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Dai Thao, Nelsie Yang win St. Paul City Council races after Round 2 of vote count

Twin Cities Pioneer Press logo Twin Cities Pioneer Press 11/8/2019 Frederick Melo
Sherri Nesseth, center, an elections administrator with Ramsey County elections shows everybody that unused ballot are in plastic packaging that hasn't been opened at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 and Ward 6 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. In both wards there was not a winner with a majority of votes and so a tabulation is done to determine the winners at Ramsey County Elections.  (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press) © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media Sherri Nesseth, center, an elections administrator with Ramsey County elections shows everybody that unused ballot are in plastic packaging that hasn't been opened at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 and Ward 6 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. In both wards there was not a winner with a majority of votes and so a tabulation is done to determine the winners at Ramsey County Elections. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)
  • a group of people standing in a room © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Ramsey County Election Head Judge Rick Winters, right, holds up a ballot when asked by observers Austin Blanch, left, an Anika Bowie supporter, and Joelle Stangler, a Dai Thao supporter, at the reallocation of ballots for Ward 1 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • Sujitha et al. standing in a room © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Nelsie Yang gets a hug from a supporter when she arrives at the reallocation of ballots at the Plato Conference Center. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a person standing in front of a box © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Joshua Kiley and others with Ramsey County Elections wheeled in approximately ballots Friday morning. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Sherri Nesseth, center, an elections administrator with Ramsey County elections, shows everybody that unused ballots are in plastic packaging that hasn't been opened. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    In the first round, ballots are put in a spot for each candidate at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. Dai Thao's stack, second from left, and Anika Bowie's stack, right, are fairly close. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a person holding a pair of people posing for the camera © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Amanda Murr, an elections administrator with Ramsey County, holds a ballot for observers to see. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a man holding a guitar © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Austin Blanch, left, an Anika Bowie supporter, and Joelle Stangler, a Dai Thao supporter, carefully observe each ballot. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a person cutting a cake © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Ramsey County Election Head Judge Rick Winters, center, sees that ballots get into the right pile. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a group of people standing in a room © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    St. Paul City Council candidates Terri Thao, left, and Nelsie Yang, center, wait for the reallocation of ballots. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a group of people standing around a table © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Alexander Bourne, right, Ward 6 candidate for St. Paul City Council, stands by the ballot table. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

  • a group of people sitting in a room © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media

    Alexander Bourne, right, a candidate in Ward 6, visits with candidates Nelsie Yang, center, and Kassim Busuri, second from left, at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 and Ward 6 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

Buoyed by a series of powerful labor organizations, TakeAction Minnesota organizer Nelsie Yang defeated five fellow candidates on Friday to win the open seat on the St. Paul City Council representing Payne-Phalen and the Greater East Side.

The Ward 6 seat had been left vacant since the early retirement of Council Member Dan Bostrom nearly a year ago. Bostrom was the longest-serving council member when he resigned in December at age 78.

Council Member Dai Thao also won re-election in Ward 1. The ward spans the Frogtown and Summit-University areas, as well as parts of adjoining neighborhoods.

Yang, 24, is believed to be the youngest person ever elected to the City Council, as well as the first Hmong woman, and the first woman of color representing Ward 6.

“I won’t be the last,” said Yang, who spent most of Friday at the Ramsey County elections office observing an exhaustive hand count of ranked-choice ballots.

Along with Council Member Mitra Nelson, a Yang supporter, she’ll be one of two home renters on the council, which has traditionally been dominated by single-family homeowners. As of her swearing-in on Jan. 7, the council will consist of five women and two men. Three of the seven members will be people of color.

Yang credited her success to “making my race about people — it was never about me. That’s my secret.”

Neither Yang nor second-place vote-getter Terri Thao were able to secure the influential St. Paul DFL endorsement this year, but Yang relied on a liberal network that included TakeAction, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, AFSCME Council 5 and SEIU, as well as WomenWinning, OutFront Minnesota Action and Our Revolution.

In Ward 1, Dai Thao, who held the DFL nomination, won re-election on Friday by little more than 300 votes over fifth-generation Rondo advocate Anika Bowie, a 27-year-old first-time candidate who ran without funding or endorsements from organized labor, the St. Paul DFL or other major political institutions.

