A citizen of St. Cloud called the mayor’s office Wednesday to complain about a traffic problem. Mayor Dave Kleis was delighted.
“We’re back to some normalcy!” Kleis exuded the next day.
Well, some. It will take more time for the 10 people who were stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant at the Crossroads Center mall on Sept. 17 to heal physically and emotionally. Same goes for the other victims of 20-year-old Dahir Adan — among whom Kleis counts the off-duty cop who stopped Adan’s rampage, the event’s witnesses, the mall’s businesses, the city’s Somali-American community and pretty much everybody who calls St. Cloud home.
But the messages that flowed out of Kleis’ town in the days after the bloodshed exhibited a degree of civic health and cohesion that some might call remarkable — especially those who remember St. Cloud’s reputation a generation ago as a city less than tolerant of human differences.
There were appealing images of a young woman in a hijab playing patty-cake with a plump pink baby; black and white students singing while holding hands high, and the black police chief and white mayor side by side outside the mall on Saturday night and again through the week. “We actually went shopping together,” Kleis said with laugh.
It was telling that Twin Cities newsies looking for white backlash to Adan’s outrage had to go to little Lonsdale, in the opposite direction from St. Cloud, to find a display of intolerance — “Muslims get out” on a small restaurant’s road sign.
Kleis reported with pride that he’d seen no such sentiment writ publicly in St. Cloud. One outbreak of Confederate flag-wavers zipping through a Somali-American neighborhood Saturday night remained by Friday just that — one outbreak.
The mayor’s pride is justified. St. Cloud’s remarkably quiet week was no accident. It was the consequence of years of intentional effort by civic leaders to not just cope with demographic change, but thrive as a result of it.
The change in St. Cloud’s population has been dramatic. As recently as 1990, St. Cloud’s nonwhite population stood at 3 percent, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. By 2010, it was 17 percent. That share has likely continued to grow in this decade.
Change in racial composition has been accompanied by rapid growth in the city as a whole. With an estimated 67,000 people last year, the city is a third larger than it was a quarter-century ago and ranks fourth-fastest-growing in the state.
That growth has made St. Cloud richer in many ways, Kleis says. But the gain hasn’t yet shown up in median incomes. On the contrary: The most recent five-year averages put the city’s median income at $44,485; in 2000, it was $53,081 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Those numbers add up to a high potential for strain in race relations. St. Cloud leaders saw enough of that by 2003 to start meeting regularly to combat it. The result is a smart homegrown organization called Create CommUNITY. It brings together local leaders of many stripes to ask each other what their respective organizations can do to root out systemic racism in St. Cloud.
Create CommUNITY has been key to building racial harmony in St. Cloud, Kleis says. “It’s how we hold each other accountable for creating a welcoming community,” he said. Its bimonthly conversations and annual programs have been catalysts for scores of small steps that Kleis says have changed St. Cloud for the better.
One small step he has taken: Each month this year, Kleis has hosted “dinner with strangers” at his home. The 52-year-old Air Force veteran and driving school owner cooks dinner for people who sign up to join him for conversation about how to improve community relations. The caveat: No one he already knows personally is eligible to attend.
“The key to being a strong community is to get to know one another,” Kleis said. “That’s how you build trust. And trust is the most important thing to surviving an event like we just had.”
He would be delighted if a message about the value of trust — not fear — has emanated from St. Cloud in the past week. The mayor takes pains to avoid calling the Crossroads mall assailant a terrorist or a disciple of ISIL before the FBI investigation is complete. Any speculation from him would not be responsible leadership, Kleis said.
The mayor’s dutiful restraint stands in marked contrast to comments last Sunday from the Donald Trump presidential campaign. A spokesman for the Republican candidate was quick to call the St. Cloud stabbings an “apparent terror attack.” Trump himself on Monday said the St. Cloud episode showed that “our country’s been weak. We’re letting people in by the thousands and tens of thousands. I’ve been saying, you’ve gotta stop it.”
Kleis is a veteran — make that a survivor — of partisan politics. He was a Republican state senator for 11 years, and still sighs with relief as he says he has no intention to seek partisan office again. This year he will be unopposed for the third time for re-election to the nonpartisan mayoral post.
He has no desire to pick a fight with Trump. But he wants his fellow Minnesotans to know that immigrants have been a plus in St. Cloud, and nothing that happened at the mall last Saturday changed that.
“The people who have come to our community are building it. They’re adding to our vibrancy. They’re giving us a rich diversity and making us a better place. We are continuing to grow, and everybody is contributing to that.
“I can think of no greater time for this community.”
I can think of no better St. Cloud retort to “Make America great again.”
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.