In a vote of confidence for the general direction of the city, Faribault voters have returned both City Council incumbents to City Hall — but it was a first time candidate who won the most support of all.
With all four Faribault precincts reporting, it was Sara Caron who breezed to a comfortable first place. Caron’s preliminary total of 5,514 votes marked the highest total of any council candidate since 2012, when then incumbent Steve Underdahl won just 18 more votes.
Ironically, Caron was the only candidate on the ballot who had neither experience as a councilor or as a member of a city board or commission. A production manager at the Paradise Center for the Arts, she also works as a bartender at the Depot Bar and Grill. Caron ran an energetic campaign for council on a promise to open up the halls of city government to people she said are often not represented at city government. In remarks at the Faribault Chamber’s forum, she pointedly positioned herself as an alternative to the status quo.
“I would like to be the voice for people like me, who don’t get hour-long lunch breaks to rub shoulders with politicians, who can’t afford to miss a shift and are struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
Part of Caron’s agenda is familiar. She pledged to bring additional affordable housing to town and preserve downtown Faribault. At the same time, Caron’s campaign was unique in its focus on the importance of providing additional assistance for Faribault residents with mental health and addiction issues.
Coming in second was Wood, well behind Caron but clear of the rest of the pack. Like Caron, Wood was a first-time candidate, though he has sat on the council since January 2019, when he was appointed to fill the seat held by former Councilor Underdahl who was elected to the Rice County Board of Commissioner.
A local builder who owns his own construction company, Wood said his experience as a successful businessman and a one-time aspiring paralegal made him particularly well suited to grasp the sometimes complicated issues that come before the council and to bring a practical perspective to city government. Wood also touted his deep engagement in the community. He and his wife are active members at First English Lutheran Church and he is currently a leader of Faribault’s Masonic Lodge.
In third, narrowly beating out former Councilor John Rowan, was incumbent Councilor Royal Ross. For Ross, it’s the second term on the council. He finished second out of three candidates in 2016.
In his run, Ross promised to continue to take an open mind to the issues that come before council and said he has no “pet projects.” He also touted his business experience and involvement with a variety of community organizations.
At an informal election celebration at Our Place on Third, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that he believed the results show a council that has worked together well and will continue to do so.
“A good council helps good things happen,” he said.
At its 15th annual International Festival, the Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrated a currently halted but successful program that has helped several local immigrants to gain their citizenship.
Launched just three years ago by Twin Cities Immigration Attorney Danielle Robinson Briand and her longtime friend and former colleague Heidi Romanish, the FDC’s naturalization classes helped aspiring U.S. citizens to prepare for their naturalization test.
During the naturalization test, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers ask aspiring citizens up to 10 civics-related questions on issues ranging from America’s basic system of government to American history to basic geography. In order to pass the test, the aspiring citizen must correctly answer six of the 10 questions offered. Though many of the questions are basic, others would be difficult even for many lifelong U.S. residents to answer, let alone recent immigrants.
Applying to become a U.S. citizen is a long and expensive process, so few can afford to flub the test and start over again. To help them, Robinson Briand and Romanish pieced together a basic eight-week course in American civics.
Faribault first came onto Robinson Briand’s radar when she found herself working with Sambath Ouk, the Faribault Public Schools’s English Language coordinator, over a particularly difficult immigration case involving people from Ouk’s native Cambodia.
Although he wasn’t a member of the FDC Board at the time, Ouk shared his involvement with the organization with Robinson Briand and the two discussed ways to better serve the community’s sizable population of immigrants, especially from Somalia and Latin America. Out of those discussions came a citizenship class which, until COVID hit, often attracted a couple dozen attendees each week and went beyond just the questions offered in USCIS’s exam to give participants an intricate sense of the context behind them.
“There was a lot of constitutional law and history built in,” she said. “Some of the themes were focused around where democracy originated from, along with the social movements, civil rights movements.”
The classes included a wide variety of students, from those who had been in the U.S. for just a few years to those who had lived in the area for several decades. Some weren’t even planning on applying for citizenship imminently, due to a lack of eligibility or fluency in English.
In order to help with that, Romanish said that she, Robinson Briand and fellow instructor Kathleen Ganley always taught the course in English, even though all three are fluent in Spanish.
Romanish said that the program’s structure was unique, especially for greater Minnesota. In addition to helping students pass the test, she said it was also designed to encourage students to become active citizens once they achieved their citizenship.
"There’s a focus on community building and civic participation," she said. "That's pretty unique."
To keep it particularly interesting and relevant for students, Romanish said that she contrasted the history of social change in the U.S. with that in the countries students came from. Overall, about half of participants hailed from Africa and about half from Latin America.
Sometimes, parents would even brought their kids along to learn as they covered many of the same topics in school that their parents were learning about. Yet Ganley said what was perhaps most meaningful was to see the interaction of students who immigrated from all over the world.
“All of the comparing and connecting to where everyone came from has been so amazing,” she said. “It’s been a life changer for me to teach this course, opened up my eyes every single time.”
No classes have been held since the FDC was hit by a combination of COVID and the departure of its former executive director, who was instrumental in putting together the program. Still, Robinson Briand is optimistic that the program might start up again by next spring.
Faribault resident Roxana Beltran was among those who finally got her citizenship with help from the course. It wasn’t always easy to fit it into her busy work schedule, in fact, she was a part of the class for some two years as she often struggled to get off work in time to attend. Yet now that she has achieved her goal of citizenship, Beltran said she has no regrets.
