On Coleman, Kelly and (maybe) running for mayor: a Q&A with St. Paul Council President Kathy Lantry

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Kathy Lantry: "In all my years down here I had never once thought 'Oh, it’s re-election, I wonder if I should run?' And this time I did, which made me stop and pause and think, Hmmm, maybe I should consider not running."

St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry announced last week that she would not be a candidate next year for re-election to the Ward 7 seat she has held since 1998.

Lantry’s news has set off a campaign for the open seat, with two candidates already announcing and more expected in the ranked choice voting election next November. Lantry is a fourth-generation St. Paul native, having lived her entire life — other than her time at the College of St. Benedict — in her east St. Paul ward. She is the daughter of politically active St. Paulites: former state Sen. Marilyn Lantry and union and DFL activist Jerome Lantry. Her own involvement in politics began when she helped knock on doors with her parents as a child. Her first elected office was as a member of the District One Community Council.

Council president since 2004, Lantry is married to Joe Fleischhacker and they have two grown sons.   

MinnPost: Let’s start with the basic question. Why did you decide against seeking another term on the council after your current term expires at the end of 2015?

Kathy Lantry: I felt like the time was right. The ward is positioned, I think, really well to make the next person successful. We’ve got a bunch of things we’ve been working on for a long time that are either ready to go or are going to be done. I think it really sets someone up for success, which is what I’m really hoping to do. The economy is humming along better. You want to make sure — I want to make sure — I can do as much as is in my control to make sure the next person is successful.

And why did I decide? It’s time for me to have a change. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I realized it when someone had mentioned re-election. In all my years down here I had never once thought “Oh, it’s re-election, I wonder if I should run?” And this time I did, which made me stop and pause and think, Hmmm, maybe I should consider not running.

MP: How would you explain St. Paul to someone who knows little or nothing about the town or it’s history?

KL: It is a city that is large enough to have a calliope of options: theater, sports, leisure, employment. Large enough to hit all of those different notes and yet small enough so that when you go to the grocery store you still run in to people you know. 

MP: What are the biggest changes you have observed — both for good and not — in the city where you were born and have lived your entire life?

KL: I think there have been a number of changes. But in some respects the more things change the more they stay the same. Let me give you an example. My mother grew up in Dayton’s Bluff and went to Sacred Heart, the church where her and my dad got married. And a few years ago a constituent had said to me, “Oh, things are changing on the East Side. Do you know they do a mass in Spanish at Sacred Heart?” And I was relating this story to my mother she said, “Isn’t that something. When I was growing up it was in German.” So the East Side has become more and more diverse in how people look, but we have always been diverse in different ways. Now the differences are just more noticeable because people might be of a different color.

MP: What do you wish you had accomplished in the time you were on the council but maybe haven’t yet?

KL: For me it’s an overarching thing just in general: the city moves slow. I tend to get an idea, figure out how to do it and get it done. A + B = C. Around here, A + 42 = Zebras. It’s not as linear as I want it to be, so everything takes forever. One of my favorite stories is when I first got elected I got a call about a sidewalk that wasn’t shoveled. It was on McKnight Road, between Burns Avenue and the Frontage Road. I thought, “Oh, I can really shine because how hard can this be?” The problem is, it took me three weeks to figure out who should shovel the sidewalk. It was underneath a freeway overpass so apparently the state plows and stuff falls down below. But it’s on a county road. One side of it is in the city of St. Paul and the other side is in Maplewood. The sidewalk that’s adjacent to the Holiday Inn East Hotel, it’s not theirs; it’s not on their property. So I finally said to public works, ‘Couldn’t we please just shovel the sidewalk and let’s figure it out going forward.’ Ultimately the decision was that it was a State of Minnesota issue. … They don’t get to it as quickly as maybe the City of St. Paul would. So over the years we’ve just sort of adapted sometimes.   

