By Brian Martucci
Take a quick walk down any of the side streets surrounding Macalester’s campus and you’ll see a bevy of yard signs touting candidates for various political offices both here in St. Paul and statewide—sheriff, county judge, state and national House and Senate. At least one of these candidates—Jesse Mortensen ’05, the Green Party’s pick for Seat 64A in the Minnesota House of Representatives—has more than a passing interest in Macalester and the relatively quiet community surrounding it.Born into a working-class family with long-standing ties to St. Paul’s East Side, Mortensen developed an interest in progressive politics and the Green Party in high school while working for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. He became involved with various student and political organizations upon matriculating at Macalester. Two of his most visible contributions to the extracurricular fabric of the college came in the form of his tenure as an elected student government representative and his distinction as the co-founder of the Hegemon, the college’s alternative student publication.Mortenson remained involved in political advocacy outside of Macalester during his college years.According to his campaign web site, Mortensen served on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, or MPIRG. In that position, he co-authored the Fair and Clean Elections/Instant Runoff Voting proposal that heavily influenced the Taking Back Democracy campaign.Closer to campus, he helped to organize the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to defend need-blind admissions at the college. Mortensen also served on Macalester’s Campus Environmental Issues Committee.A sociology major with a media studies minor, Mortensen saw his worldview and political leanings shift significantly during his four years here. While the Green Party remains the only political party with which he’s ever been involved, his concept of policymaking and political action changed since his first year at Macalester.”During high school, I felt that the most effective way to solve problems and shape public policy was to do so on a large scale,” he said, noting that during high school he protested international free trade agreements. “After spending time at Mac and working with community organizations on campus, I now believe that changes at the local level can have a real national impact.”Mortensen said that it is often easier to sway public opinion and influence policy in cozier locales without layers of bureaucracy that inherently resist change.”Politics in St. Paul is not a very big fishbowl,” he said. “Small, well-organized activist groups can make a big splash.”Mortensen is no stranger to working with community groups. He helped last year to found the Metro Independent Business Alliance, a sort of Chamber of Commerce for small Twin Cities businesses.”The Chambers of Commerce of St. Paul and Minneapolis have neglected small, independently-owned local businesses in favor of large corporations that pay higher taxes,” he said. “These corporations take jobs out of individual communities and centralize them. What’s good for the bottom line is almost always bad for the community.”And that, if anything, is the theme of Mortensen’s campaign: “giving power back to ordinary people,” in his words.While studying sociology at Macalester, Mortensen said he learned the importance of actually listening to the public discourse and the input of individual voters and catering politics to suit their needs.”The toolbox that most mainstream politicians use is all about image—there’s very little substance to their message. The toolbox I’m trying to use is centered on the individual—catering to smaller groups of people gets those people more involved, not just in politics itself but in grassroots change,” Mortensen said.According to Mortensen, his decision to run came at a time of frustration with what he called the glacial pace of the progressive agenda. He chose 64A as the place to make his stand because of its “solidly progressive values” and “powerful grassroots involvement among ordinary people.””We’re going to use this seat to lend legitimacy to the progressive movement and change minds on the municipal and state levels,” he said. “We have good ideas and articulate people on our side, but there hasn’t been any major change in the political landscape in quite some time.”District 64A, which encompasses an area roughly bounded by the Mississippi River to the west, Lexington Parkway to the east, Randolph Avenue to the south, and I-94 to the north, is one of the wealthiest and most left-leaning legislative districts in the metro area.According to Mortensen, Republican candidates receive little more than 25 percent of the vote in the district.”We want people to understand that this is a winnable, competitive race,” Mortensen said. “The Green Party is an up-and-coming second party on the political landscape of St. Paul that’s committed to a vision of sustainability for the city.”Mortensen noted that the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood is 64A’s progressive epicenter and that, accordingly, students unsure as to whether they’ll vote here or in their home states should register in Minnesota.”This is not an incredibly populous district, and Macalester’s students have a real chance to swing the results of the election one way or the other,” he said.