“It was a good experience,” she said. “(The course) really helped me to pass the exam.”
With 10 candidates running to fill the three open seats on the Faribault School Board, one incumbent, one newcomer and one previous School Board member earned the highest number of votes.
School Board member Jerry Robicheau, who earlier in the year was appointed to the School Board to fill a vacancy, will continue serving on the Faribault School Board along with newcomer Casie Steeves and Richard Olson, who served on the board from 2007-19.
Steeves earned 16.6% of the vote with 5,079 followed by Olson with 4,220 votes (13.8%) and Robicheau with 4,183 votes (13.8%). The Faribault School Board will canvass the return of votes at 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13 during a special School Board meeting.
Other candidates who ran for School Board included Damian Baum, Andrea Calderon, Ahmed Hassan, Travis McColley, Bradley Olson, Terry Pounds and Sonny Wasilowski. School Board members Yvette Marthaler and Jason Engbrecht conclude their four-year terms this year. Neither of them ran for re-election.
“We’re super fortunate as a community to have so many people willing to serve right away, so I feel fortunate no matter who I serve with,” Steeves said.
Steeves is a 2005 Faribault High School graduate employed as the events and marketing director of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. The Faribault School Board will mark her first government experience.
During her term, Steeves said she hopes to promote the positive aspects of Faribault Public Schools and work collaboratively with the business community as well as Falcons parents. She is particularly interested in promoting trade education and any education the seven-period day at Faribault High School makes possible.
With 12 prior years on the School Board, Olson said he looks forward to bringing a conservative perspective to the board for the next four years.
“I’m very proud to serve the people of our district, and I thank them a lot for sending me back on the board,” Olson said.
Olson’s son Bradley Olson also ran for a seat on the School Board this year and raked in a total of 3,060 votes. Olson said he’s proud of his son for doing well in his race.
One topical issue that drove Olson’s decision to run for School Board again was the district’s discussion about discontinuing its athletic cooperative agreement with Bethlehem Academy. While some board members support dissolving the cooperative agreement, Olson opposes it. He is also a strong proponent of making schools safe and secure, particularly during the pandemic.
Robicheau also served on the Faribault School Board from 2009-17, and applied for the vacant position earlier this year after John Currie resigned. Upon learning the results, Robicheau said he’s pleased and thanked the voters for their confidence in his leadership.
Robicheau’s number one concern within the district right now is surviving the financial fallout from COVID-19 and the changes that will come with it for students, educators and the district’s budget. He also wants to consider how to retain high-quality teachers, given conversations about budget cuts, address the diversity in the district, and find a strong replacement for Superintendent Todd Sesker who retired in June 2019, but is serving on an interim basis through June 2022.
“I also want to congratulate the other winners who I will be serving with and thank those who stepped forward to run for the School Board,” Robicheau said. “It was a dynamic group of candidates, and I’m very honored to be elected back to the School Board and look forward to serving to the fullest.”
While the race for the Minnesota Legislature was still in doubt well into election night, locally all three Republican incumbents in Senate District 24 romped to victory.
In Faribault, Sen. John Jasinski declared victory after results showed him with more than 60% of the vote against political newcomer Roger Steinkamp. In an event at the Faribault Country Club, Jasinski thanked family and friends for their support.
Jasinski is an established local political figure who served eight years as Faribault mayor and two years on its City Council before his election to the Senate in 2016. He’s risen quickly up the totem poll at the legislature too, and was elected Assistant Senate Majority Leader last year.
Less than a month before the election, Jasinski was cited for driving while intoxicated. He quickly issued a statement taking responsibility for his actions and apologizing to friends, family and supporters, and his support appears to have remained solid. Indeed, Jasinski proudly noted that he managed to win every single precinct in his district after losing three in 2016. He said he was also excited to see strong support for Republicans across the state, which appears to have left the GOP in a strong position to maintain its Senate majority.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive support over the last few months, but you never know until the votes come in,” he said. “I thank the voters for supporting me and believing in me.”
Steinkamp held a much lower key election night event, listening to national election returns around a bonfire along with Faribault City Council candidate Faysel Ali and his fellow DFL ticketmate in District 24B, Ashley Martinez-Perez.
As a first time candidate, Steinkamp acknowledged that he was facing an uphill battle against the popular Jasinski. He said that almost anywhere he went, he found himself talking to people who knew Jasinski and respected his work.
Still, winning a district he described as “ruby red” wasn’t the only goal of Steinkamp’s campaign. The longtime agricultural educator and entrepreneur said a key goal of his campaign was achieved — namely, bringing more people into the political process.
“There are a whole lot of people who went to the caucuses who had never gone before,” he proudly noted.
Along with Jasinski, voters in the District 24B portion of the district anchored by Faribault, sent Rep. Brian Daniels back to the legislature by a similar margin as the senator. Daniels held a lower key event with Jasinski, relaxing with friends and supporters at his home.
Daniels is an unapologetic supporter of President Donald Trump, and for election night he wore a Trump t-shirt. He said he’s excited to get back to work in St. Paul and hopes to make progress on roughly two dozen bills he has proposed, many of which enjoy bipartisan support.
Martinez-Perez, a first time candidate and political activist, suggested that she might run again and said she believes her vote share might well have been higher had the COVID-19 pandemic not prevented her from getting out to meet the voters.
A second generation immigrant, Martinez-Perez ran a progressive campaign, promising to advocate for the district’s working class and immigrant community. As a working mother of five children, she said her personal experiences have guided her views and advocacy.