Eva Ng is a largely unknown candidate trying to unseat a well-known DFL incumbent mayor in the overwhelmingly DFL city of St. Paul.
This week, she debated Mayor Chris Coleman, disagreeing on taxes and spending, and on the coming light rail line. The League of Women Voters event Tuesday was covered by the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune.
Last week, the businesswoman charged into a liberal lion’s den with her message that a business-like approach is needed to curb the high-flying taxes in the Capital City. Ng (pronounced “eng”) spoke at a weekly luncheon of mostly retired union officials, former judges, politicians and journalists and assorted others. They meet for camaraderie and to discuss state and national affairs, and most of them have a decidedly liberal bent.
Ng, 51, emerged from the lunch session unscathed, although not unchallenged.
Last month, she survived St. Paul’s primary election, finishing a distant second in a field of four candidates. She drew the support of 26 percent of voters, while the incumbent finished with 68 percent. During her campaign, she has frequently criticized Coleman, considered a likely candidate for governor, for refusing to say he would serve a full four-year mayoral term if re-elected.
A business approach
Ng worked for years as a turn-around specialist for an oil company and a consulting firm. She met the owner of a tool-and-die company in the Twin Cities while on a consulting job and eventually married him. She now works as CEO of his company but is taking a sabbatical, of sorts, to run for mayor. She still makes many of the decisions for the firm but isn’t taking a paycheck because, Ng said, it wouldn’t be right to get paid when she’s campaigning and not working full time.
Ng said she’d use her experience in the corporate world to keep a lid on the city’s rising property tax rate. Her approach to the job of running the city, she said, would be similar to her approach in restructuring businesses.
The city’s “going in the wrong direction,” she said, “losing businesses and losing residents.”
To turn things around, she’d start by freezing property tax rates. Then she’d look at the city’s assets and try to maximize their use.
Ng thinks the city has too many full-time attorneys and said she would rather contract with outside lawyers in many instances.
She’d slow down plans for the Central Corridor light rail line, which she feels is threatening the livelihood of many University Avenue businesses at a time when they are already suffering in this tough economy. That’s a project to take on in the boom times, she said.
She’d like to use some of the empty downtown St. Paul building space to incubate small businesses.
Taking care of business
But she’s not making too many other specific recommendations, at least not yet. As a business consultant, you have to come into each situation with an open mind, she said, and thoroughly examine each phase of the business before making specific changes. So that’s what she’ll do, if elected, she said.
Ng did says it’s important for the city to be “business-friendly,” invoking the Ronald Reagan mantra of making a bigger pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice of the action.
“If you bring in more businesses, you’ll increase the demand for housing and we’ll get more revenue,” she said.
Despite a traditional Republican world view, Ng said she’s running as an independent. The mayor’s race is nonpartisan, but she does have the endorsement of city Republicans.
She was asked how she would deal with the unions that represent city workers.
“I would give them options and see what ideas they come up with for saving money,” she said. “Unions are not necessarily a barrier to turning things around.”
“Why in hell would you want to be mayor?” asked Larry Cohen, a former mayor of St. Paul who also served as a Ramsey County commissioner and as a district judge before retiring.
Said Ng: “Senior citizens say they’re being taxed out of their homes, but I see hope in their eyes when they ask if I can do something. I want to honor that hope. I think this is the time. And I think it is a small repayment for what America has done for me.”
Ng’s story is an inspiring one, say many who’ve met with her.
As she described it last week, both of her parents were orphans living in China, who were sent at age 12, separately, by relatives to live in Hong Kong, where their families believed it was easier for children to make their way on their own.
Her parents met and married while working in a Hong Kong factory and ended up raising six children in an 8-by-8-foot room. Her father made $200 a month ironing jeans. The family came to the United States when Eva was 10; she studied hard and earned a chemical engineering degree from Texas A&M at a time when there weren’t many jobs for engineers.
So she went back to school to learn computer programming at a time when DOS was emerging as the standard. She learned about computer networking and was soon using computers to automate sales force projects.
She worked for Texaco for 10 years, assigned to make improvements at various departments in plants around the country. Then she went to Chicago to work as a business turn-around consultant; she met her husband while consulting with Blanda Inc., and eventually moved here to run the Eagan company.
While admitting she has no political experience — and appearing to see that as a badge of honor — Ng said she’s a fast learner with experience in turning around struggling enterprises.
And while many at the lunch disagreed with her philosophy of a business-friendly approach to running the city, they did give her credit for a vigorous effort in pursuing her campaign.
“I’d like to commend Eva,” said Ruby Hunt, former St. Paul City Council member and Ramsey County commissioner who remains active in civic affairs. “In a short period of time, she’s done a lot of homework to understand the issues facing St. Paul,” Hunt said.
“Whether you agree with her, that’s another matter,” she said.
Joe Kimball can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.