At five months in to the job, Amáda Márquez Simula doesn’t want the fact that she’s Mayor of Columbia Heights to change who she is, though she said she’s learning patience and working on saying no or “not now” to some things she finds interesting.
Mayor is a part-time job that’s been held, over time, by business owners, employed people, and retired people alike. Márquez Simula manages the Columbia Heights Public Schools Adult Enrichment and Senior Program, a flexible 20 hours per week. Shadowing her for part of an afternoon May 20 consisted of the following:
At 1:00, before I joined her, she greeted folks taking a Zoom class through Columbia Heights Community Education. “I’ve held sessions to make sure our participants know how to use Zoom. I stop in to welcome them, promote our other programs and then the instructor takes over.”
At 2:00 Márquez Simula switched over to being mayor, talking privately on Zoom with a constituent who had questions about the curfew imposed when Daunte Wright was killed.
We met at city hall, where a folder full of papers awaited signatures, at 2:40, winding our way through back rooms to a windowless but spacious mayor’s office chatting about the new city hall being built. There won’t be a mayor’s office at the new place, but Márquez Simula plans to reserve one of the conference rooms for regular hours to meet with constituents. There should be a safe space for any of the council to meet, she said.
What I’d promised would be a casual walk-and-talk was turning into an across-the-desk interview, so we headed for a next stop after quickly checking voice mail. Two were hang-ups, one woman didn’t give a name but expressed dismay at Hy-Vee abandoning their plans. Another was a familiar constituent to call back.
Márquez Simula explained that she once worked at a desk where so many people stopped by to chat, it was hard to get work done. “So I resist the urge to interrupt the staff,” but there was the signed paperwork to hand to Nicole Tingley, City Clerk, and accolades to Ben Sandell, who produces the city’s newsletter and handed us a couple hot off the press.
Márquez Simula said the staff have been great, supporting the council to be prepared and letting the community know what’s going on. The current staff, many of whom are new, have learned a lot about each others’ jobs and departments, and are working across departments on many initiatives, including the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. The recent additions of Sandell and Will Rottler, communications and events specialist, have also increased communication within the staff as well as the public.
Meeting the public
“Want to see my back-yard chickens?” Of course. I could compare their “pandemic project” coop to my neighbor’s. It is awesome. “We were going to go to Croatia, but that couldn’t happen so we did this.” Amada and husband Frost Simula, a user-experience engineer, live close to the school complex on 49th Avenue, so we parked at her house and walked to our next stop, a vaccination clinic.
“No mow May,” she waves at the yard – good for early pollinators and self-seeding of grass. Meet “Tony and Tina,” the storm drains they’ve adopted along 49th.
We pinned on “vaccinated” buttons that Márquez Simula made with a tool given to her during the campaign. Her choice for the day: A rainbow with “I’m vaccinated. I’m not invincible though.”
The Columbia Heights Fire Department took the lead in learning how to vaccinate people and staffed two events that took care of about 1,000 people with two doses recently. On May 20, they did an event at Columbia Heights High School’s Hylander Center co-sponsored with the Anoka County Health Department. Between noon and 4 p.m. about 400 got vaccines. The second-shot clinic would be held on the last day of school; “perfect timing,” Fire Chief Charlie Thompson said. Among the people waiting the 15 minutes after the shot, we observed 90% were people of color. Spanish and Somali translators were on hand.
Person of color
Marquez Simula’s heritage is Mexican. She has heard from many people who share her values of enjoying the diversity in this small town. About the time we started to arrange our shadow day, Daunte Wright, a former Columbia Academy student, was killed. She worked with the school district to hold a vigil within three days, which gave students a safe place to process their feelings…250 attended including 47 staff, where she had hoped for a minimum of 15.
Event planning comes easily to Márquez Simula. She has worked, through HeightsNEXT, on many Stories of Our Neighborhoods gatherings where speakers look at a theme; a particular ethnic group or characteristic, and held a Mayor’s Town Hall, “Hearing from Our Neighbors of Color and Healing Together” March 27.
