Labor endorsed in Ward 2, Tobolt ready to stand up for working families ‘on day one’

(by Michael Moore, Union Advocate) When a non-union electrical contractor was undermining area wages and benefits on a project funded by Ramsey County several years back, IBEW Local 110’s Brian Winkelaar didn’t think twice about what to do. He called Darren Tobolt, County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt’s longtime assistant. “I called him up and said, ‘Darren, how come they’re on this project?’” Winkelaar remembered. “He called me back five minutes later, and they were off the site.”

Now, Local 110 is supporting Tobolt in his campaign for St. Paul City Council, and the Electrical Workers are not alone. Nurses, Firefighters, Steelworkers, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federationand others have endorsed Tobolt, making him the only labor candidate in a tight race to succeed Dave Thune in Ward 2.

“He asked for our endorsement, and I didn’t waver for one minute,” Winkelaar said. “He truly believes in our movement, in our cause and in what we do – Project Labor Agreements, prevailing wages, family-supporting careers. He gets it. I don’t need to educate him on our issues.”

Tobolt said his vision for the city is to “keep building on what we’ve been accomplishing, but making sure that we’re bringing everyone along.” That means making sure all workers have access to earned sick and safe time, fighting wage theft and raising wages, he said.

“My experience working with everyone across St. Paul for such a long time means I’m ready to do the job on day one,” Tobolt said. “I’ve spent 20 years engaging and making sure people have a voice in politics. People understand that and remember that.”

Union roots

Tobolt grew up in a middle-class, union family. His father worked began his career as a telephone man with Northwest Bell and retired from Qwest, a member of the Communications Workers of America throughout his career. His mother sold Tupperware, and watching her work gave Darren a healthy appreciation for organizing and networking.

Those are skills he’s put to use in several roles since graduating from the University of Minnesota – as a community organizer for ACORN, working on Paul Wellstone’s first Senate campaign, running get-out-the-vote efforts statewide for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, as chair of the St. Paul DFL and, for the last 17 years, as the top aide to Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt.

A longtime ally of organized labor, Reinhardt describes Tobolt as “a caring, compassionate, listening, dedicated person with a keen eye toward what is fair, what is right.”

Community connections

Tobolt and his wife, Wendy Underwood, live in the West 7th neighborhood, where they’ve established deep roots. She serves on the St. Paul Planning Commission, and he has served on his district council, the Fort Road Federation, as well the board of Transit for Livable Communities, a transportation-based nonprofit.

As proof of his readiness to deliver results for Ward 2, Tobolt points to his service on the City of St. Paul’s task force on public facilities. Tobolt served as chair of the task for last year, when it secured funding for needed improvements to Ward 2’s Palace Rec Center.

Tobolt also has been an advocate for his neighborhood in planning sessions for potential enhancement of the West 7th Street corridor, connecting downtown St. Paul with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“Whenever we’re doing work on our streets, I want to make sure we’re making them complete streets, building safe crossings and making them safe for all users,” he said. “If there’s a train, we need to make sure it isn’t a train that goes through our neighborhood, but that it actually serves our neighborhood.”

Labor endorsed

When he walked into screenings with St. Paul unions and labor federations early in the Ward 2 campaign, Tobolt’s was a familiar face to union activists and labor leaders like Linda Hamilton, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

“Darren has been a leader in his community, organizing around the issues that matter to working families,” Hamilton said. “He has dedicated his life to public service and has worked hard bringing people together to get things done for this community.

“Nurses support Darren Tolbot because we share the value that ‘we all do better, when we all do better.’”

As her assistant, Reinhardt said, Tobolt developed “a strong background in labor issues, working with union folks on prevailing wage, ordinances regarding contracting and PLA’s.”

Tobolt worked on Ramsey County’s push for a stronger prevailing wage ordinance, which prevent contractors on publicly funded projects from bringing in low-paid workers and undercutting the area standard of living. As a result, the Ramsey County Attorney’s office created a position dedicated entirely to prevailing-wage enforcement.

It’s something Tobolt hopes to replicate in St. Paul.

“We need to work across boundaries,” he said. “If you’re an irresponsible bidder for Ramsey County, you’re going to be an irresponsible bidder for St. Paul, for school boards and other, smaller municipalities. It works better if we all work together.

“The money the city spends is the public’s money, so it should reflect our public values. And our values include making sure workers are adequately compensated and fairly treated.” 

Michael Moore is the editor of the Union Advocate.