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Russel Balenger remembered boyhood days when his mother would send him to the kitchen to fetch coffee for afternoon guests such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter “Fritz” Mondale, both of whom would go on to become vice presidents of the United States.
An organizer with a bead on the Rondo community, his mother would tell Balenger before bedtime, “Make sure the back door is open in case somebody needs to get in,” he told the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday. “And that’s the way I’ve lived my life.”
Balenger, co-founder of the “Circle of Peace Movement” anti-violence discussions at the Unity Church-Unitarian on Holly Avenue, is one of seven finalists seeking appointment to the Ward 1 seat vacated by former Council Member Dai Thao. Interviews began Wednesday, and the council likely will make its pick next week.
Thao, who resigned Monday to take a job in Sarasota, Florida, first was elected in November 2013, making history at the time as the city’s first Hmong council member. The seat represents Frogtown, Summit-University and corners of adjoining neighborhoods largely connected by University Avenue, the Green Line light rail corridor, their ethnic diversity and — as evidenced by candidate interviews Wednesday — growing concerns about housing affordability.
Erica Valliant, a former finance worker, recalled moving in with her sister a few years ago to avoid homelessness. Between them, the two cared for 13 children. She eventually became a parent advocate with the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood before moving on to direct-service positions with other nonprofits.
Touachongka Xiong, 14-year owner of Kathy’s Live Bait shop, said his is the last live bait store on Rice Street, if not the city, and he frequently serves as a sounding board for Hmong customers who come to him for help understanding parking tickets and fishing citations, including how to pay them off and who to reach out to. “Someone who has never experienced that, it’s hard for them,” he said.
Council President Amy Brendmoen noted that no one on the city council currently owns a small business, an important voice for the city.
The seven finalists are:
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 taskforce;
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; and
Balenger, a prison outreach volunteer at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater.
The city council received 22 applications for the Ward 1 appointment, including two from candidates who were ineligible because they indicated they live outside the ward, according to city clerk Shari Moore.
Brendmoen said the council likely will have a candidate in mind by Friday and vote Aug. 10 on an appointment to be seated immediately. The interim council member will serve through 2023, a relatively lengthy term compared to other council appointees over the past decade.
Each applicant committed not to run for election next year. The winner of the November 2023 election will serve a four-year term.