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Fresh off his eye-popping victory for a third term as mayor of St. Paul, Chris Coleman will expand his horizons considerably this weekend when he becomes president of the National League of Cities.
But when he speaks to the convention Saturday as one of the nation’s foremost urban experts for the next year, he will focus part of his remarks on closing the achievement gap between white and minority students — an issue he’s made a priority with new after-school programs and an education liaison on his staff.
“It’s really an incredible honor and I’m really looking forward to it,” he said Friday from Seattle, which is hosting the league’s four-day annual convention.
“We have to make sure we’re educating all our kids, otherwise our cities are going to struggle,” he said. “That’s going to be very important as go forward, in St. Paul and nationally.”
Another issue he’ll discuss: adapting to climate change, and what can be done to reduce it.
The league’s three main policy priorities this year are closing the loophole on Internet sales tax collections, passing comprehensive immigration reform and upholding interest income deductions on municipal bonds.
Collecting sales taxes on Internet purchases would boost local revenues and help local merchants who, by charging sales tax, are at a competitive disadvantage, Coleman said. He added that the municipal bond deduction helps build public infrastructure by allowing local governments to borrow at lower interest rates.
Coleman, 52, is the fourth Minnesota mayor in the last 30 years to become president of the Washington, D.C.-based league, the nation’s largest urban advocacy organization. It promotes a municipal agenda and offers training and assistance to officials in 19,000 cities, towns and villages.
The last Minnesota mayor to head the league was then-Minnetonka Mayor Karen Anderson, who was the league’s president in 2002.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said Friday. “It’s a great opportunity to talk about cities, to learn about cities in other places and to share information with cities. I believe the city of Minnetonka benefited because I learned about things that worked in other places.”
Coleman said he got the same lesson from former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, who served as league president in 1984. “George showed me how having St. Paul be a participant in the national conversation helps us develop strategies and learn best practices from other cities,” he said.
The other Minnesota mayor to serve as president was Don Fraser of Minneapolis in 1993.
The top issues when Latimer became league president were more municipal control of cable TV (thumbs up from delegates), a nuclear arms freeze (declared irrelevant) and restricting industrial development bonds to distressed areas (voted up).
“Some of it was ceremony and some of it was substantive,” Latimer said this week. “I’d occasionally go before Congress on legislation, and go to other cities talking to their delegations about what’s happening in urban policy. It also gave me a chance to talk about St. Paul.”
As a league official, Latimer met several times with Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Latimer, a staunch DFLer, was more impressed with Reagan’s delegating than Carter’s hands-on style. “And even though Reagan was painted as the great enemy of cities, in fact his administration had plenty of people who understood cities,” he said.
With all the traveling to be done in the next year, will Coleman lose touch with St. Paul? “I’m never far from the city even when I’m away. That’s the beauty of technology,” he said. “My first duty is to make sure the city is doing all the things it needs to do. This won’t distract from that, it will enhance it.”
Anderson said she traveled extensively during her year as league president, including four trips overseas. She had one rule, she said: Be back in time for the council meeting every other Monday. “I never had to miss one,” she said.