St. Cloud – Dave Kleis' recipe for a better St. Cloud simmers in a Crock-Pot on his kitchen counter.
Once a month, the 53-year-old mayor of this central Minnesota city makes a point of inviting seven strangers into his house for a night of getting to know one another over a bowl of his homemade chili.
"The whole purpose of this is just to have a conversation," Kleis said last week as he stirred his latest batch of soup and warmed up some bread before his guests arrived for a hot meal and two-hour meeting. "No rules."
From addressing constituents in weekly videos to hosting town hall discussions across the city, Kleis' dinner dates are all part of his grand plan to find new ways to connect with an increasingly diverse constituency. So far, the former Republican legislator believes, it seems to be making a difference.
Just a year ago, this heavily German and Catholic community of 67,000 residents along the Mississippi River was put on edge and thrust into the national spotlight after a 20-year-old Somali refugee stabbed and wounded 10 people at a local mall. Fears of an anti-Muslim backlash followed, and many here worried that the killer may have had ties to a terrorist network. A year later, the FBI hasn't been able to pinpoint the attacker's motives or link him to ISIS.
But it's what didn't happen afterward, Kleis said, that was so telling about his city: There was no mass demonstration or violence. Rather, St. Cloud rallied to denounce the attack and promote racial harmony.
"We've been building community all that time," Kleis said of the dinners and meetings. "You never know if they're doing anything until a time of crisis."
Last week, a year after the Crossroads Center stabbings, Kleis, now in his 12th year as mayor, held his 616th town hall meeting in the mall's food court. Days after the attack, to show residents they shouldn't be afraid to shop there, he bought a suit at Macy's, where an off-duty officer shot and killed the suspect. Last week, he returned to buy another one.
As teens clutched shopping bags, Kleis sat in the food court and listened as residents aired their concerns and complaints.
When Kleis first ran for office in 2005, he made two promises: Return paddle boats to a local lake after budget cuts and hold weekly town hall meetings. The boats returned that spring and the meetings, which draw anywhere from several hundred people to a handful, have been constant ever since — in parks, at coffee shops, even on a city bus.
"If you're only hearing from people willing to speak at a public meeting, you're missing things," Kleis said. "Government should be open and transparent and that means accessibility. ... If you do that on a regular basis, you create that trust. Nothing can fester."
Meeting No. 615
On a Tuesday night earlier this month, cars buzzed past a downtown plaza as Kleis, looking worried, stood next to a statute of Abraham Lincoln. His 615th town hall meeting was scheduled to start, but no one had shown up yet.
Just then, an older man in a Twins cap walked by and recognized the mayor.
"What's on your mind?" Kleis asked as the man sat down. They chatted about the noise of a passing train, a new trail along the Mississippi River and road construction.
"How long have you been mayor?" the man asked.
"Twelve years — a long time," Kleis answered.
Kleis, a Litchfield, Minn. native and second youngest of eight children, first ran for mayor in 1989 as a senior at St. Cloud State University. But he got only 96 votes, finishing eighth in an eight-candidate field despite plastering 700 signs all across town.
After he graduated with degrees in political science and history, he decided to stay in St. Cloud, buying a modest white house off the city's main drag and opening a driving school. But he didn't give up on politics.
In 1995, at 29, he won a spot in the state Senate and worked in the Legislature until 2005, when local residents showed up at his door asking him to run for mayor. He won, and has been re-elected three times since, running unopposed each time.
Teresa Bohnen of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, said Kleis is "a really tough person to beat," in large part because "he's as honest as they come."
He's a workhorse, too. Single with no children, Kleis squeezes in weekly town hall meetings between attending regular City Council meetings, making weekly videos — which include his home phone number — leading history tours on a trolley and hosting twice-weekly radio town hall discussions.
Even when he's not at work, he is — a cutout of the mayor smiling and waving greets visitors at the entrance of his office.
"I jokingly say he's married to the city," said Council Member Jeff Johnson. "I can't remember a mayor that's been this involved."
St. Cloud has a strong mayor-council system, which means the mayor is like the CEO in a full-time job, hiring staff and holding veto power over council decisions. Over the years, Kleis has had his share of disagreements with other officials, city leaders say. But while they may differ on some policies, they add, Kleis always stays calm and cool.
"The mayor himself leads by example," Council President Carol Lewis said. "He's engaging with everybody."
Dinner with the mayor
A German cuckoo clock from St. Cloud's sister city chimed as seven strangers sat in a circle in Kleis' sparsely decorated downstairs living room one night last week. Pins dotted a world map marking Kleis' travels.
Kleis offered up two kinds of chili — with meat and without — which he pays for out of his own pocket. As he and his guests talk, he steers clear of political partisanship and encourages them to volunteer to serve on boards or commissions. But the main goal of the home-cooked dinners that he started two years ago is conversation.
On this night, the group includes a 12-year-old girl from a blended family, a couple originally from Africa who moved here after years in Arizona, a pair of sisters who are refugees and young mothers, and a couple — toting their smiley 5-month-old daughter — who grew up in the area.
Different as they are, they bond over what drew them to St. Cloud: the ease of navigating a small city, the universities, the diversity of the population and the close-knit blocks where neighborhood kids run house to house to play.
All say they heard about Kleis' dinners while attending community events, and all were surprised to be invited to dinner at his home.
"You have a great city, mayor," said William Tuoy-Giel, a Sudan native who lived in Phoenix for years before moving here with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. Tuoy-Giel now runs a student program at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.
After two hours of conversation, Kleis posed for selfies with his guests before they departed one-by-one into the cool September night.
"Dinners like this," Tuoy-Giel said, "prove this can be our home."