Government can’t do everything, Chris Coleman is telling a lunch meeting of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. But it can set the table for investment, he says. And there’s no better time to invest in St. Paul than now.
“In just a year or so, a light-rail line will be bringing 40-plus thousand people into downtown St. Paul,” he says. “In just a year or so, people will be buying groceries at the Lunds store in downtown. In just a couple of years, people will be going out and buying a beer and watching a baseball game at the new regional ballpark.
“They’ll go into the refurbished Union Depot and hop on a train and be able to go to Chicago and points beyond, or Seattle, and connect to the region ... and it’s not just in downtown, but across the city.”
Coleman, a DFLer, hasn’t yet said he wants to be mayor of St. Paul for another four years. But in the speech he gave last month at the University of St. Thomas, he was laying out all the reasons why he should be.
After guiding the city through a rocky economy and over budget cliffs left by slashes in federal and state aid, he heads into an election year in perhaps the best shape of his 13-year political career — and poised to extend his public profile beyond the Twin Cities.
With his leprechaun grin, political lineage and consuming love for hockey, Coleman, 51, fits into St. Paul’s landscape as seamlessly as Mancini’s and old Rondo. He is the city’s first born-and-bred mayor since Jim Scheibel, and the first since Scheibel to be DFL-endorsed.
Several downtown and neighborhood projects are about to open, the city budget has stabilized and he’s soon to become a national spokesman on urban issues as president of the National League of Cities.
Key to his optimism for downtown is the $957 million Central Corridor light-rail line to Minneapolis, which will begin running next year and already shows signs of whetting development interest.
And after years of playing junior partner to R.T. Rybak in the Twin Cities’ mayors club, Coleman will gain the top spot — and likely more visibility — when Rybak leaves Minneapolis City Hall next January.
Now he’s preparing to do something no St. Paul mayor has done since George Latimer in 1980: seek a third term. The mayor probably won’t officially enter the race until after his State of the City address in late March, but he says the announcement won’t be a surprise.
“I think the challenge of the next four years will be to make sure that we don’t sit back and rest on our laurels,” he said last week, in an interview at his City Hall office.
Although he has only one opponent so far, campaign themes already are taking shape. Green Party members say that he’s done little to close income gaps and paid too much attention to big business at the expense of local start-ups. Republicans tag him for higher taxes and city fees, ongoing unemployment and the mismanaged St. Paul Police Department’s crime lab.
“I don’t know that four more years of Chris Coleman will move the city in the direction I think it should be moved, ” said Roger Meyer, a consultant who is seeking the Green Party nod for mayor.
But Coleman is confident St. Paul is on the right track and that the word is getting around.
“We have governed through one of the worst economic times in the history of the country, but we’ve done it in a way that’s moved the city forward and positioned it really well for the future, ” the mayor said.
In 1960, DFL leaders asked a young St. Paul advertising executive to run for mayor. Nicholas Coleman, more interested in legislating, turned them down. “I just didn’t want to be mayor. I never did think it was a very good job, ” he said later, according to biographer John Watson Milton.
Today Nick Coleman’s bust — a copy of one at the State Capitol, where he is remembered as a great Senate leader 32 years after his death — has an honored place in the City Hall office of his sixth child, who won the family nickname “Shadow” for tailing him.
City Council President Kathy Lantry, who has worked with Coleman since both were elected to the council in 1997, said that he was faced early in his first term with the task of righting St. Paul’s fiscal house as state aid was cut and reserves dried up after a decade without tax hikes.
“We were able to maintain most city services, although it wasn’t without pain, ” Lantry said. “Chris came into office and every fund had been raided and shift accomplished. He made some really hard choices.”
In Coleman’s first three years, the property tax levy rose annually by 8.6 percent, 14.6 percent and 9 percent. Business licenses, permits and other fees went up.
But city departments also were audited to root out wasteful practices, and services like recreation centers were consolidated to save money. He pressed for a budget that pays for services with permanent revenues, not one-time fixes.
“I see a traditional liberal DFLer when it comes to social issues, but a conservative mayor when it comes to managing, ” said Chamber President Matt Kramer, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “I’ve only seen two budgets so far and I have nits, but they’ve been structurally balanced and they’ve been thoughtful.”
Another Republican who professes to be a Coleman fan is Chris Georgacas, former state GOP party chairman and president and CEO of Goff Public, a St. Paul public relations firm co-founded by Coleman’s father in the 1960s.
“Chris is a passionate liberal, there’s no question, but as a City Council member and as mayor he’s also been practical, works to accommodate people and reach positive solutions, ” Georgacas said.
One of Coleman’s prime goals as mayor has been to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. He added an education liaison to his staff, launched the Second Shift initiative to boost after-school programs at libraries and recreation centers, and worked with St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva to develop Sprockets, an out-of-school program offering students a choice of activities to try out.
Said Latimer, a longtime mentor to Coleman: “He’s the only mayor ever, including me, who ever ran right from the beginning and talked about kids and the importance of this city as a livable and opportunity-laden place for kids.”
Jim Ivey, a Lowertown software company owner who ran for the City Council in 2011 as a Green Party candidate, counters that Coleman lacks a strategic vision to reduce poverty. He said the mayor isn’t creating enough living-wage jobs and lacks a liaison in his office to help small businesses.
“He’s not creating a pathway for people to get out of poverty and be sustainable, ” Ivey said.
In answer, Coleman points to the school initiatives. “That is my long-term antipoverty program, ” he said. “If I’ve got a kid that successfully completes high school, goes to college, gets a job, there’s nothing more important that we can do for that child.”
Eva Ng, a conservative businesswoman who lost by a large margin to Coleman in the 2009 mayoral race, said the Central Corridor light-rail line was a costly mistake and blames the mayor for losing the Ford plant, Macy’s and Cupcake, a popular restaurant that planned to open on Grand Avenue before going to the Mall of America. “All of these things don’t bode well, ” she said.
Unlike four years ago, when he considered a run for governor in the middle of his campaign against Ng, Coleman said he’s not thinking right now about his political prospects. If the time was right, he said, he could see himself seeking statewide office — although perhaps not anytime soon. “We have a good governor who I support, ” he said.
“Do I wake up every morning going, ‘I’ve got to figure out how I can do that or how I maneuver that,’ or whatever? That’s just not who I am,” he said. “But I think I have the kind of profile that would really work well on a statewide race, if that were an opportunity to come up.”
University of Minnesota political science Prof. Larry Jacobs said that Coleman has been “a steady competent manager during turbulent times” but questioned whether he’s distinguished himself enough in DFL circles to be a favorite for the next job opening.
“He’s not flamboyant like R.T., doesn’t have the big plan like Jesse Ventura or the splashy deals like Norm Coleman,” he said.
On other hand, Hamline political science Prof. Joe Peschek said that Coleman isn’t typecast as a Twin Cities liberal. “His family, his looks, his policies would have appeal,” Peschek said. “He’s not the darling of the progressive activists within the DFL, but he seems to have inoculated himself against a [party] challenger from the left.”
Coleman said that if he never holds another office beyond mayor, he would be perfectly content. It’s just as likely that he’ll wind up a fly-fishing guide in Montana, he said.
“To be a St. Paul kid, to be the mayor of the city that you grew up in, born and raised in, raised your family in — how could you ever have more of an honor?” he said. “I love what we’ve done here.”