Kathy Lantry always had the same reply when her two sons asked her what she did all day at St. Paul City Hall: “People call and yell at me, and I try and get them not to.”
That never changed in Lantry’s 17 years representing her native East Side and another five overseeing the city’s streets, sidewalks and sewers as public works director. Lantry faced off against plenty of yellers as the city rolled out organized trash collection and came to grips with its deteriorating streets, most notably the unsolved dilemma of Ayd Mill Road.
After announcing her retirement in December, Lantry’s last day as public works director was Friday — though she plans to stay on as a $50-an-hour part-time lobbyist for the city during this legislative session. She leaves behind millions of dollars’ worth of city infrastructure projects, including plans to turn a portion of Ayd Mill into a greenway, but current and former colleagues at City Hall say she’s crafted a well-oiled department that’s geared for the future.
“There is no greater public servant in the city of St. Paul than Kathy,” said Kristin Beckmann, former deputy mayor to Chris Coleman and current deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tim Walz.
Under Lantry’s leadership, Public Works has shifted in a fundamental way, from how it communicates with new immigrant residents about snow emergencies to its focus on building streets that are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.
At the same time, the department has faced plenty of criticism, and Lantry has been on the receiving end of constant phone calls and e-mails from residents angry about trash collection, snowplowing and potholes.
At times, the anger has come from council members. At a February meeting, some council members said they wouldn’t support a five-year plan for public works projects unless the department agreed to do more traffic modeling and public engagement on Ayd Mill.
Lantry raised concerns about the burden that the last-minute request would place on her staff. “I want to give you what you want, but I’m not going to be the one who’s doing it,” she said.
“What I’m getting — there’s a little bit of resistance to do this,” said Council Member Dai Thao, a vocal critic of the Ayd Mill plan who called Lantry “immature” at a meeting the previous week.
“Mr. Thao, I would suggest to you that I’m being the opposite of resistant,” Lantry shot back.
In a statement, Thao thanked Lantry for her years of service to the city.
Council Member Jane Prince, who holds Lantry’s former seat representing the Seventh Ward, said Lantry’s hard work and humor have helped her to succeed. As public works director, she oversees about 360 people and earns $169,000 a year.
“Her approachability and her sense of humor have served her well in a job where people do get angry,” Prince said. “She can walk into a meeting with angry people, and through her honesty and accessibility and humor she can win them over.”
Lantry, 58, grew up in the Seventh Ward and never left. Politics was part of her upbringing — when she was 7 years old, her mother, who later became a state senator, and her father, a labor leader, put the family on a bus to Iowa to door-knock for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign.
Still, Lantry said, she never pictured herself running for office until two things happened: Steve Trimble, a state legislator representing the East Side, floated the idea of her candidacy; and the City Council took up a zoning issue that would have affected her work as a rental property manager.
“Between somebody encouraging me, and then starting to pay attention to how the City Council worked, I thought, ‘You know what? I think I could do better,’ ” she said in an interview at her City Hall office Wednesday.
In 1995, Lantry challenged incumbent Dino Guerin for the Seventh Ward seat. Her campaign was a family-and-friends operation, but she lost by just two votes in the primary and 335 votes in the general election. On election night, she said, she knew she would run again — and when she did, she won by a landslide.
Lantry took office in 1998, the only woman on the seven-member council.
“I come from a very matriarchal system — strong grandmother, very strong mother, I have a sister, I have very strong relationships with girlfriends that I’ve had for decades,” she said. “So for me, it was a very different reality that was difficult.”
Former Council Member Jay Benanav, who became a close ally, said Lantry was thoughtful and hardworking from the get-go. If the council was taking up a zoning issue, he said, Lantry would drive out and take a look at the site, no matter which ward it was in.
“I have never seen anyone who was so thorough in her decisionmaking process,” he said.
In the early 2000s, the council’s relationship with the mayor’s office was often contentious. Still, Lantry said, they got things done — including working with Mayor Randy Kelly to build 1,000 units of affordable housing in the city.
“That’s what I absolutely love about local politics, is that people are very pragmatic about getting things done,” she said. “When you only have seven people and you basically need to count to four, you can’t really tick off large groups of people.”
In 2004, Lantry became council president. She loved the job — “I’m sort of a control freak,” she said — and held it for more than a decade.
Current Council President Amy Brendmoen said Lantry quickly took her under her wing when she took office in 2012. At first, Brendmoen said, she wondered what Lantry wanted from her.
“As it turned out, she’s just simply an incredible public servant and an incredible partner and she was just mentoring me and bringing me along so that I would be an effective council member to work with her,” Brendmoen said.
In St. Paul’s strong-mayor system, the council president serves as a check on the mayor’s power. Lantry took that role seriously, even when Coleman, her friend and former council colleague, ousted Kelly in 2005.
“We dusted it up a little bit, and we should have,” Beckmann said, recalling Lantry fighting the mayor’s office for road funding, longer library hours and resources for the East Side. “She pushed the Coleman administration to be better.”
In an interview, Coleman recalled that he and Lantry were in the middle of a fight, and not speaking, when he asked her to be public works director. She had announced that she wasn’t going to run for office again, and a national search for a new public works director had come up short.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Coleman said, “and I just went, ‘It’s got to be Kathy Lantry.’ ”
Lantry left the council offices on a Friday and started her new job the following Monday. This coming Monday, she’ll start yet another job: asking state legislators for money for the Kellogg-Third Street bridge.