For those who know Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, it is no surprise that she has been conferring with the new president.

The six-term suburban mayor, who calibrated her city's government to involve ordinary people of all ages, has helped raise $27 million in grants for her Dakota County city since taking office in 1994. Along the way, she has twice overcome cancer and has been at her husband's side for his own cancer battle.

Kautz was one of 80 U.S. mayors whom Obama invited to the White House last week to discuss the nation's $787 stimulus package and the foreclosure crisis, and she was among eight mayors who spoke to Obama on behalf of the group. She has worked with Obama's transition team as well, and continues to meet with his chiefs of staff.

Kautz is in line, as second vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to become the nation's top mayor in June 2010. Never before has a Minnesota mayor presided over the conference. And at 62, Kautz is only the fifth woman to be in line to lead the nation's mayors. She symbolizes the rise of the suburban mayor and a new kind of politics, experts say.

And all this from the mayor of a city with a population of 59,000. Kautz admits with a laugh that in her national travels, she answers the same question over and over: "Where's Burnsville?"

Her peers across the nation have elected Kautz to succeed mayors from much bigger cities, including Miami and Seattle. Of the past 20 presidents of the group, only two have been from cities smaller than Burnsville, and none has been from a suburb.

Partnership model

Political author Harry C. Boyte said Kautz has succeeded by using a simple approach: drawing in people to solve problems. It's a paradigm shift away from providing customer service to a partnership model instead, and it's an approach that Obama is also using, he said.

In fact, the Obama administration has "an enormous amount to learn from Elizabeth Kautz," said Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Boyte, the author of three books, began observing Kautz in 1994.

"I was convinced in the '90s that she was the wave of the future," he said.

Boyte met Kautz when he was addressing a conference of city leaders, advocating that they involve the citizens in solving issues rather than have the government continue to be the "expert" that fixes problems. Kautz, a Republican, stood and told Boyte of her work in Burnsville and invited him to come see. He did.

"We really needed to go back to where the government is of the people, and by the people," Boyte said, "It's a part of people, not simply outside the people. And Elizabeth has been a pioneer in that approach."

He said that in 1995, she led the entire restructuring of city government into six main clusters, identified as priorities by the citizens, and a seventh cluster, requested by the mayor and city council. Citizens were heavily tapped for plans for the city's future, including the development of a downtown called Heart of the City.

"Elizabeth Kautz has been beavering away, developing this approach for more than a decade when nobody knew it," Boyte said. "Now she's coming into her own."

A close election win

In November, Kautz won her sixth election by edging out Jerry Willenburg. He and a local group had blasted Kautz for pushing for a new $20 million regional performing arts center in Burnsville.

Kautz insists the center will boost economic development. The arts center, now open, serves as a community square and educational space. Though it was built without raising new taxes, public money was used that could have otherwise offset budget cuts, say critics such as Burnsville Council Member Charlie Crichton.

Minnetonka Mayor Karen Anderson said Kautz has shown courage in her conviction to push for the arts center, even though it nearly cost her the election. Anderson, a former president of the National League of Cities, predicts that Kautz's community will gain national recognition, too, just as Minnetonka did.

Anderson and Kautz co-founded a regional mayors' organization in the metro area. Kautz also leads the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which provides buses for south-of-the-river communities. She led the formation of a joint 911 center in Dakota County, helped establish cancer treatment south of the Minnesota River and has served on numerous committees.

Kautz, who has two grown sons, said she does it all by being highly organized. And she credits the support of her husband, David. Even when his chemotherapy for stage 4 colon cancer was at its most grueling, he went out into frigid weather to put up campaign signs for her.

Anderson said Kautz not only has superb organizational skills and compassion, but lots of common sense. She is a voice for her community and for local government, Anderson said.

"While each community is unique and has its own character, we're all facing the same issues, the same set of concerns. So Elizabeth's ability to understand and represent Burnsville's concerns can be carried to the national level," Anderson said. "She speaks, in fact, for other cities. And that will be her job when she becomes president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors."

This is the third presidential administration that Kautz has met with in the White House.

"It's all about people and helping them," Katuz said. "It's creating a new environment where people will be nourished and their lives are enriched and the children find opportunities. And, at the same time, keeping our costs low, keeping our taxes down -- but bringing people together to work towards a common good."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017