After feeling somewhat despondent after the 2016 election, I decided to focus on local politics. I couldn’t do much about things at the national level, but I thought maybe I could make a difference at the local level.
I wasn’t alone.
An army of volunteers and supporters came forward, and together we worked for change. People tried to join city committees, we supported a local trail, put on a bike rodeo—we got involved.
Then the sexism controversy exploded and West St. Paul made national news. And not in a good way.
People were already starting to pay attention, but that issue galvanized people like never before. A progressive advocacy group, Women of West St. Paul formed, and they organized voter registration efforts, rides to the polls, and multiple candidate forums.
On April 23, 2018, West St. Paul’s first female mayor, Jenny Halverson, expressed frustration at what she saw as sexism, and declared, “This will not be forgotten, folks.”
On Nov. 6, 2018, it was not forgotten.
Progressive candidates who supported Halverson all won by wide margins:
- John Justen beat Jim Probst by 13 points.
- Wendy Berry beat former mayor David Meisinger by 17 points.
- Dave Napier beat Anthony Fernandez by 25 points, which is one of the larger spreads in recent mayoral races (topped only by John Zanmiller’s 2010 victory by 36 points over activist Mary Jane Duchene).
I think a few things contributed to these impressive wins…
Surprise, surprise: Women aren’t too happy about being mistreated and harassed. They packed the city council chambers, they organized, the showed up.
The three winning candidates backed Mayor Halverson, called out sexism, and pledged to bring decorum back to the city council.
All three losing candidates didn’t do so well on the issue:
- Fernandez sparked the whole thing, changed his story on it, and denied sexism even happened.
- Meisinger denied sexism happened, called a woman the c-word, and intimidated a woman in a grocery store.
- Probst took four months to make a public statement about the controversy, and then it was vague.
For women wanting to get involved in the future, you can volunteer for committees or consider running for office. In West St. Paul the filing period will open in late May 2020 (only 18 months away).
The three winning candidates all talked about positive momentum in West St. Paul. They had the guts to say the smooth and shiny Robert Street project was a good thing and that it’s working. They pointed to the growing number of new businesses on Robert Street (and elsewhere) and said we’re getting there, let’s keep going.
Residents agreed, not only voting for these three, but also voting for the sales tax by a wide margin. If things weren’t looking good in West St. Paul, I don’t think residents would have voted for another tax.
“West St. Paul is a great city in the midst of positive change and I felt like it was important to remind people about that.” -Wendy Berry (South West Review)
The three losing candidates had a less than rosy view on how things were going. Probst and Meisinger both gave inaccurate tax numbers to make our budgets sound worse than they are, while Fernandez claimed Robert Street was a bad idea.
Oh, and while the rest of us were standing in line at the Jersey Mike’s opening, Meisinger claimed development on Robert Street had stalled.
Finally, I think these results had a lot to do with community engagement.
“It really is important to bring people together, bring the community together, bring the council together and develop some common goals.” -Dave Napier (South West Review)
Wendy Berry announced her campaign in the midst of 150 people packing city hall.
“It was about building a community.” -Wendy Berry (South West Review)
We had candidate forums for individual races, which means we got to hear a lot from our candidates (31 questions in the mayoral forum vs. 7 questions in the all-candidate forum). Thank you League of Women Voters and Women of West St. Paul.
Our three winning candidates all hosted meet and greets and volunteer events, building a grassroots momentum that delivered.
One of the losing candidates skipped out on multiple candidate forums.
Two of the losing candidates had zero online presence. One of them was verifying residency before answering questions over email.
You have to engage with the community.
It’s been a long campaign here in West St. Paul. We knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of people and showed up time and time again.
We said yes to forward momentum. We said no to a bully.
Thank you to our candidates for stepping up to run. Thank you to the volunteers for stepping up to help. Thank you to the voters for coming out.