In Rice County and throughout the region, ballots for local races this fall will include an unprecedented number of candidates from diverse backgrounds.
In Faribault alone, voters will have a choice to vote for a Latina candidate, Andrea Calderon, a Somali-American candidate, Ahmed Hassan, and a candidate from the deaf community, Sonny Wasilowski. And that’s just for School Board.
In other races, Faysel Ali is seeking to become the first Somali-American to serve on Faribault’s City Council. In the race for House District 24A, Rep. Brian Daniels is facing off with Ashley Martinez-Perez, a south Texas native born to Mexican-American parents. In Northfield, George Zuccolotto and Ricky Livingston are running to become the first Latino and Black members of the council, respectively. Northfielders will also be able to vote to re-elect Rep. Angie Craig, a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Voters will even have the opportunity to make history at the highest levels of government, thanks to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
If Biden and Harris win, Harris will become the first woman to serve as president or vice president. She’s the first major party candidate for vice president or president of South Asian descent, the second African-American and the fourth woman.
While they may come from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, these candidates have made it clear that they’re running on their life experiences and ideas for how to improve government for all people.
Calderon says would bring her experience as a student affairs specialist to the School Board, while Hassan is already advising the board on cultural issues. Ali brings to the table his time as a co-leader of the Faribault Diversity Coalition.
Nearly all of them expressed a keen awareness that if elected, they would join boards that have long been marked by a lack of racial and even gender diversity. Rice County’s Board of Commissioners, for example, is entirely composed of white males.
Just five women have served as Rice County commissioners. Faribault’s Ann Bjork Vohs and Northfielder Molly Woerhlin were the first, both elected in 1982. The others are Heather Robbins, Mary Beth Rogers and Jessica Peterson (now Peterson White), currently a Northfield city councilor.
Three females currently sit on the School Board, though there are no people of color even though roughly half of Public School students are non-white. Many of those students are low-income, with more than 60% of Faribault students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
While other candidates for the board talked more broadly about the issues faced by all students, Calderon and Hassan were keen to emphasize how they’d seen the often painful effects of racial disparities firsthand, and promised they would work tirelessly to address them.
As of the 2010 census, 86% of Rice County residents are still white. However, the percentage who are not is growing rapidly, and Carleton College Political Science Professor Emeritus and author Steven Schier said it’s no surprise that they’re beginning to engage with local politics.
“It’s often the case that the first candidates from those communities will be like local offices like School Boards,” he said. New communities in places like Faribault have a number of concerns about local services and local schools.”
Schier said that while the initial candidates from such communities may have lower rates of success, candidates from growing immigrant communities tend to win more over time — and eventually, seek higher office.
Beyond the urgency of the moment, Dr. Richard Keiser, a political science professor who has long studied local U.S. political dynamics, pointed to several major factors as potential drivers of this new wave of diverse candidates.
First, Keiser said that the political system is seeing an influx of younger candidates and activists, including many immigrants and people of color, who represent a new generation of leadership inspired by the idealism of former President Barack Obama. A broadly popular figure among people of color and immigrant communities, Obama succeeded in winning Faribault and other areas which would later be carried by Donald Trump. At the state level, Keiser said Attorney General Keith Ellison has also proven an inspiration for many.
“Ellison is somebody who inspires people of color who previously would have thought they were outsiders in the political world,” Keiser said. “He’s an African-American man, a Muslim, a person who is not interested in simply going along to get along.”
Keiser said that the tendency of immigrant communities to move into left-leaning activism or politics once they begin to feel more comfortable isn’t new, but a tradition that spans back decades, even more than a century.
“Many immigrants from Somali do not take for granted but are inspired by the democratic ideals of this country,” he said. “(They’re) much like immigrants from over 100 years ago, from Italy and Eastern Europe, who were inspired to join the Democratic Party or socialist parties.”
Keiser said another factor behind the increased diversity of the politics has to do with shifts in the Democratic Party’s coalition. In recent years, Democrats at the local and national levels have lost ground among non-college educated white voters.
Keiser attributed much of the polarization over the last 30 years to disagreement over the issue of abortion, while recently, Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration led to higher Republican support among non-college educated white voters.
At the same time, an uncompromising approach to those issues have led to a backlash among many college-educated white voters, creating a new coalition that has proven to more reliably support initiatives on issues like racial justice, women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights.
Keiser added that some members have been targeted by many of the president’s most controversial statements and actions. As a result, it’s prodded members of those communities to enter the ring when it comes to political activism.
“He has heightened their sense of identity by singling them out,” he said.
“A bit of normalcy in an abnormal world” is what Faribault Chamber Events Coordinator Casie Steeves hopes Taste of Faribault provides next month.
“We’re excited we got the go-ahead to host this event,” Steeves said. “We’ve made some minor changes, including a location change to allow for better social distancing and flow of the event. It’s one of the fun ones of the year.”