Neither Thao nor Bowie appeared in person at the daylong ballot count. Thao, 44, was first elected in 2013 to the seat previously held by Mayor Melvin Carter.

“I’m humbled and honored to serve the people of Ward 1 again,” Thao said in a written statement after the final vote tally. “The message is clear: the people of Ward 1 want progress for all of us, regardless of one’s race, culture, gender and neighborhood. Our diversity is our strength, and I will continue to work tirelessly to unite us and secure more investments in our neighborhoods, parks, streets and communities.”

Results from the ranked-choice competitions were expected to be posted Friday evening at RCelections.org under the tab marked “Ranked Voting.”

BEATING 50 PERCENT REQUIRED

Flanked by observers from as many as 10 separate political campaigns, Ramsey County Elections officials on Friday spent nearly eight hours sorting and hand-counting ballots in the city council races. Five incumbents were re-elected to the council on Tuesday, but no one in the four-way Ward 1 contest or the six-way Ward 6 contest initially surpassed the 50 percent threshold needed to command the win on Election Day.

On Election Night, Dai Thao led with 42 percent of the vote, followed by Bowie, who held 30 percent of the vote. Ramsey County domestic violence prevention advocate Liz De La Torre received 19 percent of the vote and Abu Nayeem, the self-styled superhero known as the “Frogtown Crusader,” came in with 8 percent. No one met the threshold of 3,309 votes.

On Friday, county elections staffers surrounded by city, county, media and campaign observers combed through the ballots of the weakest vote-getter (Nayeem) and identified the second-choice votes on his ballots. They then redistributed those ballots to the other candidates accordingly, and did the same with De La Torre’s ballots.

By 4:30 p.m., Thao had received 2,797 first-choice votes and 514 second- or third-choice votes, for a total of 3,311 votes. Bowie ended with a total of 2,921 ballots.

“We have something to be proud of, we ran this marathon together,” said Bowie to supporters via social media. “Grassroots level organizing still has its place in the movement for political and social change.”

In the first round, ballots are put in a spot for each candidate at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. Dai Thao’s stack, second from left, and Anika Bowie’s stack, right, are fairly close. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press) © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media In the first round, ballots are put in a spot for each candidate at the reallocation of ballots in Ward 1 Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, at the Plato Conference Center in St. Paul. Dai Thao’s stack, second from left, and Anika Bowie’s stack, right, are fairly close. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

On Tuesday evening, Yang led the Ward 6 race with 44 percent of the vote. Former Planning Commission member Terri Thao received 27 percent of the vote; Republican activist Greg Copeland held 12 percent; interim Council Member Kassim Busuri had 7 percent; Alexander Bourne had 5 percent; and community organizer Danielle Swift had 4 percent.

On Friday, Yang’s vote total rose from 2,531 to 2,863, surpassing the requisite threshold of 2,855. Terri Thao’s totals rose from 1,585 to 1,944. Both women had declared their candidacies more than a year ago.

“I’ll finally get some laundry done,” joked Thao after thanking her supporters on Facebook. “I wish the Council Member-Elect Nelsie Yang lots of luck moving forward.”

28 CANDIDATES — NO SURPRISES?

St. Paul voters approved ranked-choice, or “instant run-off,” voting for City Council and mayoral elections in a 2009 ballot referendum, thereby eliminating traditional political primaries. St. Paul school board elections are still determined through a traditional voting means, though the school board has also chosen to eliminate political primaries, opening up the ballot to virtually any candidate.

It appears unlikely that the ranked-choice voting system delivered a different victor in any of the council races than would have emerged under the traditional voting method, but the 28 council candidates who flocked to the seven ward races were the most diverse in the city’s history, racially and politically.

They included a Libertarian organizer, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, at least nine women of color, a transgender combat veteran and several candidates under age 30.

“You had for the first time an open race in Ward 6,” said FairVote Minnesota executive director Jeanne Massey. “It matters — the value of an open system that values representation. Under the old system, it would have been Terri and Nelsie from the August primary onward.”

The cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park also host ranked-choice municipal elections. The system has been proposed and remains under discussion in Bloomington, Minnetonka, Rochester and Red Wing.

On Tuesday, voters in New York City went to the polls and adopted the voting method by ballot referendum, as well. In 2015, Duluth voters rejected the effort by ballot referendum.

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