For Maplewood’s two candidates for mayor, name recognition is not much of an issue.
Nora Slawik and Diana Longrie share a high profile after years of political and community activism in the east-metro suburb of 36,000. Their styles and visions, however, represent a sharp contrast.
Slawik served seven terms in the Legislature, but this is her first bid for elected city office. She sits on Maplewood’s Parks and Recreation Commission. In September’s four-candidate primary, she earned 60 percent of the vote, Longrie 32 percent.
This is Longrie’s third run for mayor in Maplewood. In 2005, after two attempts at running for City Council, she defeated then-Council Member Will Rossbach for mayor by 6 percentage points. Four years later, Rossbach turned the tables and defeated Longrie to become mayor on a 14-percentage-point advantage. He is not running again.
Much of that 20-point swing can be attributed to Longrie’s stormy tenure in office, during which top city staff members were fired or left — sometimes amid accusations of cronyism. Maplewood was sued multiple times, it nearly lost its insurance, meetings were often long and chaotic and it was branded by the alternative weekly City Pages as “the Twin Cities’ most dysfunctional suburb.”
It was costly both in dollars and in terms of the city’s image. And while Longrie defends her record, Slawik said one of her main goals is to keep the city from regressing to those controversial times. “People really encouraged me to run, because we’ve had some leadership issues in Maplewood,” said Slawik, who works as educational director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. Maplewood’s voters are looking for stability, professionalism and responsiveness in their leaders, she added. “Part of the theme is ‘no shenanigans.’ ”
Slawik said those leadership qualities were honed during her years in the Legislature, where she worked on both local issues and those of broader regional importance. She helped secure funding for the purchase of land in the Fisk Creek Area Greenway and for the city’s new East Metro Regional Public Safety Training Center.
It’s also where she learned to forge ties across the political spectrum. Besides Rossbach and her DFL Party, Slawik points out that she also has been endorsed by labor unions and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
Staying in the spotlight
Longrie, who works as an attorney, has stayed active in local issues by hosting a cable-access TV program. During her last term as mayor, Longrie said, her goal was to engage as many people as possible in the city’s decisionmaking process. “I was the first woman mayor,” Longrie said. “And the Old Boys Club of Maplewood was not happy that I won.”
Longrie said her efforts to build consensus were rebuffed, and her political opponents worked behind the scenes to create the dysfunctional environment — especially when she set about to bring needed changes in City Hall.
“You have to look at who is calling it ‘turmoil,’ ” Longrie said. “According to the people who didn’t like the changes, they regarded it as turmoil.”
A top issue in this campaign is the city’s closure of two of its five fire stations, a decision driven by a shortage of firefighters — a growing problem in smaller cities across the state. The closings are aimed at better using the current part-time firefighting staff but also recruiting more of them.
The concern is that ambulances and fire trucks may not be able to respond as quickly. Maplewood’s stretched-out geography poses a challenge, and sometimes political divisions, in that regard. The city wraps around the northeast corner of St. Paul and then extends south all the way to Newport.
“We need to make sure that all residents from north to south get all of the emergency services that they need,” Slawik said. A new state-of-the-art fire station, with a Police Department substation, is being built on the 3M campus, but response times will be closely watched to see if changes are needed, she said.
Reopen a fire station?
Longrie questioned the decision, and said at least one of the fire stations should be reopened to ensure adequate coverage.
“The City Council did not really have a robust discussion on changing the policy and its consequences,” she said, adding that response time data can be easily manipulated.
Two of the City Council’s five at-large seats also are in contention in the Nov. 5 election. The four candidates are divided evenly between the Slawik and Longrie camps.
Incumbent Kathy Juenemann and challenger Marylee Abrams are aligned with Slawik; incumbent Rebecca Cave and challenger Margaret Behrens with Longrie.