September is fast approaching, and that means Steeves is accepting vendors and ticket orders for Faribault’s popular food-sampling event. Taste of Faribault gives food and drink enthusiasts the rare opportunity to taste test products from a wide variety of restaurants, catering services, delis, grocers, breweries, wineries and other eateries in the Faribault area. The 28th annual Taste of Faribault is 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17. For the first time in Taste of Faribault history, the event will take place at Faribo West Mall.
Laura Sterling, promotion manager and event coordinator for Faribo West Mall, agreed that Taste of Faribault will be “a great chance to do something normal.” The mall hosted a garage sale event recently and will host another large group event with craft vendors this weekend. With the space available, Sterling said she’s happy to keep an annual event like Taste of Faribault going.
Tickets are $20 for clients who register in advance and $25 for those who register at the door. Sponsorship dollars and ticket proceeds help the Faribault Chamber of Commerce and Tourism further its work to promote local businesses. Last year, Steeves reported the Chamber sold approximately 450 tickets for the event.
Taste of Faribault isn’t the first in-person event the chamber hosted since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. By rescheduling or modifying large-group events to fit health and safety guidelines, Steeves said the chamber hasn’t needed to officially cancel anything.
“We’ve been really lucky that way,” she said.
Steeves wants to keep the committed vendors unnamed until Sept 1. She anticipates about 25 vendors will be spaced apart within the mall, giving clients plenty of room to wander from station to station. In addition to that, clients can follow guiding markers on the floor to keep traffic flowing in one direction.
“Our plan is to use every leg of the mall to limit the number of people in one spot,” Sterling said. “We have four different branches, and everyone will be spread throughout. We should be able to place vendors 20 to 30 feet apart. I’d rather be over safe than not have enough room.”
Participating vendors are included in the Faribault Chamber’s event plan during the coronavirus pandemic, so they will need to complete temperature checks at the door and use gloves and masks at their stations. Each individual business will distribute samples in individual cups, which is a change from the usual procedure in which clients use the same cup from start to finish.
In addition to promoting food and drink vendors, Sterling hopes Taste of Faribault gives customers a chance to step inside a couple new stores at the mall. One of them, a clothing and repurposed furniture store called I am the Lily of the Valley, was scheduled for a March opening but didn’t receive much publicity amid stay-at-home orders. Another is a clothing store Sterling and her co-owner plan to open Saturday.
Months after Bluebird Cakery closed its doors for the final time, two area artists are preparing to open a new downtown coffee shop serving deluxe coffee and handmade baked goods.
Jess Prill, who runs Faribault’s Fleur de Lis Gallery, is teaming up with Cathy Collison to open up Good Day Coffee in the cakery's former space. Located at 318 Central Ave, the shop will be located in the same building as Fleur de Lis and open mornings from 6:45 a.m. to noon.
Until recently, both Bluebird and The Cheese Cave helped bring significant foot traffic to the building, turning it into something of a downtown hub. When both closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Prill’s art gallery felt the effects acutely.
Collison added that Bluebird’s closure left Faribault with few options for early risers who rely on a hot cup of coffee or cappuccino and a tasty treat to get their day started right — particularly for the growing number of city residents who reside in or near downtown.
When Bluebird first closed, Collison said she joked with Prill that perhaps the two should start a coffee shop of their own. But as the two of them thought about it more, they realized it made more and more sense. Both Prill and Collison bring experience to the venture, and not just in business. Prill spent seven years crafting custom cappuccinos as a Starbucks barista, while Collinson trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and is well known for her delicious pies.
“Our culinary skills and our business skills complement each other,” Collison said.
Collison and Prill's lease starts Oct. 1, and they hope to open the shop by Nov. 1. They insist they’re under no illusions when it comes to the difficulty of operating such a shop under the pandemic, an immensely difficult challenge which eventually sank Bluebird.
Even though operations aren’t likely to “return to normal” anytime soon, Collison said that many customers still crave their morning coffee. To help them satisfy that craving safely, the shop will start by offering to-go service. The inside of the store will offer an open floor plan that will eventually offer room for a few customers to socially distance. However, Prill said that to start, customers will be able to choose between ordering to-go inside or ordering online, with curbside pickup an option.
Collison and Prill believe that demand for the coffee shop will be high. Prill said that a significant number of coffee-craving potential customers already live downtown, and the number of downtown area residents is expected to increase significantly in the coming years as a number of planed apartment projects come to fruition.
A downtown coffee shop certainly dovetails nicely with the city’s recently approved Downtown Master Plan, which is focused on replacing industrial/retail facilities with housing and amenities so as to deal with the city’s housing shortage while creating a vibrant central district.
The city has made significant progress on the housing side. It’s on pace to add hundreds of units in the area through large projects like the Hillside Apartments across from Buckham West and the Straight River Apartments at the Old Public Works site, as well as smaller projects.
However, less progress has been made in terms of adding amenities, and many buildings remain vacant. Whatever reasons may be behind that, it’s hardly for lack of demand — Prill said that area residents can barely contain their excitement about the new coffee shop.
“Every day, people come looking for coffee,” she said. “We’re really eager to be able to supply it to them.”