Central Corridor a key issue in race for St. Paul district seatby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — There's construction work going on already in St. Paul for the Central Corridor light rail line, which is supposed to run for two miles through the middle of District 65A.
The trains won't run until 2014, but construction of the line is already a key issue in the legislative race playing out here. DFL state Rep. Cy Thao is retiring, and the District 65A seat is open.
Jeremiah Ellis started running against Thao even before the DFLer announced he wouldn't seek re-election
Ellis, 29, is a St. Paul School District administrator and former Congressional staffer. He lives near the intersection of Victoria and University, one of the stops on the light rail line, which he welcomes.
"I think that brings a lot of opportunity for economic development for our district and I've been supportive of the jobs it's going to bring," Ellis said. "But it's also going to take that kind of partnership to make sure that we do it right here for our neighborhood, so that we're not running up against some of the challenges that my great grandfather had when the construction of 94 went in."
Ellis's great-grandfather lost his Rondo neighborhood tavern to the freeway. Businesses and employers along the light rail route fear they won't survive tearing up the street to put in rails.
Ellis said he's plugged into the political and neighborhood network that helped make accommodations already, like adding the train stop on Victoria.
Running against him is Rena Moran, 50, a mother of seven who works at Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota.
Like Ellis, Moran lives a short walk from the line. Moran has taken a more aggressive approach to the project; she was one of a group of neighborhood activists who sued the Met Council over light rail. Moran said it's what happens after the trains begin rolling in that she's worried about -- that gentrification will drive away the people that construction didn't.
She said she's more sensitive than most to housing issues. When she came to the Twin Cities 10 years ago from Chicago, Moran and her kids were homeless. She said the experience taught her how to stay focused and get ahead.
"As a progressive, and as a community leader, and as one who has the life experience of many of the residents in my community, for me, the next step was the opportunity to ensure that a community like District 65A had a voice at the Capitol," Moran said.
Moran said it's time that lawmakers talked with people like her, rather than just about them.
But the candidates aren't the only defining feature of the 65A ballot this year.
The race is also pitting the St. Paul-based liberal action group Take Action Minnesota against the city's ruling DFL party. Traditionally the DFL and Take Action back the same candidate, but now they're at odds.
Moran is a veteran Take Action activist and has the group's backing. Ellis has the DFL endorsement, and the support of Mayor Chris Coleman.
Take Action executive director Dan McGrath said his organization thinks the DFL just isn't doing enough.
"Any political party in this day and age, their focus becomes 'how do we get our candidates elected?' McGrath said. "What we're saying is 'that's great, that's important, but our vision for Minnesota stretches beyond just who's in office. It's also how they're behaving and what's it going to take to make the change happen.'"
But some party activists say the DFL has always been a fractious coalition, and that Take Action is nothing new. Attorney and former St. Paul party chair Stuart Alger also points to strong Green Party showings in the 2003 city council election and the 2005 mayoral race.
"I don't think there's anything new about what we've witnessed in the last 10 years," Alger said. "I think that's part of a political dynamic that's long been going on, and we're going to see more of in the future."
But the 65A race may be different. By last month, Moran had raised more funds than the endorsed DFL candidate by nearly 40 percent, and reported having $10,000 on hand in mid-July, more than three times what Ellis had to spend. Moran said its proof of her grass roots strength. Ellis said the party endorsement shows he's got the political savvy to help the district.
The winner will face Republican Paul Holmgren, but is likely to win in November in the heavily DFL district.