West St. Paul City Council Member Anthony Fernandez

Anthony Fernandez: First Latino Council Member in West St. Paul

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We’ve been exploring a series of historic firsts for West St. Paul. We already talked with Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson, the first black candidate in West St. Paul. But she’s not the first candidate of color to run. City Council Member Anthony Fernandez became the first person of color elected to municipal office in West St. Paul in 2016. In 2018 he became the first Latino to run for mayor. This year he’s running for re-election to City Council in Ward 2.

Anthony Fernandez is a real estate broker with a background in construction. He previously served on the Planning Commission, and also served on St. Paul’s Planning Commission and Zoning Committee.

Talking With Fernandez

We asked Fernandez about being one of the firsts in West St. Paul. Here’s our conversation:

What’s it like being the first Latino elected to City Council?

When I decided to run for Council in 2016, I didn’t even realize when I filed that I would be the first Latino elected to Council in West St. Paul. I didn’t make that a focus of my campaign and it was not why I was running. But I also didn’t downplay it when asked by residents.

I am more than happy to talk about my background. My last name often gets people’s attention. I get a lot of comments and questions about being Latino like “Where are you from?” I have heard comments like, “I would never vote for a Mexican,” but that has been quite rare. Mostly it’s been very positive.

I was surprised to learn that the city did not participate in the Cinco de Mayo parade, given the large Hispanic population and proximity to the West Side festivities. It was exciting when we participated in the parade in 2018 for the first time. I also enjoyed working with the diversity committee and felt like I could bring a different perspective to the issues.

We really have a lot of work to do in diversity and outreach at city hall. It can be challenging to make strides in these areas being the only person of color on the Council. It seems like we can all work on talking about race more. One time during a Council meeting during citizen comments, a white person came up to speak on the issue of the police chief hire. This person was trying to make a point about the best approach on the hiring process and commented that “everyone on Council is white.” The speaker then realized I was sitting up there and corrected herself by saying that I have “some heritage that was different than the rest of us” but the Council is “not representative of the community.” It was a stunning moment for me, embarrassing for our city, and hopefully something from which we can all learn.

Did you receive an apology for that comment?

Yes, I did receive a private apology for public comments. I didn’t push the issue at the time, but looking back on it I think if white people are going to attempt to speak publicly about these issues, and then offend a person of color with their statements, then apologies should be public as well. That’s the perfect example of the double standard that exists.

Do you feel increased scrutiny or pressure? If so, how do you handle that?

Absolutely. But that’s OK; I can handle it. I hear and see the comments that because my mom was white and my dad Hispanic that I’m not a “real” Latino. So there’s increased pressure to act, and to some extent dress and talk in a certain way, by some people, and if I don’t “play the part” or fall in line with certain views, then I’m not a “real” Latino. I try to tune that out and just be myself. I have lived in very diverse areas of the country. I’m used to dealing with these issues.

I do feel that some people scrutinize my opinions more. It seems like, no matter what I say, there is an immediate skeptical response, suggesting that I am either lying or insincere. I doubt white candidates and elected officials face that as often as minority candidates and elected officials.

I also feel that I’m held to a different standard when it comes to expectations on partisan politics. I am not active in either partisan political party; I’m not interested in that. I’m pretty middle of the road, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a place for that.

Recently I was invited to speak at a Republican event in South St. Paul to talk about public safety issues in our community, since I am the chair of the Public Safety Committee. But since I’m Latino attending a Republican sponsored event I have to now respond to criticism? Other (white) local non-partisan officials have attended DFL fundraisers and not a word of criticism is said about it. Some went so far as to demand I not attend, which I’m sure is something white officials don’t get asked. I had no idea it was a fundraiser when I was asked to speak, and I receive no fundraising benefit myself. I’m not endorsing the other people on stage, I’m just there to have the conversation. We should be able to have a civil discussion with someone who has a different opinion.

So I am happy to speak with any group that asks me to speak. When is the next DFL fundraiser? I’d love to attend and speak. I try to tune out the noise and focus on getting things done for the city. I’m the policy guy. I don’t want a hug, I want to fix stuff. At the end of the day, being the first Latino ever elected to Council is great, but we still need to do the work and get things done.

Why do you think it’s important for West St. Paul to mark these important firsts?

It shows we are making progress as a community. We are getting younger and more diverse, and our representatives on the Council should start reflecting our community. We saw the first Native American candidate run for mayor in 2016, and now the first Black candidate to run for mayor in 2020. These are all great milestones and firsts we should celebrate.

But while we can celebrate these firsts and mark them, we can’t lose sight of the issues impacting our community either. While I want to mark these firsts, I also want residents to consider the issues that are important to them and find candidates that will reflect their values, regardless of the people running.

Thanks to Anthony Fernandez for sharing his insights with us. There is no primary for any City Council race this year, so the general election is November 3—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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