The 29 applicants for St. Paul city attorney made an impressive group.

They included city, county and assistant county attorneys, trial specialists, a state appeals director and a military lawyer. Résumés showed an average of 14 years legal experience.

Yet Mayor Chris Coleman interviewed just one candidate and then hired him: Samuel Clark, a 31-year-old congressional aide with two years in private practice, whose longest job since law school was performing constituent service as state director for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“I absolutely think he’s the best choice,” Coleman said last week. “If there was a question in my mind, I wouldn’t have hired him.”

At a time when the city attorney’s office has been called on to negotiate settlements in several high-profile cases, and in the wake of Coleman’s surprise appointment of former City Council President Kathy Lantry for Public Works director, the choice raises questions about the importance of political ties and to what degree that works against candidates with stronger résumés but fewer party credentials.

Coleman, Klobuchar and Lantry are all DFLers.

“I think the citizens of St. Paul deserve something better,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. “It begs the question of ‘What was the mayor looking for?’ ”

“We are against a lot of the cronyism that is taking place in St. Paul,” said Trahern Crews, spokesman for the St. Paul Green Party and a First Ward City Council candidate.

A Star Tribune data request for the candidates’ applications (not including their names, which are protected under state law) revealed several with impressive credentials: a 13-year city attorney who had been a litigation manager and assistant attorney general; a 15-year county attorney; a career military lawyer with vast courtroom experience; a law firm partner who supervised litigators on a county attorney’s staff and handled appeals for a state agency.

But Crews, an African-American, said that Coleman may have hired Clark, also black, to help meet hiring goals for minorities and women.

Coleman said that Clark’s work for Klobuchar was largely apolitical, and denied that working for her gave Clark an advantage when it came to the hire.

“Only in the sense that Senator Klobuchar and I have one thing in common — we like to hire the best talent available,” he said.

The mayor added that Clark’s race may be a benefit in working with the city’s minority groups.

“That gives you a perspective that no amount of time in the courtroom is going to give you,” Coleman said. “To the extent that his race is relevant, it’s the richness of his experience, and that’s one reason we work so hard to hire a diverse workforce.”

‘A passion for service’

Under city code, the mayor has authority to hire and fire department managers, who serve free of civil service rules.

Job specifications for city attorney, while advisory, say that candidates “must have six years of progressively responsible and professional level experience as an attorney at the full performance level.”

The city also lists 24 “competencies” for the job, including “an expert ability to identify the most complex risks and liability implications involved in policy development, long-term planning, and strategy administration.”

Clark, the son of a Ramsey County district judge, graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall High School and earned degrees at Harvard and Yale. He comes highly recommended by the likes of U.S. District Judge Michael Davis and U.S. Attorney Andy Luger.

He clerked a year for Davis and then was an associate at a Minneapolis law firm, where for two years he worked on civil cases and helped defend municipalities in disputes.

As Klobuchar’s state director since 2012, Clark supervised 18 Minnesota staffers from the senator’s Minneapolis office. As city attorney, he will oversee a department with the equivalent of 64 full-time staffers and an $8.8 million budget. His salary is $130,000.

“You have a guy who grew up in St. Paul … who could go to work for any firm on Wall Street and make a lot more money than he’s going to make here, but has a passion for service,” Coleman said. “Those are things that no résumé can tell you.”

Clark’s background in some ways mirrors that of his predecessor, Sara Grewing. Like Clark, Grewing had worked for Klobuchar and was seven years out of law school when Coleman named her city attorney in 2010.

But Grewing, who recently was appointed Ramsey County district judge by Gov. Mark Dayton, also had worked as an assistant Hennepin County attorney and was Coleman’s chief of staff for three years.

In her time on the job, Grewing handled several high-profile cases that reflect the range and complexity of the work.

The city has paid out millions in settlements, including $1 million to families of grade-school students killed or injured in a 2013 landslide at a city park, and $800,000 to a Como Park food vendor whose contract was terminated by city officials without just cause.

In 2012, city officials insisted they could legally award the contract for the Lowertown ballpark project, loaded with millions in public funding, without competitive bidding. Coleman put the job up for bids after the Taxpayer League of Minnesota and the St. Paul Republican Party sued and Gov. Mark Dayton was critical.

One of Grewing’s last acts as city attorney was to help negotiate a non-monetary settlement with two landlords who accused the city in federal court of hurting minority tenants with strict building codes. Remaining plaintiffs in the case will go on trial this spring.

More than just experience

Coleman drew charges of cronyism last winter when he named Lantry, a former City Council colleague and frequent ally, to head Public Works. He interviewed one of the 33 applicants before appointing Lantry, who is highly respected at City Hall but lacks an engineering background and didn’t apply.

For the city attorney job, a committee that included Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners executive Ann Mulholland interviewed four candidates and forwarded only Clark’s name to Coleman.

City Council members, slated to vote on the appointment this month, expressed no concern.

“I’ve been through a lot of city attorneys in my years and a lot depends on the personal dynamics, and I’ve got to believe that [Coleman and Clark] just clicked,” said Dave Thune.

“Part of leading a department is as much about setting a tone and creating a culture,” City Council President Russ Stark said, “as it is about having direct experience in the precise work that people in your office are doing.”