can be self-sufficient.”
Patrick Ness, Moran’s campaign manager, initially met her a decade ago when she was still living at the homeless shelter. “We believe that Jeremiah is a good candidate,” Ness said. “We believe that Rena is an extraordinary candidate. We don’t get the chance very often to vote for people like Rena Moran. We feel like she could be a statewide leader on issues that district residents face every day.”