MP: As a council member you have served with three mayors, as council president you have served with two. Describe how the relationship between the council and the mayor is supposed to work under the charter and then, in your opinion, whether it has always worked that way.

KL: It’s been a long time since I’ve actually read the charter to say who’s supposed to do what. The council is supposed to be the policy making body. I think over the years that has morphed tremendously just because there’s so much work to do. I remember a former council member who said you really shouldn’t be doing anything constituent services-wise because there are no employees here. I don’t have any employees — I have Ellen [Biales, a legislative aide] who does the work of thousands. But I don’t have any authority to call up public works and say shovel the sidewalk. They don’t work for me. Nothing. Which most people don’t understand. But the relationship is such that they understand that when I call and make a request it would be in the best interest of the city to do something. … We’re supposed to be this 50,000-foot, you know, take a look at the policies of the city. But it’s gotten far afield from that because in many respects we’re closer to the public who wants to communicate with the city.

MP: And your relationship with mayors?

KL: I used to say that when Chris [Coleman] got elected that my skin started looking better because it was stressful under [former mayor] Randy [Kelly]. I don’t think we should underestimate a good healthy debate. I was not a supporter of Randy, I did not support his re-election. In fact, I would say I worked very hard for his opponent because I thought he would do a better job. However, I always tried to have the city’s best interest. It wasn’t about being oppositional just to be oppositional. I think that push is really healthy for the city because it makes everybody be better. … I think now, though, because we know each other — I came in with the mayor in 1998, so I’ve known him for a long time — that there’s a different dynamic because he and I came on in the same year.

MP: How do you assess the Coleman administration now after almost nine years? 

KL: It’s changed a little bit. I think part of it comes from his experience. When he first got here things were pretty contentious between city employees and Mayor Kelly. Mayor Coleman, when he came in, talked about … everyone having a seat at the table, which was an incredible message for city employees to hear. So it was very collaborative. I think over time that has changed and not because he isn’t necessarily collaborative. He needed to be at that point in time. Now he’s making more decisions without all of that input he had before. Part of it is he’s more confident because he has more experience. If he’s anything like me, that’s how I make decisions as well. 

MP: Since the Great Depression there have been 16 mayors of St. Paul, and all but three were Irish Catholic. Does a St. Paul mayoral candidate have to be Irish Catholic or does it just help?

KL: I’m Catholic but not very much Irish. And I’m not a male. One of the first questions you asked was tell me what’s so great about St. Paul. Part of it is, for those of us who have lived here generationally, you know a lot of people. So what happens when you know a lot of people is hopefully you have good solid relationships with them, which makes them more likely to vote for you because they know who you are and what parish you went to versus the other person, who they might not know at all. So it’s more a matter of comfort, knowing someone’s grandfather or grandmother. That’s the difference. There’s more connections which make people feel like they know you more.

MP: Unlike some other cities in the region that maybe are a little more transient?

KL: Isn’t that funny. We tout it here in St. Paul. You know, “How many generations have you lived here?” as sort of a badge of honor to say this is my home and no matter what happens, I’m not leaving. It seems unique to St. Paul.  

MP: Will you run for mayor in 2017? If not, what are your plans for after your current term expires?

KL: I have no idea if I’m going to run in 2017. I have another full year of work to do on the council and so I sort of feel strongly about working hard up until the last possible moment because I’m getting paid for it, and it would seem like stealing. I’ve got a whole year to work and I want to be really open to what might come my way. I don’t have any idea of what that will be. And it’s a weird dynamic because when do you even start looking for a job? I mean what, am I going to start looking for job now and say “Look, in January 2016 I’m gonna be available.” … I have a year to sort of figure it out. I think I have a range of talents, so I’m not sure what may come my way. The mayor’s race is three years away — that’s a long ways away, especially in the world of politics. So we’ll see where I am at in a couple of years whether or not it’s still something I want to pursue. 

MP: But not ruling out other political offices?

KL: No, as I say, I want to be open to everything.

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