Kimetha "KaeJae" Johnson

Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson: First Black Candidate in West St. Paul

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Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson is the next in a string of historic firsts for West St. Paul. Her run for mayor in the 2020 election makes her the first Black candidate to run for any municipal office in West St. Paul history.

Johnson has been a community and labor organizer for nearly 20 years, currently working as an internal organizer for SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. She’s also the founder of Residents of Color Collective (ROCC), a newly formed group that has organized supply drives and the Unity March between South St. Paul and West St. Paul.

“Every day I work with folks living on the edge, surviving low wages, insecure housing, inadequate childcare, and insufficient transportation,” Johnson says. But she knows city-level politics make a difference. “We get to work on the small issues that have a big impact. That is why I am running.”

Conversation With KaeJae

We asked Johnson about running for mayor as the first Black candidate. Here’s our conversation:

Why did you decide to run for mayor?

Honestly, I had been going back and forward with the thought of running for mayor and then the George Floyd murder happened on my birthday. It took away any excuse or reason I had not to run. His death made it a necessity and forced me to reevaluate where I stood in my values.

I could not look my granddaughter in the eye and tell her things needed to change but do nothing to change them. She watched me cry for a week and I couldn’t answer her questions about why I was crying. I felt helpless. I couldn’t explain to her why there was no one in her new city who made decisions for her and looked like her. I couldn’t answer her when she asked me why the white man killed the Black man, and what did the Black man do? I had no answer for the sweet face of the 6-year-old looking up at me who calls me Nana and is waiting for me to take away her confusion like I always do.

My run for mayor is for my granddaughter’s future and my attempt to answer her questions. I want her to be able to see herself and maybe one day have the courage to step up and take the lead.

What does it mean to you to be the first Black candidate in West St. Paul, and potentially the first Black mayor?

I’m excited about being the first Black mayor and leading the city in the direction that brings us together as a family. But I can’t help thinking about the 130 years that have gone by without having a voice for the community I represent. The weight is heavy, though I don’t mind carrying the load. My granddaughter helps make that load easy every time I look at her. I know I’m doing the right thing by running and aiming to create a city where she can see herself represented.

What kind of challenges do you face as the first Black candidate that people may not realize?

How to balance my blackness and fear, and yes, this is a real thing. For some voters I’m going to be too pro-Black, too focused on communities that have been neglected for so long and to them that will equal being anti-white. And for others, I will not be Black enough, not poor enough, too educated, my story not be sad enough to validate their reason for voting for me.

I will say that I do have a group of supporters who do understand and have been very encouraging, however I’m already experiencing the racist action and the primary is still weeks away.

My children are afraid for me, especially after George Floyd’s murder. They know some of the things I have already experienced after just filing. They are taking turns staying with me to ensure I’m safe, because they understand giving up or dropping out is not an option for me. I shouldn’t have to feel unsafe because I’m trying to improve the world around me, but this is the world we live in and the reason why I’m fighting to change it. 

Why is it important to note that you’re the first Black candidate?

It forces people to face their history and acknowledge that change is needed. 130 years is too long for a community to go unheard and not be represented. We should not still be saying the first Black anything in 2020 but here we are.

People should vote based on qualification and I’m qualified. I have spent the last 20 years fighting for equality, policies that improve communities, and developing ways for individuals to thrive. I’m an advocate for the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage, renter’s rights, gun reform (I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment), and I’ve dedicated my life to representing low-wage workers throughout the Midwest—all of which impact a city. 

How does West St. Paul need to do better when it comes to race?

We first must admit there is a race problem. Historically the West St. Paul City Council has been predominantly white and has made decisions based on how they relate to and view the city. As mayor, I would build on the one positive in the city that acknowledges at least one people of color community, and that’s the presence of small businesses in the Latinx community. I plan to work with the community to develop ways to increase their presence by ensuring they are paying fair market rent and offering extension grants.

While there’s a foundation to build on in the Latinx community,  the representation of the Black community both on the City Council and in the business community is nonexistent. For example, when I promoted Black-owned businesses for “Blackout Week,” I was only able to find two Black-owned businesses in West St. Paul, one of which is online. That was disappointing.

The City Council cannot see what they don’t understand and because of this we have missed the opportunities to engage and increase the number of diverse-owned businesses in West St. Paul that can bring untapped revenue to our city while meeting the needs and wants of the community, which can promote a stronger sense of belonging. I plan on working with the City Council and unheard communities to create ways to expand and grow the diversity in West St. Paul businesses.

Another issue that affects race is the high price of rent. There’s a potential new apartment complex but no form of rent control or a specified number of apartments dedicated to low-income families. It’s “workforce housing,” but it’s not truly affordable housing where renters are not paying more than 30% of their income without having to be placed on a subsidized housing list, which can take forever. These communities are at risk of being pushed further behind while the inequality and disparities grow. The future City Council including myself as mayor will need to make this a top priority and research ways to make affordable housing real in West St. Paul.

Thanks to KaeJae Johnson for sharing her insights with us. The mayoral primary is August 11—learn more about where and how to vote. Check out our piece on historic firsts in West St. Paul for more first candidates and elected officials. And watch our 2020 election coverage for questions with all the candidates and more.

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