Shortly after George Latimer was sworn in as St. Paul’s mayor 1976, he arrived to work to learn of a broken water main. “It was a geyser in the middle of downtown,” said Latimer. “A geyser!”
Latimer turned to the news and saw a civil servant from public works explaining the problem. Sorry, he said, we screwed up. We’ll get it fixed.
“I didn’t really even know him at the time, but I called him and congratulated him for doing what few people are willing to do: Tell the truth,” Latimer said. “I told him that everybody has made a mistake, they’ll understand.”
Minneapolis and St. Paul will both have new, young mayors in Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter, both in their 30s and untested in running a city. I contacted Latimer and former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton for reflections on their time in office and asked them to give advice to the incoming new kids.
The geyser incident, for example, taught Latimer an early important lesson: Get to know city employees and listen to them. Latimer resisted the advice to do widespread housecleaning, instead leaning on veterans to help him understand how to run the ship.
“The civil service of the two cities [Minneapolis and St. Paul] is pretty strong,” Latimer said. “There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom there. Start with them and then find the soft spots.”
When there was a crisis, Latimer turned to the words of recently deceased Warren Spannaus. Call in your experts and tell them, “just give me your best professional advice and leave the politics to me,” he said.
Sayles Belton’s term was groundbreaking. She was the first woman and first black mayor of Minneapolis, and a former City Council member, so she has a lot in common with Carter, St. Paul’s first black mayor. She’s also known the Carter family for decades and says Melvin’s familiarity with the various players in the city will be valuable.
“I don’t think anything is that different,” said Sayles Belton. “The internal goal and challenge is for everybody to work together. Melvin and Jacob both understand the importance of building a coalition. By yourself, you cannot solve some of the complicated issues you have to deal with.”
Sayles Belton said that as City Council president, she met regularly with Mayor Don Fraser, and tried to do the same herself when she became mayor. “Have a liaison with the City Council and be accessible,” she said.
Sayles Belton said Fraser advised her to meet with different factions in the city and on the council, “even people who disagree with you.” Fielding a quality staff is also essential, she said.
“You also have to make time for your families,” Sayles Belton said. “You need family to give you energy and comfort.”
“The demographics of the cities are so dramatically different,” said Latimer. “The old principles are the same, but the environment and tools are so different. We have more people under age of 40 in the two cities than ever. There’s a new generation of thinking. I think these two mayors are very comfortable with that.”
Frey in particular was criticized for being too cozy with business, but Latimer said that is essential to maintaining a quality core city.
“Both of these mayors bring the quality of being willing to listen to people,” Latimer said. “But you have to do more than that. If you are not comfortable making hard decisions, you shouldn’t have that job. The mayor has to be as comfortable going into a boiler room as he is walking into a boardroom.”
“The poverty level is extremely high in the two cities,” said Latimer. “Everything is harder for poor people, getting a job, getting to work. In Rondo and Frogtown and north and northeast Minneapolis, the need for a sense of community is strong.
Latimer and Sayles Belton said they had more tools to help with poverty, and more aid from the federal government, such as block grants and low-interest loans for affordable housing and to fix up old homes. “Those were serious tools, but that’s collapsing,” Latimer said.
That means the new mayors need to find different partners, whether it be nonprofits or the business community, to keep successful programs afloat, Sayles Belton said.
Just before Carter was elected, the St. Paul Police union put out a nasty hit piece with racial overtones. I asked Latimer how Carter gets past that in order to work with police.
“Your average cop in St. Paul does not buy into that vitriolic rhetoric,” Latimer said. “I don’t think it’s insurmountable. The mayor’s got to be a bridge between the police and the public.”
Asked what trait a successful mayor should have, Latimer said: “Clarity. I really trust people if they are really clear. People are not dumb. They want to know you are not waffling on an issue. Get the best advice you can, then speak clearly. I had my 80 percent rule, if you do those things, 80 percent of the people will trust you. You’ve got to believe people are as smart as you are.”
“Finally, have fun,” said Latimer. “Have some laughs. Genuinely enjoy everything.”
Probably good advice for all of us.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin