Pat Harris loses track of the community groups he has participated in.
There are the high-profile roles, including his 12 years on the St. Paul City Council, and about two dozen less-prominent posts like Highland Hoops Youth Basketball commissioner.
Then there’s the big one, the dream job he has not held: mayor of his hometown.
“My whole life, I’ve just kind of woken up every day and said, ‘How can I make a difference?’ ” Harris said, and that’s why he’s running for mayor of St. Paul. “I just try to get things done.”
Harris has a month left to convince voters to put him in office as they consider a crowded field of 10 candidates. He has a long list of community connections from which to draw and the benefit of living in the voter-rich Highland Park neighborhood.
But Harris is competing in an evolving city with more people of color and progressive young voters, some of whom are worried Harris is too moderate and will not represent their interests.
The 51-year-old DFLer, who has bright white-gray hair and a banker’s wardrobe of dark suits, urges people to look at his history of making changes to help the community’s most vulnerable. Those who know him don’t doubt his drive.
He usually wakes up before 5 a.m. With four children ages 10 and under, he has to juggle family, community work and a job as senior vice president at BMO Harris Bank. His job is helping cities, school districts and counties finance projects, like street reconstruction or iPads for students.
“We always joke that Harrises don’t require sleep,” his wife, Laura Harris, said.
She said he would take that do-good energy to the mayor’s office — a post he’s been eyeing for more than 12 years. Harris wanted to run in 2005, but opted to wait when Chris Coleman, then a fellow City Council member, decided to go for it.
After three terms as mayor, Coleman is stepping down to run for governor.
Family ties to St. Paul
A penchant for community service runs in Harris’ family.
During his childhood in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, Harris’ mother would invite people in need over for Thanksgiving or Sunday dinners. Harris was the youngest of three brothers, one of whom, Mike, represented the Third Ward on the City Council before he did.
On the campaign trail, Harris often notes two points about his family.
First, his grandparents immigrated to the United States to escape the Armenian genocide, a fact he mentions to underscore his belief that the city must support immigrant and refugee residents. In 2004, he authored St. Paul’s sanctuary city ordinance that prevents police from asking people about their immigration status.
Second, his father, who ran a small business in St. Paul for decades, never got so much as a check-in from city staff. Harris says he would increase communication between business owners and the city if elected mayor.
His backing from the business community and law enforcement is evident on his campaign finance reports. CEOs of Summit Brewing, Securian, Hubbard Broadcasting and many other companies donated to Harris, as have developers, restaurateurs and police.
Many restaurant owners, police and firefighters have worked with Harris through Serving Our Troops, a project he co-founded in 2004 to provide steak dinners to soldiers. Firefighter and police union presidents said they have good working relationships with Harris through Serving Our Troops and his time on the City Council.
“He has a proven track record as a council member with an emphasis on public safety,” said Mike Smith, with the firefighters union.
In a DFL-dominated town where many voters are outraged by President Donald Trump’s actions, some people have said they want an outspokenly progressive mayor.
Since his City Council days, which ended in 2011, Harris has been considered a more moderate DFL voice. At the party’s convention this summer, he came in third behind former Council Member Melvin Carter and Council Member Dai Thao.
“We’ve lost the national stage for a little bit. We need to start being even more progressive at the local level,” Macalester-Groveland resident Mike Sonn said. He is looking for “someone who is going to push the status quo of St. Paul, who is going to challenge us to be forward-thinking.”
Sonn said Harris’ stance on the Ford site redevelopment shows he would not be that person. Amid debate about the site, Harris’ comments have been more measured than some of his opponents who support higher-density development.
Harris, who lives near the Ford site, said St. Paul must be cautious about density’s impact on the neighborhood.
“We need to make sure that a out-of-town developer doesn’t come in and try to build cheap and build something with too much density, build something that doesn’t have green space,” he said.
And Harris supports raising the minimum wage to $15, but warned, “We have to figure out mechanisms on the back end so we don’t create artificial inflation and job loss.”
Working to ‘get things done’
Debbie Montgomery gathered about 60 neighbors in her backyard in St. Paul’s First Ward and introduced them to Harris.
Carter and Thao — both of whom have represented the First Ward, which includes Summit-University and Frogtown — have a lot of support there. But Montgomery, who served on the City Council with Harris, said he would be able to accomplish more.
“He understands that city budget and he understands how to find resources,” she said. The city needs jobs, she added, and Harris has the skills to bring business to St. Paul.
He plans to use St. Paul’s long-term portfolio investments to make up to $100 million available to lend to small businesses in certain neighborhoods.
Harris is fluent in budgets and lending but harbors a quiet love of writing. He has written an unpublished historical fiction novel inspired by a story he heard when he was working at Catholic Charities — his first post-college job. He even studied English as an undergraduate, before getting his master’s degree in business administration.
Why the change to business? For the same reason he joined the community organizations and is running for mayor, Harris said.
“I saw finance and business as a knowledge base to getting things done and make people’s lives better.”