He had been officially retired from the St. Paul City Council for just a day, but Jay Benanav said it already felt a bit weird not to have a seat at the meeting table on Wednesday. As the council prepared for a controversial zoning vote on the site of a proposed Trader Joe's, Benanav had an opinion but said it felt all right not have to vote on the matter.
"I'll have to e-mail my council member what I think," he said.
For 10 years, Benanav had been receiving that kind of e-mail, taking constituent phone calls and attending community meetings. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor and for judge. Never afraid to crack wise, ask a question or vote no, he might best be remembered as a master of compromise.
"He learned pretty early on it's a better outcome to try to forge a compromise," said Council President Kathy Lantry, a close ally who joined the council at the same time as Benanav.
"I learned a tremendous amount from him."
Benanav decided not to run for reelection in the Fourth Ward, which includes the Merriam Park, St. Anthony Park and Hamline-Midway neighborhoods. It's a ward of parks, universities and commercial and industrial areas; Russ Stark now holds the seat.
"For me, I just got to the point where I felt I was not as productive as I'd like to be," Benanav said.
"I noticed my concentration wasn't there.
"But it's been in many ways the most rewarding job I've ever had. No question about it."
Benanav, an unabashed liberal, arrived in Minnesota 31 years ago from New York with a law degree and passion for public policy. He has held positions with the state senate's commerce and employment committees; the state Department of Labor and Industry, and the Workers' Compensation Reinsurance Association.
Currently he works at the Weinblatt & Gaylord law firm in St. Paul, where he plans to do more immigration cases. He's also trying to expand a business, CAPlus, to help students get into college and reduce their debt when they get out.
Benanav's wife, Lucy Kanson, is a fifth-grade teacher, and they have three sons ranging in age from 26 to 18.
Recapping a decade, Benanav, 56, lists no single instance of success or failure.
"I'm looking at the totality of what happened in the 10 years I was there. Did I succeed in everything? No," he said. "But I lose sight of the things that didn't go as I'd hoped because I think you have to look at the big picture."
The big picture for Benanav, what he considers his greatest accomplishment, is a ward that he says has a better quality of life. Updated playgrounds, new neighborhood businesses, redeveloped industrial sites and a repaired relationship between the University of St. Thomas and its neighbors compose that picture.
"A lot of good things have happened," he said.
He does wish the Central Corridor light-rail line, from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, was closer to construction.
The St. Thomas situation is cited as the best example of his coalition-building skills. The university, in the heart of a residential neighborhood, wanted to expand. Neighbors were concerned, and the situation quickly got hostile. After five years of meetings and negotiations, St. Thomas and its neighbors reached agreement and formed an advisory committee that still meets regularly.
"He never really took a position. He tried to play it down the middle," said Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas. "I'll always be grateful for the role he played in forging an agreement."
Scott Banas is a former president of the Merriam Park Community Council and was involved in the talks.
"His skill is bringing diverse interests to the table and coming up with agreements that benefit everyone in some way," Banas said.
Critics have knocked Benanav for being anti-business. He opposed a sales-tax increase proposed by Mayor Norm Coleman and city subsidies proposed for the renovation of the downtown Macy's store. He also opposed a parking ramp and shopping center that replaced a parking lot at Victoria Street and Grand Avenue.
Jim Stolpestad, CEO of Exeter Realty Company, was the developer of that project. He said he and Benanav have had their share of disagreements. "I respect his intelligence and his integrity," he said.
Banas, who said he disagrees at times with Benanav, scoffs at the anti-development label.
"He understands development brings tax dollars to the city, but he always took neighborhood interests very, very seriously," he said. "In the process of melding those interests together, sometimes neighborhood interests won out."
Benanav lost two high-profile elections. He lost a bid for judge to Elena Ostby in 2006, and Randy Kelly defeated him by 403 votes in the 2001 mayoral race.
"Every time you lose it's discouraging," he said. "On the other hand, I really don't ruminate over it. I look forward, not backwards. Would life have been different? Sure it would have. But so what?"
Benanav figures he will be back in politics, perhaps as an appointed official.
"I'd be surprised if I don't get back into public policy in the relatively near future. Whether it's a month or six months, I don't know," he said. "I want the right opportunity. I want to really be able to make a difference."
Chris Havens • 651-298-1542