Even with big challenges ahead, St. Paul’s mayor is keeping his sense of humor and his perspective

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman
Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
Chris Coleman, a lifelong St. Paul resident who was elected the city’s 45th mayor in 2005, remains optimistic about the future of the capital city.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has passed the halfway mark of his four-year term and still has his sense of humor intact.

I know, because every time I’ve heard him speak in recent months, he’s always had a quick ad lib, a clever turn of phrase, a comical allusion and — always — that boyish grin.

But when I asked the DFL mayor recently if he had a funny story about the first two years in office: nothing.

The mood these days, of course, is more serious. Two years ago, Coleman inherited property tax problems from the previous incumbents: not enough money coming in and little help from the state. That’s dogged him, with headlines proclaiming a nearly 15 percent increase.

Education has been big issue for mayor
But he remains upbeat, focusing on the positive and reminding me that education has been a key issue so far in the term.

“We’ve changed the way education is handled in the city, and we’re going to see positive results of that for many years,” he says. “We’re focusing on what the city’s role can be.”

That includes using the city’s rec centers and libraries to, as the mayor puts it, “continue the learning day.”

A new kindergarten preparedness class for parents of preschoolers and a scholarship program soon to start will help low-income families pay for preschool and day-care programs to help youngsters be ready to learn when they get to school.

(The mayor, 46, is part of the city’s Coleman clan, Irish through and through. He is the son of the late Nick Coleman, influential DFL leader and former Senate majority leader, and the younger brother of Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman. Over his two years, the mayor also notes that his skin has toughened up a bit and that he’s not announcing any plans to seek higher office. He also says he’s looking forward to St. Paul hosting the Republican National Convention in September, not because they’re Republicans, but because the event will showcase the city around the globe.)

More of Coleman’s thoughts about his first two years are included in an end-of-the-year question-answer interview he did with the Pioneer Press.

Although that story noted mixed results for Coleman so far, it portrayed an optimistic mayor who is looking forward to redeveloping the Ford Motor Co. plant site in Highland Park, the riverfront West Building along Kellogg Boulevard and the long-vacant Cleveland Circle site near the Xcel Energy Center. He also talks of strengthening the neighborhoods and improving downtown with the new (indoor) Farmers’ Market development.

Other views

Checking in with other folks around town, I found some interesting perspectives on the mayor’s progress so far. Not looking for philosophical or psychological profiles, I suggested they offer a grade on the mayor’s first two years, followed with a short explanation of why they’d grade him that way. Here’s a sample of what I found:

City Council President Kathy Lantry
Kathy Lantry, who represents part of the East Side and has been a Coleman ally, says: “If I had to grade the Mayor Coleman on his first two years, I would give him a B. My reasons are: first, an A means perfection and things are rarely perfect, so a B leaves room for improvement.”

She says he has done a good job managing the city in extremely difficult times, “considering the circumstances of the economy, housing foreclosures, state aid cuts” and other factors.

“There are successes that may be less apparent to the public because they do not involve a lot of pretty pictures with shovels and cranes,” she says. “I’m thinking about things like the reorganization of the Department of Safety and Inspections, the Fire Department audit, the Equal Access audit and even his strategic plan … These types of things may not be big headline producers, but from the standpoint of running a city, these are important functions.”

Coleman, she says, “is trying to get back to the roots of the city. Things like providing good public safety and plowing the streets may not be sexy issues, but it’s what we do, and I think he is trying to figure out how to do certain things very well and understands that the city cannot do everything.”

Developer Jerry Trooien
Jerry Trooien — a St. Paul developer whose grand vision for a Bridges of St. Paul retail/housing/entertainment complex on the riverfront across from downtown was summarily shot down this fall – has a very different view.

“To no surprise, I have to give him an F-,” he says. “He has provided no clarity and decisive direction on anything. He is like Alice in Wonderland; when you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.”

Trooien says, “Cliché statements about the Central Corridor and the Ford plant will not lead to economic vitality in St. Paul. If, for the moment, we have some stability in our public school system or in our police and fire departments he deserves no credit for that. He is a .180 hitter with no speed or power.”

John Labosky
John Labosky, the president & CEO of the Capital City Partnership of St. Paul area business executives, gives Coleman a grade of A.

