Thanks to Amore Coffee for their support.
While all the focus of the 2020 election season is on the highest office in the land, one of the lowest offices will also be on the ballot—city council. This year three city council seats will be up, along with the mayor, and the filing period opens May 19. We’ve covered how to run for office before, but what is it like to actually serve?
To find out, we talked with former West St. Paul City Council Member Darlene Lewis. She served two terms from 2005 to 2012 as only the fourth woman to serve and the first (and so far only) woman to serve more than one term.
“You have to be willing to take the time to do the job.”Darlene Lewis
About Darlene Lewis
Darlene Lewis has a lengthy list of accomplishments. Her career spanned nearly 30 years at EcoLab, first as a chemist and then in marketing after she got her business degree. In addition to her terms on council, she also served on various committees, including the Smith Avenue Revitalization Plan, the 2000 Robert Street Renaissance Plan, the Tridistrict Community Education advisory council, and the Dakota Communication Center (DCC) board of directors.
Beyond work and government, Lewis volunteers as a conversation partner at the Neighborhood House and also serves as an honorary board member. She also volunteers with seniors at the Thompson Park Activity Center. Darlene has two daughters and four grandchildren.
A Conversation With Darlene Lewis
Anyone who talks with Darlene Lewis knows she has some stories to tell. So it’s no surprise that what follows is a highly edited version of our conversation.
How did you first get involved in local government?
It started back in the 1970s when I lived in St. Paul. HUD was giving money to cities to buy out deteriorated neighborhoods. My neighborhood was on the list, which we wanted, but it got voted down when people wanted to save Irvine Park. So we started a petition.
That’s how I first got involved, I went around and got signatures, and went to our council person. That’s how we came to West St. Paul, back in 1972. I wanted to send my daughters to District 197.
Around 1985 I wanted to make a career change so I went back to school to get a business degree. One of my classes was state and local government and I became interested in government on a local level. Everybody thinks of the big stuff, but local government has a big impact.
In the 1990s the city hired a person to organize the city into neighborhoods. The purpose was to build community and address any problems. I co-chaired the Albert Park Neighborhood Association. We did events and sent out newsletters—much like yours—to let people know what was going on in the neighborhood. After a couple of years the city stopped funding it and we disbanded. There might still be some signs around identifying the neighborhoods.
Why did you decide to run for City Council?
We didn’t have the neighborhood associations anymore, and I thought about it, and figured I could give it a try. I had just retired and had time for it.
I don’t remember any real issues at the time. That’s what the Women of West St. Paul are doing now, is getting information to their constituents so people know what the issues are. I think that’s pretty important.
How did that first campaign go?
I first ran in 2002 and lost. When I decided to run for council, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just put my $20 filing fee down over at city hall. I was out of the country for the candidate forum, so of course I got defeated.
When the person who won resigned after one year the current council had the task of appointing someone to fill the vacancy. I applied but was not chosen. David Wright, chair of the Planning Commission was appointed to the council. I then applied and was appointed to the Planning Commission.
That gave me a little bit more knowledge about what was going on in the community and learning about all the issues.
What made your second run successful?
I learned a lot about campaigning and getting my message out, so when I filed in 2004 I knew what I had to do.
I got my family together, we got lawn signs made, went door knocking, printed literature—I did a mailing to every registered voter in the ward. I had a few donors but most was my own money.
One thing I stressed was the lack of women on the council and if elected I’d be the only woman on the council—and only the fourth woman to ever serve.
What’s door knocking like?
Door knocking is ‘Minnesota Nice’ for the most part. You know they don’t want to talk to you, but they’ll take your literature. But some people were interested and would engage in conversation.
What was your proudest accomplishment from your time on Council?
The ability to deal with sexism and bullying. It was the usual kind of slights and dismissals. But I was used to that—I worked in a male-dominated field for most of my career. There weren’t very many women in chemistry then—more women are going into sciences today.
I was instrumental in getting the Environmental Committee formed. One of the first things we looked at was Emerald Ash Borer because it hadn’t started here yet but it was coming. We had Karen Zumach and Steve Cook, both forestry experts, and put a tree counting program in place. We lost a lot of big shade trees to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s, but replaced them all with ash trees—so the Environmental Committee put together a diverse list of trees so if this happens again we won’t be tied to one type of tree.
I think I represented my constituents well. I heard very few complaints in the eight years. I never heard anybody say, ‘I’m glad you’re gone.’ I tried to focus on listening to constituents, but not the very vocal minority. I reminded people that I lived in West St Paul too—any decision falls on me too.
Why do you think it’s been so hard for women to take leadership positions?
Being on the council requires a lot of time and most women have a full plate. Studies show women who work full time still spend more time on household chores and parenting than men.
What do you think are the important local issues as we approach the 2020 election?
You know, people don’t take that much interest in local government—as long as things are going OK. People won’t complain unless there’s something wrong.
Most residents focus on money and safety. City leaders need to make sure we are getting the best bang for our buck. I think they do a good job on both.
What advice do you have for someone considering a run for City Council?
You have to be willing to take the time to do the job. That includes learning about issues. I never thought I would have to learn about I & I and what happens when I flush the toilet.
It’s time consuming, but you can make it as much as you want. It depends on what you want to accomplish. Like I got involved in the Smith Avenue Revitalization Plan. I went to the League of Minnesota Cities convention. You can make it what you want it to be.
How do you spend your time now that you’re twice retired—from your career and city council?
I volunteer as a conversation partner at Neighborhood House and I’m very active over at Thompson Park with the programming for older adults. Once a month I go to the Southview nursing home to play games with the residents. It’s the longest hour of my month. It’s hard—some of them have no idea what’s going on, but they’re sharp with the games. They love to have us there—it gives the staff a break and gives the residents a chance to interact with someone different. That’s what I do with my time.
Here’s my thing about aging. As you get older you become invisible. You feel like they don’t need you anymore.
Earlier this year my granddaughter asked me to be the flower girl in her wedding. And I thanked her for asking me to do that, because otherwise I would have been invisible.
Thanks to Darlene Lewis for good conversation, service to her community, and making people visible.
Support West St. Paul Reader by becoming a patron.