In 2017, after 12 years in office, Chris Coleman declined to run for a fourth term as mayor of St. Paul, opting instead for a short-lived bid to become Minnesota governor.
Until then, Coleman had experienced one success after another at the ballot box. He won his first mayoral election in 2005 with 68 percent of the vote; his re-election in 2009 with (again) 68 percent of the vote; and his final term in 2013 with 78 percent of first-choice votes (2013 was the city’s first ranked-choice election).
Coleman’s tenure as St. Paul’s boss was the longest since George Latimer, who was mayor from 1976 to 1990. But those extended runs tend to obscure how rare it’s been for an incumbent to get comfortable in the office. Since 1960, only three other mayors have won re-election in St. Paul: Thomas Byrne, George Vavoulis and Norm Coleman (who is not related to Chris).
Yet as current St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter cruises toward re-election this year, some see the sort of broad support that carried the likes of Latimer and Coleman to multiple terms. “George, and Chris Coleman, and Melvin are charismatic,” said former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel. “People love to hear them talk. They add excitement and can be inspirational … I think all three of them have that in common.”
‘It’s his to lose’
During his initial run to replace Coleman in 2017, Carter surprised many by winning the election in the first round of ranked-choice voting, totaling 50.9 percent of first-choice ballots over former council member Pat Harris, who received 24 percent of first-choice votes, and current Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao, who received 12 percent.
Now, as Carter’s first term comes to a close, he faces little serious competition in his bid for re-election. In heavily Democratic St. Paul, Carter faced no challengers for the DFL endorsement, which he won with 89 percent of ballots cast during the party’s endorsement convention this summer. Both Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have endorsed him, as have most of the city’s labor organizations, including St. Paul Firefighters Local 21, Minnesota Nurses Association, SEIU Minnesota State Council, St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades.
“In his four years in office, he’s done a really good job of guiding our city during very difficult times with the pandemic and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd,” said the Minnesota Nurses Association’s John Welsh.
Carter has several other strengths that potentially scared off challengers. Bruce Corrie, an economist and Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations at Concordia University who once worked as Carter’s Planning and Economic Development Director, said Carter’s supporters see the mayor as the “son of Rondo” — someone who has deep roots in the community. At the same time, said Corrie, Carter also represents something new for the city. “There has been a rich history of exclusion,” in St. Paul, said Corrie, and Carter is “someone who could take that aspiration of the people … to help create this city in a different light.”
Or as Lesley Lavery, associate professor and chair of Macalester College’s political science department, said: “He’s a young, Black man in a diverse city,” said “Are we gonna elect another old white guy right now? Unless he gives us a reason to. It’s his to lose.”
A sense of timing
Scheibel called St. Paul a “city of neighborhoods,” one he enjoyed representing as a member of the City Council for eight years and door-knocking his way through in winning the city’s 1989 mayoral election. Connecting with residents on a neighborhood level is key to winning in the city, noted Scheibel, and it’s something he believes Carter shares with Latimer and Coleman.
Now a professor at Hamline University’s business school, Scheibel also pointed to another thing the three men shared: a focus on addressing constituents’ needs. “I had Chris [Coleman] in my class recently, I asked him, ‘Ok, what are you really proud of? What did you do?’ He said it was Sprockets St. Paul, the [after-school] youth program. … I ask George Latimer that question. You know what he says was the best thing he did as mayor? He supported the Job Corps.”
For Carter, that focus might be best represented by College Bound St. Paul, which puts $50 in a college savings account for every child born in the city. “People in St. Paul like those kinds of agendas and are willing to give people another term,”said Scheibel.
At least one observer says there’s something else the three mayors share: a sense of timing. “His leadership, for this time, I think, is important for St. Paul,” said Ramsey County Board of Commissioners Chair Toni Carter, who — as the mayor’s mom — isn’t exactly impartial. “I think leaders certainly bring talents and skills, foresight and energy to the work, but I also believe that the space and time and readiness of the community to embrace that leadership is important.”
She thinks that’s true for the current mayor, but also “that the same would be true for Coleman and Latimer — their unique skills met the need for the time.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original story undercounted the number of mayors who have been re-elected in St. Paul since 1950. The story has been corrected and updated.