Look around — it’s a beautiful day in Mr. Khaliq’s neighborhood

By Doug Grow
Contributing Writer

Certainly, the work Nick Davis/Nathaniel A. Khaliq has done in St. Paul has mattered. The neighborhoods around Selby-Dale are so much safer, so much improved over what they were at the height of the drug wars in the 1980s.

“But it’s time for new ideas, young blood,” said Khaliq of stepping down as president of the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP. “I want to have more time with all those grandchildren [13] I’ve got who are growing up so fast.”

He is leaving at a historic time for St. Paul. For the first time in the city’s history, it’s on the verge of sending an African American to the state legislature. And it looks like there will be two: Former Police Chief John Harrington is expected to win the East Side Senate seat held by Mee Moua, who is stepping down, and Rena Moran is expected to succeed Rep. Cy Thao, who also is stepping down.

Khaliq views these changes with mixed emotions. He doesn’t have great faith in Harrington’s commitment to inner-city issues. “He was a Republican until the day he filed to run for the Senate,” Khaliq said. “I saw [the news of his announcement] in the paper, and I was amazed. John Harrington, a DFLer!”

Besides, Moua was a powerful ally. “Whenever we had issues, we went to her,” he said, “and she understood.”

Though he didn’t support Moran in the primary, Khaliq does have high hopes for her and is certain she’ll be stronger than Thao. The intriguing question surrounding Harrington and Moran is why St. Paul never has had Black representation in the Legislature.

Testy labor relations

The only thing Khaliq can put his finger on is the power of labor in the DFL.

He believes “the good old boys” in labor have “pulled the plug” on substantial numbers of rising political figures in the city over the years.

He and Katie McWatt went many rounds with labor over the years regarding hiring practices. One incident stands out: Back in the 1980s, there was a community meeting with a carpenters’ union official. The issue was hiring more apprentice workers from the inner city.

It didn’t go well. “The guy says to me, ‘We’re not just going to hire some kid off Dale and Selby,’” Khaliq recalled. “I said to him, ‘You don’t have a problem hiring farm kids who can barely read. It seems to me your hiring practices are racist.’”

The labor official didn’t react well. “He slammed his briefcase shut, started walking out of the room, and said, ‘I’m not going to take that, you Black bastard.’”

Khaliq, who does not know who his father was, was furious. “We locked horns,” Khaliq recalled. “We tore up that room pretty good.”

The labor official left the room and headed to the police station, filing assault charges against Khaliq. When Khaliq learned the police were coming to arrest him, he filed assault charges against the labor official. (Both had bruises to prove their points.)

“It was a wash,” he said. But the incident underscores a problem that has not gone away. The relationship between some of the trades unions and African Americans remains shaky.

That also means, Khaliq said, that the trust people of color have in the DFL isn’t strong, either. “Years of disappointment,” said Khaliq.

In this year’s election, that could spell trouble for DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton. He needs large inner-city turnouts. Khaliq sees little interest in the governor’s race. “A lot of people don’t think it makes any difference,” Khaliq said.

He doesn’t necessarily buy that indifference, but it exists. Khaliq said Dayton has the right overall message — education, jobs, health care — but unless “he gets more specific, unless he comes and talks directly to people about specific things he has in mind,” he doesn’t see a high turnout.

The retired St. Paul firefighter seems to know everyone — of all races — in the community he’s done so much to save. Last week he sat in a coffee shop on a corner that once was controlled by thugs. He was trying to eat a waffle, but each person who entered the café headed to Khaliq. He’d stand, there’d be a hug, a conversation, some laughs and another hug.

The waffle grew cold. The hugs just kept on coming.

“Long time ago, we had a really tough spell,’’ said Khaliq of the neighborhood he loves. “Joe Soucheray [a Pioneer Press columnist] wrote that Hague Avenue was the worst street in America to live on. I invited him to come out and walk through the neighborhood with me. I don’t know how many times I asked him to come. He never would…

“Look around. It’s a great place.”

There’s a Katie McWatt Avenue. There’s a minority-owned coffee shop. There are affordable homes. Even a nice food co-op. You could call it Mr. Khaliq’s Neighborhood.

Thanks to Doug Grow and MinnPost — www.minnpost.com — for permission to reprint this story.