Russel Balenger recalled his mother sending him to the kitchen as a young child to get coffee for afternoon visitors like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, who would later serve as vice presidents of the United States.
He told the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday that his mother used to warn him, “Make sure the back door is open in case anybody wants to get in,” before he went to bed. Balenger is an organizer with a focus on the Rondo neighborhood. And that’s how I’ve gone about living my life.
Balenger is one of seven candidates vying for the position of Ward 1 Council Member left vacant by former Council Member Dai Thao. Balenger is a co-founder of the “Circle of Peace Movement,” anti-violence conversations held at the Unity Church-Unitarian on Holly Avenue. The hiring process started on Wednesday, and the council will probably decide next week.
The first Hmong council member in the city, Thao was elected in November 2013 and resigned on Monday to accept a position in Sarasota, Florida. The seat represents Frogtown, Summit-University, and portions of surrounding neighborhoods that are primarily connected by University Avenue, the Green Line light-rail corridor, their ethnic diversity, and — as demonstrated by candidate interviews on Wednesday — rising housing affordability concerns.
Former finance employee Erica Valliant remembers relocating with her sister a few years ago to prevent homelessness. The two shared responsibility for 13 kids. Before going on to direct service jobs with other NGOs, she finally rose to the position of parent advocate with the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood.
The owner of Kathy’s Live Bait, Touachongka Xiong, who has been in business for 14 years, claims that his is the last live bait shop left in the entire city, if not Rice Street. He frequently acts as a sounding board for Hmong clients who seek his advice on how to handle parking tickets and fishing citations, including how to pay for them and who to contact. It’s difficult for someone who has never gone through it, he remarked.
No one on the council now owns a small company, which is a crucial voice for the community, according to Council President Amy Brendmoen.
The seven finalists consist of:
- Former Council Member Debbie Montgomery, who served on the national board of the NAACP before becoming the city’s first female police officer in the 1970s.
- Vic Rosenthal, former executive director of Jewish Community Action.
- Nadira Mohamed, a community health specialist with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health who is active on a COVID-related disparities task force.
- Khou Yang, a recent law clerk in Hennepin County.
- Valliant, a family advocate with People Serving People.
- Xiong, who runs Kathy’s Live Bait with his wife, son and two employees.
- Balenger, a prison outreach volunteer at Stillwater state prison.
According to City Clerk Shari Moore, the council received 22 applications for the District 1 position, including two from individuals who were disqualified because they claimed to reside outside the ward.
According to Brendmoen, the council will probably have a candidate in mind by Friday and decide on an appointment to be seated right away on August 10. In comparison to other council nominations during the last ten years, the temporary council member will serve till 2023.
Each candidate pledged not to stand for office the following year. The victor of the election in November 2023 will hold office for four years.