George Latimer is still unpacking his new sixth-floor apartment off University Avenue in St. Paul, but already he loves it. There’s room enough for his books and ample wall space for dozens of family photos, and he can hear the faint clang of the Green Line train as it rumbles on the street below.
“The only real barrier,” the former St. Paul mayor chuckled, “is that it’s got a view of Minneapolis. I just close the blinds.”
Twenty-five years after his whirlwind six-term mayoral run ended, Latimer, 79, is relishing the prospect of downsizing. With his longtime Crocus Hill home on the market, he spends his days working part time as a labor arbitrator, visiting his five children and 11 grandchildren, and enjoying the company of old friends.
But Saturday morning, at a University of Minnesota seminar revisiting his political life, he’ll look back at the heady days when he stirred a slumbering city, challenged a governor from his own DFL Party and became one of Minnesota’s most colorful and consequential politicians.
“I’ve had nothing but good work my whole life,” Latimer said in an interview last week, “but no work I ever did was more fulfilling to me than those 13½ years.”
After being largely outside the public spotlight for several years, Latimer is winning fresh attention. He received the ultimate St. Paul accolade last summer when the city’s central library on Rice Park was named for him, an honor that he said has no equal.
Many of St. Paul’s recent successes — Lowertown redevelopment, energy regeneration, the Mississippi riverfront, even light-rail transit on University Avenue — trace their roots to the Latimer years, from 1976 to 1990. Some of what he proposed back then, such as a bicycle commuter network, is only now reaching the drawing board.
Latimer is the first to admit that not everything worked as planned. The massive Galtier Plaza housing and retail project that lost millions for developers and scared investors away from downtown St. Paul, he said, “was a huge overreach.” And he still kicks himself for allowing a developer to build the Town Square office, hotel and retail complex with ugly, prestressed concrete.
Innovation, too, had its limits. Looking for a faster way to take down diseased elm trees, Latimer once directed crews to remove trees with heavy cranes rather than chopping them into chunks. The first tree swung through the chimney of one house and took out the front porch of another.
“That ended the great experiment,” he said.
But his successors say that Latimer, in the words of DFL Mayor Chris Coleman, was “one of the most transformational mayors in the history of the city.”
“George Latimer was an inspiration to me. He was a visionary,” said former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican who became mayor four years after Latimer and built on his riverfront initiative. “He really was one of America’s great mayors at the time.”
Charmed by the city
Latimer, a native of Schenectady, N.Y., first came to St. Paul in the summer of 1962 with his wife, Nancy, to work as a law clerk. They fell in love with the city, he said, and returned the next year after he graduated from law school.
He was charmed by the city’s sense of history and also struck, he said, by how much residents identified with their neighborhoods, a parochialism that he found “rich and intimate” as well as limiting.
The city’s biggest problem, he felt, was that its corporate tycoons and DFL leaders at City Hall didn’t get along. Hoping to bridge that gap, the 40-year-old labor lawyer with the jet-black beard ran for mayor in 1976 and won with 52 percent of the vote.
David Lanegran, who teaches urban studies and geography at Macalester College in St. Paul, said Latimer brought two main strengths to the job: loads of charisma and a knack for getting smart people to work for him.
“He was willing to experiment and able to carry forward other people’s ideas with great vigor and effectiveness, and that’s the mark of a good mayor,” Lanegran said.
Latimer could also play hardball. When he sought a $10 million grant from the McKnight Foundation in 1978 to leverage funding for Lowertown’s rebirth, Honeywell chief executive James Binger asked him if the city couldn’t make do with less.
“I looked him in the eye and I lied,” Latimer said. “I said, ‘Mr. Binger, a dime less than $10 million simply wouldn’t do the job.’ ” He got the money.
Running for governor
As his profile grew, the witty and unpredictable Latimer (when asked why he was running again for mayor, he replied, “You have to be a little nuts to do it, and I qualify”) became one of the state’s biggest political draws. Even Minneapolis Republicans such as Dan Cohen showed up for Latimer appearances.
“He’s worth the price of admission,” Cohen said.
In 1986, with DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich’s poll numbers flatlining and Latimer’s name recognition soaring, the St. Paul mayor decided to take on the governor. But there was little difference politically between the two men, and Latimer said he never really told voters why he should replace Perpich. The governor beat him handily in the primary. It was the last campaign Latimer ever ran.
“I wanted to run for governor in the worst way,” Latimer said. “And I did!”
Latimer’s last couple of years in office were clouded by charges of corruption in the police and fire departments, and he decided not to run for re-election in 1989. He became dean of the Hamline University Law School, and then spent three years flying to Washington, D.C., as special assistant to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. In 1996, he began teaching urban studies at Macalester.
Nancy Latimer died in 2006, after dealing with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for more than two years. Her husband called that time of taking care of her “a gift. It’s a crazy thing to say, but I still feel that way.”
Latimer said he’s dismayed by the cynicism that many feel about government, but encouraged by the idealism and energy of young people looking to get into elected office.
To make tough decisions, he said, you need to be comfortable in your own skin, have enough self-confidence to persuade others that you’re right and maintain a basic trust in people.
“I was a person long before I was a politician,” Latimer said. “People are fun, and there’s nothing more interesting to me than human beings if you take time to listen and try to respect them. Yeah, I had fun.”