Sixty-seven years after the first woman was elected to the St. Paul City Council, history was again made Tuesday in Minnesota’s capital city when an all-female council, all aged under 40, took the oath of office with hundreds packed into the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts to witness the momentous occasion which was emceed by the city’s mayor.
Councilmembers Rebecca Noecker (Ward 2), Mitra Jalali (Ward 4) and Nelsie Yang (Ward 6) are incumbents that easily won reelection in November. The new councilmembers joining them to round up the seven-member council are; Anika Bowie (Ward 1), Saura Jost (Ward 3), Hwa Jeong Kim (Ward 5) and Cheniqua Johnson (Ward 7). The four new members won in November where there was no incumbent contesting.
Six of the seven council members are people of color and all are under the age of 40.
The swearing-in ceremony, which Mayor Melvin Carter described as the start of a “new chapter” that will require “collaboration and compassion”, also provided incoming council president Mitra Jalali an opportunity to reiterate the new council’s priorities for the next four years: plans to increase investments in housing and home ownership, increased protections for renters in a city where a majority of its residents are renters, a ceasefire in Gaza and efforts to address climate change.
“Our work at City Hall is not only to ensure amazing city services,” Jalali said. “This historic council was sent to do historic work, to play our part in rectifying the past wrongs that still impact our community.”
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan was the highest-ranking state official at the ceremony. She made history of her own in 2018 when as the running mate to Gov. Walz she became the first highest ranking Native American in the nation to hold a state executive office. In that election, the Walz-Flanagan ticket also received the most votes of any gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history.
At Tuesday’s historic ceremony, Lt. Gov. Flanagan was in her element as one of the featured speakers.
“While this is historic, it should also simply be the way it is, the norm,” she said, drawing applause. “Even though these systems were not built for women, especially women of color, we are making our voices heard every single day.”
U.S. Census figures as of 2022 puts the white population in St. Paul at 54%, with Blacks and Asians forming the two largest minority groups at 16% and 18% respectively. That diversity has been trending upwards in the last 20 years. The same census figures show almost a third of the homes in the city speak another language other than English. Incoming Council president Mitra Jalali is a clear demonstration of the city’s growing diversity. While she was born in the United States, her father is from Iran and mother from Korea. The parents met while they were both international students.
The choice of performers at Tuesday’s historic inauguration reflected the diversity of the city. After the color guard by the Saint Paul Police and Fire departments and the national anthem were completed, Ms. Angela Stewart from the predominantly Black Progressive Baptist Church sung the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Later, before closing remarks from the most senior member of the new council, Ms. Rebecca Noecker, an all-female Hmong group from Dao Lan Dance School performed. Somali poet Ms. Muna Abdullahi gave a spoken word tribute before the council members took their oath of office.
With a population of over 300,000, according to U.S. Census figures, St. Paul is the only American city of its size with an all-female city council, a fact that Ms. Myra Bolling-Smith, a religious minister and abstract artist who has lived in the city for 13 years, believes will happen soon elsewhere in the nation.
“I believe, and I really look at these women as trendsetters and think this is something that is going to caught on throughout the different states,” she said. “I live in Cheniqua Johnson’s ward and I am really excited on how they are going to mold this council as I am expecting to see more transparency, openness and more listening from them.”
Mr. Alex Smith, a St. Paul resident for 45 years and a semi-retired executive, attended the event dressed to the nines in honor of the historic moment.
“Anytime a minority becomes a fundamental leader in the community I feel an exhilaration and it makes me proud,” said Mr. Smith, who after leaving corporate executive life is now providing executive leadership experience to nonprofits such as Community Stabilization Project. “All the work that we have dedicated to the community is now beginning to pay fruit and that is what we have always wanted.”
Mr. Smith said he grew up with former Councilmember Russel Balenger whose seat Councilmember Ward won in November. He told Mshale as he waited for the ceremony to begin that his philosophy has always been for one to view serving in the City Council as a “unique and rare opportunity” for a councilmember “to serve our community, and I expect nothing less from Ms. Bowie.”
Ms. Robin Hickman-Winfield, who was born and grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, and is a lifelong St. Paul resident, sought to allay the fears of those who believe the new council will focus exclusively on issues important to women.
“I think the uniqueness of these women is that they will be committed to making sure that the perspectives and voices and diversity of thought of men will be included,” said Ms. Wickman-Winfield. “I believe that will be honored, but for me it does not take away the historic significance of this day.”
Ms. Emma Burns is among the youthful white St. Paulites that have embraced the growing diversity of the city she has lived in all her life. She was beaming as she entered the Ordway to witness the swearing-in ceremony. She said she was happy to have voted in November to usher in the historic moment.
“I have voted in every election since I turned 18, and it is really exciting to see people who represent me, both demographically, age wise, neighborhood people, renters, to see how that’s changed over the years has been really inspiring and I am hopeful that a younger, more diverse council inspires more people to get involved,” said Ms. Burns.