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.