Chris Tobolt, Ward 3 St. Paul City Council member, gives a victory speech at election part at the Urban Growler Brewing Company after winning an uncontested re-election in St. Paul on Tuesday, November 3, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
Rebecca Noecker held a tight lead late Tuesday night over Darren Tobolt, and both were running well ahead of four other candidates for the Ward 2 seat on the St. Paul City Council.
Final results in the Ward 2 race will not be known for several days, when ranked-choice ballots are tallied.
Meanwhile, incumbent council members Amy Brendmoen, Russ Stark, Dai Thao, Dan Bostrom and Chris Tolbert scored victories over their challengers.
What's clear is that come 2016, two new members will join the city council, and the switch-up could create a few complications for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Even challengers who were not projected to unseat DFL-backed incumbents on election night forced tough questions in council races that felt like referendums on the mayor's priorities. Several races appeared more politically charged and personal than four years ago, though with two council seats uncontested, citywide voter turnout was expected to be light.
In the run-up to Tuesday's election, a series of candidates claimed that the seven-member council had failed to hold the mayor's office accountable on key issues, from proposed parking meters on Grand Avenue to property tax exemptions for a Major League Soccer stadium.
"I want to work with the administration," said land-use attorney Jane Prince, a stadium critic who ran unopposed for the Ward 7 council seat. "But I won't be afraid to disagree or try to craft compromises where we disagree."
In the final weeks before the election, Prince aligned herself with a new political coalition, St. Paul Strong, which has criticized the mayor's office for what its members deem a lack of transparency.
Some observers said the council races represented a referendum on urbanization, with voters asked to choose between preserving St. Paul's almost provincial neighborhoods or adding new infrastructure, such as streetcars, parking meters, stadiums and in-street bike lanes.
"I think St. Paul is at a turning point, where the local election will decide whether we continue changing and becoming more urban, or attempt to put a halt on things like increasing transit," said blogger William Lindeke, a member of the city's Planning Commission, in an online post at tcsidewalks.blogspot.com. "Do we want to be more like Minneapolis, or more like Lake Elmo?"
Stark, the council president, shared similar sentiments during a post-election DFL gathering at the Urban Growler microbrewery Tuesday night. "People may not be used to change," he said. "Not everyone's going to be happy."
In the Ward 2 race, Ramsey County election judges will begin their ballot hand count on Monday at the county government center on Plato Boulevard, where the weakest vote-getters' ballots will be reallocated based on second-choice votes. Under St. Paul's ranked-choice voting system, a candidate must have more than 50 percent of the vote to win election.
THE RACES BY WARD
In Ward 1, council member Dai Thao, who carried the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement, held 84 percent of the vote, with all 16 precincts reporting Tuesday.
He faced Green Party candidate Trahern Crews, who had 14 percent of the vote. Results for write-in candidate Mohamed Said were not available, but write-ins represented 2 percent.
Crews, a spokesman for the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Paul, had been critical of the mayor's efforts to situate a Major League Soccer stadium on tax-free land in the Midway. He also had advocated for independent investigations into any police shooting resulting in death.
Six candidates appeared on the ballot in Ward 2, where no one was able to clinch the DFL Party endorsement in February. With all 15 precincts reporting, projected frontrunners Noecker held 42 percent of the vote and Tobolt held about 39 percent.
They were followed by Bill Hosko (15 percent), Pat Fearing (2 percent), Sharon Anderson (2 percent) and Michael C. Johnson (1 percent).
On Monday, election judges will determine the weakest vote-getter in the race and tally up the second-choice votes on their ballots. Those votes will be "released" to the other five candidates, creating new vote totals.
If no one breaks 50 percent of the vote after the new totals are counted, the process will be repeated using the next candidate's ballots, and so forth.
Noecker had positioned herself as a critic of the mayor's administration, forcing Tobolt, the former chair of the St. Paul DFL, to respond to the contention that he was too embedded in the establishment. Tobolt had called himself the more politically experienced candidate.
Labor unions had lined up behind both Tobolt and Noecker, intensifying the rhetoric through critical mailers funded by the AFL-CIO and the St. Paul Police Federation, respectively.
"Between Tobolt and Noecker, I can't believe how many phone calls I've gotten, how much mail I've taken," said Summit Hill resident Gerry Landy, a Tobolt supporter, before voting at Summit Church on Tuesday.
The other four candidates had come out more strongly against the mayor's proposal to install parking meters along Grand Avenue next spring. The mayor last week declared the meter proposal dead.
In Ward 3, council member Chris Tolbert was unopposed on the ballot for re-election to his second term. He held 92 percent of the vote, with all 14 precincts reporting.
Grand Avenue tax preparer Chad Skally declared himself a write-in candidate a week ago. Write-in ballots accounted for 8 percent of the vote.
In Ward 4, Stark defeated Tom Goldstein, an outspoken critic of the Coleman administration, 61 percent to 38 percent, with all 15 precincts reporting.
Goldstein had assailed Stark for supporting property tax exemptions for the Major League Soccer stadium, the Green Line light-rail line and CHS Field in Lowertown, which cost more money to complete than projected.
Stark said the soccer stadium is expected to replace blighted land and move forward alongside a badly needed redevelopment of the neighboring Midway Shopping Center.
In Ward 5, Brendmoen held 56 percent of the vote, with all 10 precincts reporting. She defeated former Como Lake coffee shop owner David Glass (38 percent) and Independence Party candidate David Sullivan-Nightengale (5 percent).
Glass, who has also been critical of City Hall, had accused Brendmoen of playing a lead role in the city's decision to sever its lease with his cafe, Black Bear Crossings on the Lake, a claim Brendmoen denied. The cafe was replaced this year with the more upscale Como Dockside restaurant and bar.
Neither Brendmoen nor Glass were able to clinch the DFL endorsement in February.
In Ward 6, council member Dan Bostrom, the DFL-endorsed candidate, received 74 percent of the vote, with all 13 precincts reporting. He faced substitute teacher Ed Davis (14 percent) and Libertarian candidate Kevin Bradley (12 percent).
In Ward 7, which is located on the East Side, Prince received 95 percent of the vote over write-in ballots. She ran unopposed for the council seat vacated by former council President Kathy Lantry.
Prince appears ready to be a more vocal critic of Coleman's policies than her predecessor. She has expressed concern about the public subsidies that St. Paul uses to draw developers and new employers to the city.
She said this week that she supports St. Paul housing the MLS team but disagrees with offering Minnesota United FC a permanent property tax exemption. Prince won the DFL endorsement in February.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.