“Mayor Coleman has effectively addressed the significant city budget challenges and is working to provide better service at a better price,” he says. “He is focusing on the right priorities for the future of the city, including education, public safety, economic development, neighborhood investment, protecting our environment and quality infrastructure.

“He is striking the right balance between the current challenges and needs, while setting a path for the city to be successful long-term and make our capital city one of the most livable cities in America.”

City Council Member Lee Helgen
Lee Helgen, who represents the city’s North End and Rice Street area, gives the mayor a B+.

“He has set about addressing the major problems facing the city budget and the need for investment in our community,” the 5th Ward council member says. “His approach to working with the council is far superior to that of former Mayor Randy Kelly.

“Given the circumstances, I would like to have seen the mayor be better positioned to engage the community on a bold vision to move St. Paul forward that inspires action and investment. I support the goal of making St. Paul the “most livable city in America,” but since I already own a home here, I don’t need to be convinced that St. Paul is a great place to live and raise a family.

“So, I give the mayor good marks, but I think he has the potential to do more in terms of getting the community excited about the future of St. Paul.”

St. Paul School Board Member Tom Conlon
Tom Conlon is the only elected Republican in St. Paul these days. (And leave it to the school guy to take issue with my grading plan. Oh, well.)

“It’s hard to assign an overall grade, because it needs context,” he says.”I’d prefer to state the strengths and weaknesses above and grade accordingly.

In reality, I’d probably break it down by issues. I also have an independent perspective where there are some areas I would tend to agree with him more than I would have had with Kelly or Norm Coleman. … Here’s my assessment:

“Education: Early on, he took leadership on the second shift initiative to involve youth in after-school activities. This is a good idea that can help reduce crime and build interest in extracurricular activities (and thus student achievement). He has continued the tradition of having a staff person assigned to education issues and partnered with the school district on these issues.

Coleman, he says, has had “good relations with the superintendent and school district, and sent a representative to the meeting on Homecroft School’s closure. Probably an A or B.”

On property taxes, Conlon says he “would have preferred to see more cuts and standing up to public employee unions. On the other hand, former mayors who claimed they held the line had a lot of LGA (Local Government Aid) from the state, (but) it was cut back this year. Still, fiscal conservatives adapt.” He would give the mayor a D in this area. “On the other hand,” he notes, “he’s indirectly saved taxpayer dollars by blocking excessive TIF (tax increment financing) demands.”

Conlon notes that the mayor has taken “a balanced approach to development (and) said no to billionaire giveaways to stadiums if that issue ever resurfaces. Same for standing up to Bridges, where the TIF was excessive and would not benefit downtown.

“At the same time, I believe he recognizes the value of good development, has a good working relationship with the Chamber (of Commerce) despite some differences, worked hard on Central Corridor, Republican National Convention prep and neighborhood development issues. Probably an A or B in this area.”

He says he’s pleased that the mayor has avoided getting involved in social issues. “While I would probably disagree with the mayor on many of these, to his credit he has not pushed those. He’s focused on the nuts and bolts of the city. If the smoking ban fits in this category, I would agree it was the right thing to do, and the state ultimately followed.”

John Mannillo
John Mannillo, a longtime downtown builder owner and developer and onetime mayoral candidate, gives Coleman a B.

“He’s done some things right and has the right idea on other things. He’s got the RNC — let’s hope that’s a good thing,” he says. “I hope he can use the federal government’s contribution to the convention for things that will stay with the city. I don’t think we pay enough attention to investing in sustainable assets in the city.

“What disappoints me is that he hasn’t done more to turn downtown around. We need something dramatic, something like business investment districts or municipal bond funds available to owners to fix up their properties.”

Bridget Coleman
The mayor’s mom, surprise, is happy with his performance.

“Mayor Coleman gets an A- from his old Irish Mother,” she says. “This is my way of saying, ‘Keep going — there are a few twists and turns up ahead.’ He will handle them all with charm and grace and earn an A+ in the doing.

“I’m not exactly an uninterested bystander. This is the only mayor I have ever loved, and I am excited about light rail, Trader Joe’s, etc.,” the proud mom says. “We expect big things from Chris in ’08 and ’09, and I for one hope to be there to cheer him on.”

Joe Kimball, a former columnist and reporter for the Star Tribune, reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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