In St. Paul, three people are running to unseat incumbent Mayor Chris Coleman: a landlord who set up campaign headquarters behind an adult sex shop, a city worker who plugs potholes and calls himself “Dirty Kurty,” and a perennial candidate known mostly for a ballot-friendly name she shares with scores of Minnesotans.
While the Minneapolis race to succeed Mayor R.T. Rybak features 35 candidates and no clear front-runner, the St. Paul candidates challenging Coleman’s bid for a third term couldn’t field a basketball team and run well behind him in all the important campaign indicators: name recognition, endorsements and money.
The latest entry on Coleman’s campaign website is nearly six months old. The lone scheduled debate east of the river won’t be held until Oct. 24 — less than two weeks before Election Day.
There are obvious reasons for the differences in the two races. Minneapolis has an open seat, while in St. Paul an incumbent is running with broad political and corporate backing. Then there are the filing fees: in St. Paul it costs $500 to get on the ballot, while in Minneapolis the fee is $20.
Nevertheless, some find the want of serious St. Paul candidates perplexing, given Coleman’s roller coaster year.
“There’s enough ammunition out there to go after him … on a public policy perspective, he’s vulnerable,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor and political analyst.
While the mayor has enjoyed some notable successes — growing development interest along the new light-rail line, the Mille Lacs band’s purchase of two important downtown hotels, the long-awaited clearing of the Ford plant site — 2013 has been something of a mixed bag for Coleman.
There was the ongoing fallout from the troubled police crime lab, and the state’s takeover of the city’s reportedly understaffed and substandard food inspections. Violence in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, and a river park landslide that killed two children, raised questions about adequate policing and safety measures. Property taxes are flat this year, but fees are rising.
The $63 million downtown Saints ballpark, while going forward, has been mired in controversy over parking shortages, cost overruns and construction delays.
“It would take some coalition of disaffected liberals, business people and neighborhood people to challenge him,” Schultz said “But it hasn’t happened.”
That’s because Coleman has built a strong record over seven years focused on development, education and neighborhoods, said Matt Freeman, the mayor’s campaign manager.
“Other candidates that considered running looked at that and didn’t see the need to step up to the plate,” Freeman said.
Two St. Paul men who did look at running said that Coleman’s incumbency and the strength of the DFL Party and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce — both of which are backing the mayor — made such a race a fool’s errand.
“It was clear that the people I talked to, many of them DFLers, thought it was a good idea that I was running, they knew the mayor’s weaknesses, but they were not going to give me any money,” said Roger Meyer, a consultant who got into the race last winter on a Green Party platform before bowing out after three months.
“When I was out campaigning, it felt like the DFL had a row of black Suburbans and I was driving a Cub Cadet lawn tractor.”
Tom Goldstein, an attorney and former St. Paul school board member, said that the city suffers from “a real shortage of genuine leaders who are willing to put it on the line. … It feels like there’s a glass ceiling where it’s real tough to go up against the power structure.”
But Goldstein also blamed himself for not running. The result, he said, is that “there’s not going to be a debate” on the issues.
While both Twin Cities are dominated by the DFL, the party in Minneapolis is considerably more fractious than it is in St. Paul, Schultz said.
“There may be a little bit more of a culture in Minneapolis of expecting or tolerating controversy. St. Paul is more of a consensus city, and that has often discouraged people from running,” he said.
The last competitive mayoral race in St. Paul, in 2001, featured two strong DFLers from different wings of the party. In that election, progressive Jay Benanav lost to centrist Randy Kelly by 403 votes.
The races since, both won by Coleman, either were dominated by issues outside the city — Kelly’s support for President George W. Bush, which doomed his chances — or offered a non-DFL opponent without a large support base.
Tim Holden, a landlord and businessman, has been the most prominent of Coleman’s challengers this year. Holden, whose campaign is run out of a University Avenue building that he leases to the Love Doctor sex shop, is running as an independent to protest what he calls Coleman’s indifference to small business and his handling of the ballpark project.
Holden set up a campaign booth at the State Fair, where he promised he would fight for livable wage jobs, put an end to subsidized development and reduce crime.
The other two challengers are Sharon Anderson, a retired Republican who has been running for various offices for years, and Kurt Dornfeld, a city street maintenance worker.
Anderson said she’s running not to win but to expose corruption in city government and downsize bureaucracy. Her $500 filing fee came out of her cremation fund, she said, “but I felt I had to do this … maybe I can pull enough votes from Coleman to elect Tim Holden.”
For St. Paul, novel candidates are not new. The last St. Paul mayor before Coleman to seek a third term, George Latimer in 1980, was opposed by a taxi driver with no phone or permanent address and whose main issue was population control.
“Copulate, but do not populate” was his campaign slogan.