St. Paul's Dave Thune keeps council on edge

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2012 - 11:00 PM

Business community unhappy with his delays, unpredictability.

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In 2005, Dave Thune toasted St. Paul's smoking ban by raising a glass of ice water.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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With a restaurateur's $10 million expansion in the balance, St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune on Tuesday pulled a familiar maneuver from his repertoire.

He moved -- without consulting colleagues -- to delay the vote on a variance sought by Dave Cossetta, owner of the landmark W. 7th Street restaurant in Thune's ward. Thune said he wanted to work on a compromise, so the action was postponed by the council for a second time.

The move was classic Thune. By turns collegial and confounding, the Harley-Davidson-riding, flashy-dressing, plain-spoken council member has been front and center on several high-profile issues in recent months. He stepped in front of the city's proposed Lilydale Regional Park renovation and became entangled in parking and patio issues involving St. Paul restaurants.

Representing Grand Avenue, downtown, W. 7th Street and the West Side, Thune can agitate business owners, colleagues and staff alike. He's considered a formidable ally and a ferocious foe. Although he has fans, there are many who hesitate to criticize him and risk angering him.

Thune, who is 61 and beginning his seventh term, shirks from no sensitive issues and offers no apologies.

"I just don't mind having things being occasionally hard-edged and combative," he said, adding that if he "ruffles feathers, that's OK. This isn't a parlor game."

Thune diverges from the buttoned-down approach taken by most elected officials both in his actions and attire. He attends council meetings dressed in Hawaiian print shirts. At a recent ribbon-cutting for a major project, he wore a neon yellow shirt with writing and pictures on the front. He's an artist who contributes to a small gallery attached to the Mad Hatter coffee shop he owns on W. 7th.

Ask about his flamboyance and Thune makes the point that he isn't a "clown," that he is "deadly serious" about his work and notes that he is a successful business owner. As for his shirts, Thune said, "I try not to wear anything I couldn't wear to crawl under my truck and fix my starter." But he added, "I know how to dress for a funeral."

He moved to St. Paul from North Dakota when he was an architecture graduate fresh out of college with a job at the Minnesota Historical Society. He's been married to his high school sweetheart, a registered nurse, for 41 years and they have three grown children.

'What Dave am I going to get?'

On the council, Thune said, he has tried to compromise while being the "voice" of neighborhoods. Some say that often means bowing to the whims of a small but vocal contingent.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, however, said Thune's unpredictability, not his personality, is a problem for businesses. "I always enjoy his company, but I always struggle with: What Dave am I going to get?"

Thune has long been known for his activism and willingness to go his own way. He represented the Second Ward from 1990 to 1998 when he stepped down. He has been re-elected three times since 2004 and says this term will be his last.

He cites the revitalization of W. 7th Street as his legacy, taking the artery from a haven for prostitution to a corridor of renewal.

Thune's activism on W. 7th dates to 1975, when he bought a boarded-up house on what is now the chic Irvine Park just off downtown. Over the years, he's pushed St. Paul to the vanguard on groundbreaking changes from a human rights ordinance in 1990 to a smoking ban in 2006 -- even though he still struggles to kick the habit himself.

That was the only time Pat Mancini, owner of his namesake W. 7th Street bar and restaurant, said he did not got along with Thune, who pushed for St. Paul to adopt the ban before other Minnesota cities.

Mancini, who once unsuccessfully backed a Thune challenger in an election, said the council member "has always told me how he felt. He's never hidden anything."

Too unpredictable

Some say, however, that Thune's behavior careens beyond advocacy and at times is inscrutable and confounding, even to business owners in his ward.

The owner of the Wild Onion, a popular Grand Avenue eatery, sued over Thune's refusal to allow alcohol on the patio until 9:30 p.m.

"His priorities, where his stances come from, I don't get it," said Mike Costello, owner of the Selby Avenue bar carrying his name.

Costello fought Thune's push for a smoking ban and called out the council member for protesting at the 2008 Republican National Convention, which occurred in Thune's ward. Costello said he was upset that Thune was protesting major convention activity in the downtown portion of his own ward.

In a response publicized at the time, Thune dismissed him with an e-mail containing an epithet and profanity. "For him to respond to me like that, I mean, come on, I'm a taxpayer in St. Paul," Costello said.

Kramer said one version of Thune can helpfully put his "energy and enthusiasm" behind something such as the new regional ballpark in Lowertown. Then there's the Thune who makes it difficult for businesses in the city by battling them over parking and patio space.

"I'm frustrated the good Dave morphs into the Dave that believes variances are a good way to do business," Kramer said. "The No. 1 thing business wants is predictability."

Thune defends the delays he initiates as attempts to keep the conversation going and reach compromise. Kramer countered that those discussions should come in the weeks leading to the council meeting.

"We're not adding value by postponing the decision. In the end you're making it harder," Kramer said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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