The new mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul did something Tuesday that might have been hazardous to their political health just a few months ago: They hung out with members of their respective chambers of commerce. They even said nice things about business.
“I know that I speak on both of our behalfs when I say that having a strong business community to work with is an asset to our community,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said. “I’m proud of the roles that our chambers play in the process of city building.”
Not exactly radical talk in your average American city (although Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey took pains to stress their burgs are not at all average). Mayors and the business community are often close partners, after all — sometimes out of choice and sometimes out of necessity.
But during much of the 2017 election, some of the loudest political elements in Minneapolis and St. Paul cast the business community in general (and the two chambers in particular) as political villains. Whether they agreed with that characterization or not, many candidates became wary of embracing business. At one early Minneapolis mayoral forum sponsored by business interests, the candidates had to be specifically asked whether they even wanted the support of business interests. Not all did.
The chambers didn’t help themselves in this narrative. Officials with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce were among the founders of Minneapolis Works, an independent expenditure committee that spent at least $100,000 to try to save a handful of city council incumbents. They were mostly unsuccessful, but the committee itself became an issue, used by activists on the left to target business interests.
In St. Paul, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce was one of the funders of a late-campaign mailing that tried to blame Carter for contributing to the overabundance of firearms in the city because two of his guns were stolen in a burglary. The mailing was driven more by the St. Paul Police Federation than the chamber, and succeeded only in forcing the union out of the campaign, and probably helped Carter’s campaign far more than it hurt him.
But all that was set aside Tuesday morning at the University of St. Thomas for what has become one of the biggest events for both chambers. “Breakfast with the Mayors” sold out quickly and attracted a waiting list of more than 100 names.
As is tradition, the two mayors gently poked fun at one another (“It’s great to host the mayor of the second best city in the state,” Carter said to Frey) but then move quickly to themes of unity, especially around issues of economic development. “When we think about Minneapolis … a city that we historically have had — it’s fair to say — some competition with, even that is thinking small.” Carter said. “Our competition isn’t Minneapolis. Our competition in the Twin Cities Region is London. It is Paris.”
Carter echoed his campaign themes about viewing the city’s riverfront and multicultural population as opportunities rather than challenges. St. Paul, he said, has more Mississippi riverfront than any other city in America, yet it has often viewed it as an obstacle rather than an asset.
St. Paul public schools, Carter said, have students who speak more than 100 languages “and we talk about it as a problem. In the meantime, all of you and every company in the world right now has to find and tap into a multilingual workforce in order to compete in a global economy.”
Carter also said he is asking residents to help him resolve issues of equity, innovation and resilience. And is seeking input from the business community in crafting the “best minimum wage ordinance to move St. Paul forward.”
But he also left no doubt that he would be pursuing such an ordinance with the city council. “I think we have proven that the model of electing someone and coming back four years later to see what happened just doesn’t work,” Carter said. “We’re asking people not to send me to city hall, but to go there with me.”
Frey began his remarks by noting a geographic fact — that in a region that often refers to Minneapolis and St. Paul as being “across the river” from each other now — currently has two mayors who both live on the same side of the Mississippi. Frey lives in Northeast Minneapolis and Carter in Rondo. “This whole notion that we’re somehow separated by the river is absolutely wrong. We are united by it,” Frey said.
Both mayors talked about the opportunity provided by the Super Bowl, and the attention the event has brought the region. “And as they gaze their eyes toward us, they’re going to see a city united,” Frey said “United around concepts of opportunity, inclusivity, innovation and justice. They’re going to see two cities that aren’t settling for being pretty good in the upper midwest. As Mayor Carter says, we can be absolutely world class. We need to believe it. We need to be living that mentality.”
Frey told the business audience that resolving the region’s affordable housing shortage is both a moral issue and an economic one. It costs far more to respond to issues with homeless people than to help them find a safe place to live, he said. And at the same time, it has a housing crisis, the state has more than 100,000 job vacancies.
Frey said the region needs to attract workers not just regionally but from the two coasts (“You know, I didn’t grow up here, and I think that’s an OK thing.”)
Frey also noted that by 2020, half of the region’s workers will be millennials. “Just so you know, that means that 50 percent of the workforce is either going to look like Mayor Carter or I or substantially younger,” Frey said. “Perhaps that’s a scary thought to some of you, but that is also a massive opportunity that we need to be accounting for.”