Mayor Coleman looks to future of St. Paul, and to extend profile beyond

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2013 - 1:42 PM

Chris Coleman is poised to extend his profile beyond the Twin Cities. But for now, he’s making a case for a third term as mayor. “I love what we’ve done here,” he said.

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.

Fiscal issues

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.

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