St. Paul elections: The protest vote, this time around

By Lori Sturdevant , Star Tribune
October 30, 2015

Tuesday is Election Day in 28 Minnesota municipalities, by the secretary of state’s count. St. Paul is but one of them. But for me, the state’s capital city has given this political year its signature image: a room full of unhappy citizens waving placards protesting a mayoral recommendation and complaining to said mayor, “You’re not listening to us!”

That’s been the scene at three gatherings, the most recent on Oct. 19 at William Mitchell College of Law, where locals turned out in force to give Mayor Chris Coleman what-for for his recommendation that parking meters be installed on the east end of Grand Avenue. No pitchforks or buckets of tar were visible in the coverage I saw. But the scowls on the assembled faces suggested that employing those time-honored tools of political persuasion had crossed a mind or two — and that Coleman, now serving his 10th year as mayor, is fortunate not to be on the ballot this year.

Casting parking meters as emblems of a voracious big government devouring the local retail economy and quality of life seems more than a mite over the top. Nevertheless, that tactic appears to have succeeded. Support for Coleman’s proposal evaporated last week on the City Council.

I’ll leave the merits of the meter fight to another day and space. What sticks with me are the “you’re not listening” refrain and the angry mood that accompanied it. Here’s a sample from meeting two on Oct. 11, courtesy of the Pioneer Press: “Jon Perrone, executive director of the Grand Avenue Business Association, said even if parking meters were the right decision for the street, ‘what’s wrong is how the decision was made, who made it and the community that was left out of the process.’ He said the city pushed the proposal without input from a neighborhood that’s overwhelmingly against the meters.”

That’s a facsimile of the complaint heard repeatedly this year from non-incumbent St. Paul candidates who came seeking this newspaper’s endorsement. Incumbents’ failure to consult and listen to teachers and parents was the litany from four non-incumbent, DFL-endorsed candidates for the St. Paul Board of Education. Their “Caucus for Change” galvanized that complaint into a political force potent enough to deny three sitting school board members their party’s backing. That was enough to end the school board careers of two of them, board chair Mary Doran and treasurer Anne Carroll; the third, Keith Hardy, is on Tuesday’s ballot without party blessing.

“They don’t listen” also pretty much sums up the critique challengers have mounted to City Council incumbents Russ Stark in the Fourth Ward, Amy Brendmoen in the Fifth and Dan Bostrom in the Sixth. Bostrom challenger and Libertarian candidate Kevin Bradley, an interfaith chaplain and counselor, went so far as to call himself a “professional listener” in describing his qualifications for office.

I’m prone to doubting the sincerity of complaints that politicians tune out voter opinion. “They don’t listen” can be a Minnesota Nice way to say “I didn’t get my way.” In a representative democracy, one doesn’t always get one’s way. That’s a reality that appears hard for dwellers in an on-demand, instant-gratification society to accept.

But I don’t underestimate the political punch packed by claims that officeholders aren’t listening. Congressional challengers wouldn’t routinely accuse incumbents of being “out of touch” if that line of attack didn’t work. The late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar’s defeat in 2010 attests to its effectiveness.

So does the surprisingly strong appeal this year of non-establishment presidential contenders in both major parties. Supporters of both Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right seem drawn to the argument that conventional candidates aren’t heeding average Americans’ views. Those candidacies may be beginning to wane. But the dissatisfaction they’ve tapped is likely still there, ready to be a factor in the 2016 election.

Maybe the fact that average Americans now carry World Wide Web megaphones in their pockets makes them feel entitled to more consultation with their elected officials than government processes designed in the 18th and 19th centuries allow, I mused to Fourth Ward challenger Tom Goldstein, an attorney and former member of the St. Paul school board.

Goldstein would have none of my social-media theories. The story in St. Paul is simpler, he said. “A lot of people in government get paid well with our tax dollars. We deserve to have excellent customer service. Under Mayor Coleman, customer service has been thrown out the window,” he complained.

He tars both the mayor and Stark, his council opponent, with his “not listening” brush. Parking meters on Grand Avenue, the CHS Field in Lowertown and a proposed Major League Soccer stadium at Snelling and University Avenues are all moves by city officials who aren’t attuned to their constituents, he charged. People in St. Paul don’t want more tax-subsidized development, he said. They want potholes filled and their alleys plowed.

That’s not just his opinion, he added. It’s what he’s heard while knocking on 6,000 doors this campaign season. “The general feeling is, nobody’s listening,” he said.

The demise of the Grand Avenue parking proposal last week could alter that feeling in St. Paul. Clearly, this time, City Hall listened.

But around the country, decades of stagnant middle-class incomes, government gridlock and underperforming public services have plenty of Americans feeling unheard and unheeded by government, at all levels. That’s the general feeling that boils down to “nobody’s listening.” It threatens to boil over in the 2016 election.