Mitra Jalali Nelson has long been a big comic book fan. But growing up, the daughter of immigrants had a hard time seeing herself in the pages of the stories she loved. Then, in 2014, Marvel debuted a new Ms. Marvel. The character, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen who uses her newfound powers to defend the people in her neighborhood. On top of being one of the few women of color in the comic world — and, like Nelson, raised in a Muslim household — the reimagined Ms. Marvel spent her time tackling thorny issues like gentrification and displacement. Nelson was hooked.
“I felt, for the first time, here's a book that explains my life experience,” she recalls.
And so when it came to design her campaign logo for Saint Paul City Council earlier this year, including a nod to the superhero was a no-brainer. Look closely at her hot pink buttons and lawn signs, and you’ll notice Ms. Marvel’s signature bright yellow lightning bolt dotting the “i” in her name.
“I just couldn’t stop looking at it,” she says of the design, which was made by a friend. To her, the logo embodies the ways in which “the style and culture of what we’ve done is really different.”
“We’re trying to be a breakthrough campaign,” the 32-year-old Democrat says of her bid to win a seat on the council in an August 14 special election. “We’re not running to speak to people's’ fears, but people’s hopes and to really bring our city into the future.”
Key to that goal is addressing the city’s affordable housing issue. Like in many urban areas across the country, prices in Minnesota’s Twin Cities are skyrocketing. Half of residents in St. Paul are now renters, with the average price increasing to more than $1,000 a month.
"My rent started at about $1,500 for two people and has crept up to over $1,700 for two people in the past couple years," Nelson says. “The thing I hear a lot [knocking on] the doors is that if you're trying to live by yourself it's just like impossible right now. It’s out of reach for a lot of people.”
But unlike many older elected officials, Nelson has firsthand experience with those concerns. She’s been a renter her entire adult life, cycling through an estimated 10 apartments over the last decade-plus. If elected, she would be the only renter on the council.
“This is something that I'm living,” she says. “I'm living it as a person who rents in our city, as a person who would like to consider being able to buy a home in our city, who is friends with tons of working families who don’t have access to the generational wealth that a home often represents.”
Guided by that perspective and insights gleaned working on local issues as an aide to Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, Nelson is making renters’ rights a centerpiece of her campaign. She unveiled an ambitious blueprint outlining no fewer than 26 goals for improving the housing options in her community. Some critics have argued that the plan is too sweeping and outside the city council’s scope. But to Nelson, the fact that housing has become a serious discussion point in the campaign is a major step forward.
"We're actually having a debate about whether or not certain policies can be helpful versus whether or not to create more housing and that to me is already a shift,” she says. “The paradigm before was arguing about whether or not there was a problem. And the paradigm now is we do have a problem and what are we going to do to fix it."
Being the sole renter wouldn’t be the only way the former teacher and organizer would change the ratio of representation on the council. If elected, Nelson, whose parents were born in Korea and Iran, would be the only woman of color seving at that level of government — and, she says, only the second elected in the city’s history. From what she can tell, it’s possible she would be the first woman of color to ever represent her ward.
“Younger people, people of color, younger women, our specific experiences aren't yet reflected in the institutions that control our society. It's not likely for me to see someone who looks like me in the government,” she says. “There's a part of my candidacy that's unique to the fact that I'm running as a young woman of color with my specific worldview and life experiences.”
To Nelson, having a government that reflects the growing diversity of the city is essential. And in a way, she says the unique experiences and perspective she brings to the race have become a unifying and energizing force for her campaign.
“We're just in a really different moment right now in 2018 in our community. We're rapidly growing as a young community, a more diverse one, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically,” she says. “People are moving to St. Paul because they know it’s an awesome place to live and being able to speak to that growth and reflect it and lift up that story is something we've tried really hard to do.”