Looks like the Asian American community could be gaining our own version of the Kenneday's, or at least the Sanchez sisters. That's Loretta and Linda Sanchez, two sisters from Orange County who both happen to be in Congress. In Minnesota, Vallay Moua Varro recently won her election to the St. Paul School Board, thus joining her sister, progressive hero and Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua, as an elected official. Here's a nice profile that just appeared in the local paper, the East Side Review News:
She's a mom, former classroom teacher, schools liaison for Mayor Chris Coleman and of course an East Sider, one who sends her eldest child to the private Mounds Park Academy.
Vallay Moua Varro, 33, is also now a St. Paul School Board member-elect, easily besting businessman Pat Igo for the two-year seat that opened up this summer when the conservative-leaning Tom Conlon announced his resignation.
In another regard, Varro also bested every other candidate during this year's school board race. While all three incumbents as well as Varro won the support of the city's DFL Party, only Varro also carried the endorsements of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.
Nationally, pundits have ruminated on the possible fracturing of the Republican Party after a conservative candidate for a New York statehouse race won national backing against a more moderate Republican at first seen as a shoe-in. It's something not entirely dissimilar to what happened with this year's school board race in St. Paul. But with the DFL.
Is it portentous of deeper party issues when only one St. Paul School Board candidate - a challenger, not even any of the three incumbents - can win nearly unanimous backing from the DFL's union members? When an independent wins endorsement over a DFL-backed incumbent?
Most insiders deny it. But some can't help but shake their heads at the endorsement process this go-round.
"The teachers didn't endorse any of the incumbents and neither did AFSCME, which caused us a little confusion," says Darren Tobolt, city DFL Party chair. "Normally we're all on the same team."
St. Paul School Board races, like City Council races, are technically nonpartisan. But very few candidates of other political flavors have historically broken through the DFL's glass ceiling here, and the likelihood of a Republican or conservative-minded independent like the recently-retired Conlon successfully taking advantage of any possible DFL disarray is usually slim indeed.
But it happened this year. Newcomer Jean O'Connell, the independent, barely edged out incumbent Tom Goldstein to win a spot on the school board, quite possibly helped along by her endorsement from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, if not both daily newspapers.
In fact, not one of the three incumbents - Elona Street-Stewart, John Brodrick, and Tom Goldstein - was endorsed by the teachers union or AFSCME clerical workers union. And only Brodrick won endorsement by the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation - the local AFL-CIO affiliate.
If one were to judge political disarray simply through the lens of the endorsement process, this year's school board contest was a mess indeed.
To some, though, this isn't a case of the DFL eating its own. It is a no-confidence vote aimed right at current school board members.
"We had some member dissatisfaction with board members not being activists, advocates for the issues important to our members, and deferring too much to the superintendent on those issues," says Jim Niland, political director of AFSCME Council 5.
The teachers' union isn't quite as vehement as the union for clerical workers. But the dissatisfaction is still evident.
"It wasn't as much what was wrong with them, as how inspired we were with Jean's discussions with us," says Mary Cathryn Ricker of the Teachers' Federation, when asked why her organization endorsed not just Varro but O'Connell over the incumbents.
According to Ricker, O'Connell "came to us with lots of questions, and listened to our answers. In the end, one of the things she said is "I can't guarantee that we'll always agree on everything, but I guarantee that you'll always know where I stand.' It was really refreshing, and ... we didn't get that same level of candor, that same level of interest in partnering in the last four years with the other board members."
Grumblings from the trenches are nothing new, given the schools' perennial cash crunches and test-score worries. But this year, there's been quite a bit of head-scratching over the board's moves to find a replacement for departed superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who left in May and hasn't been replaced.
While the previous most lengthy St. Paul superintendent search in anyone's memory was the eight months it took to find and hire Meria Carstarphen once Pat Harvey left, it took six months - from February, when Carstarphen gave notice, until July - for the board to find and hire a search firm this time around.
The current search process has been "about as clear as mud," Ricker contends. She says the board "spent a long time hemming and hawing. They finally decided to hire a search firm in July" after the teachers' union had asked them in March to commit to a local process, despite the fact that the district has a human resources director that came from the Federal Reserve.
"Conducting national searches is part and parcel of what she does," Ricker says. "Anything we spent on a search firm is money that wasn't going to the classroom. It's a symbolic message, I will admit that. But the symbolism is not lost on the community."
As it was her first election, Varro proves unwilling to hazard a guess as to the importance of her numerous endorsements.
But, as Mayor Chris Coleman's city-schools partnerships director, she says she witnessed the interplay between the schools administration and school board members. And she found the relationship between the two to be somewhat fractured on either end.
"I don't know if I'd say it's a vacuum of leadership, but the last several years that I've seen the board work together, there hasn't necessarily been a flow of information from the administration to the board," Varro says. "They seem to be rubber-stamping information from the administration."