Márquez Simula has initiated meetings with groups of East African community members, three so far, and plans at least quarterly check-ins with other groups of people of color. The goal, “listening and providing services everybody needs. It will benefit everybody.”
A group of elected people of color from all around the state have been meeting by Zoom. “We don’t have a name, we just meet,” Márquez Simula laughed. “That has been very helpful, and we can email or text each other for support. Many of us are new, and like myself, have not held office before. We’re the first people of color elected in our towns or offices, no one paved the way.
“Because I’m the first Chicana woman elected to office here I sometimes see things from a different perspective. When you’re in a multicultural group it takes more time and energy to help other people to understand what you’re seeing or feeling. Many, many people are supportive but there are always people who push back on my perspective and that makes my job a little bit harder. I always try to see it from their perspective and I’m grateful when they try to see it from mine. And when everyone does this I think we come to better decisions that benefit the whole community,” Márquez Simula said.
Later reflecting on a city council that might appear to outsiders to be from a past era, Márquez Simula said everyone embraced her addition of a Native American land acknowledgement for the city’ 100-year anniversary. “I think everyone wants to change with the times, we’re all just getting there in different ways.”
Community volunteerism and the city’s bright future
Amáda and/or Frost attended many council meetings and work sessions in the eight years they’ve lived in Heights, so she’s had the advantage of knowing names and job functions. No real surprises about the mayor job. “What is proving important is listening to people and getting back to them. Some take more looking into, than others.” She likes to say “yes” and looks for the “win-win” even if one win isn’t quite as big as the other.
She said she’s careful to delineate when she’s volunteering as a community member, versus when she’s asking as mayor for the staff to do something. “Everyone is so helpful. I don’t want to abuse that.”
Community volunteerism has risen in the last five years, Márquez Simula said, and not just in Columbia Heights, where HeightsNEXT started in 2016 and a Peaceful Community Facebook group has 2,700 members. She credits national politics with inspiring people to reach out and get involved locally, that “unless I get involved, I’m not helping.” “I love listening to what people are interested in, and I love connecting them.” She gave an example of people wanting to do something with high school youth, and ending up creating a family scholarship.
As we wandered to the two future development sites along Jackson Street (the would-have-been Hy-Vee and the Reuter Walton affordable housing proposal next to the fire station) Márquez Simula rolled down the window of her dark blue Nissan Leaf to yell greetings to Nathan Roberts driving a First Lutheran Church van. He’s out driving kids home after a fun day at First Lutheran Church’s afterschool program, she explained.
“I grew up in a town of 1,500 but I know more people here than I ever did then. Of course, a high school kid probably doesn’t interact with so many adults,” even someone as active as she: in musical theater, marching band (percussion), cheerleading and more, in a graduating class of 90 students.
We talked about naturally occurring affordable housing and how new housing projects should at least pull folks who can afford the convenience of the apartments, leaving their homes for others to afford.
She reflected on the statement “we want a real grocery store.” To me the little groceries, the Mexican grocery store a mile from my home that wasn’t here when I moved in; they’re real grocery stores. I wish more community members would visit the Supermercado and other grocery stores in our city and see how great they are. I’m a huge supporter of small businesses.
The former Hy-Vee site might still include a grocery store anchoring a retail strip of 20,000 to 60,000 square feet total.
Asked for last words, the mayor reflected on her desire to see, for example, a wine bar/coffee shop with a stage and books and curios to buy. Various restrictions have been loosened to pave the way for new types of businesses in Columbia Heights.
“Move here, bring your businesses here. We are transforming in a smart way.”
Below: Mayor Márquez Simula signs documents. The back yard chicken coop has covered roosts and nesting boxes, plus a wire enclosed yard. Fire Chief Charlie Thompson chats with Amáda Márquez Simula, who stopped by to thank the organizers at the May 20 vaccination event at Hylander Center. Márquez Simula said she’s still getting used to introducing herself as mayor, and looks forward to attending as many events as possible when more gatherings start to happen. During the pandemic which overlapped the campaign, she and her volunteers communicated with constituents by telephone. (Photos by Margo Ashmore)