Four More Years in Saint Paul?

Norm Coleman's glitzy deals have charmed business and the press. But guess who's left holding the bag.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press has spoiled its city's mayor. Norm Coleman is so accustomed to favorable news analysis, fawning editorials, and feel-good features that he and his staff have been reduced to quibbling about story placement and headline size. "Did you see where they put the poll results? Do you see how small it was?" he asks, alluding to a front-page story that reports him leading challenger Sandy Pappas by 22 percentage points. "All I ask is that people be fair. All journalists don't have to be cynics."

It's hard to imagine any other public figure daring to air this complaint with a straight face. But Coleman is different. A pro-life Democrat turned "fiscally responsible" Republican, he's the region's premier politician, credited with turning St. Paul from a wanna-be ghost town into the state's gem city; a quaint, homey village with all the trimmings of a booming metropolis. The press loves his go-go swagger. The business community is drunk on his brand of trickle-down economics. Almost 60 percent of his constituents have given a thumbs up to his "optimistic" leadership style. In Minneapolis, where there's always been an air of superiority, those hoping to rid City Hall of Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton point across the river. Look at what Norm's done, those who support challenger Barbara Carlson say. Look at the excitement. Look at the promise. Just read Coleman's campaign buttons and believe: "The Pride is back."

Even the DFL-dominated St. Paul City Council hasn't dared get in the mayor's way. Because in Coleman's new world, criticism is cynicism, cynicism is defeatist, and the people of St. Paul have had enough bad vibes to last past the millennium. When Pappas questioned her opponent's record in an early October debate, daring to wonder whether Coleman's two biggest development schemes--the wooing of Lawson Software and the National Hockey League--were too risky, Council President David Thune accused her of demagoguery. Never mind that Thune is a vocal member of the DFL. Never mind that he considered Coleman public enemy number one a little over a year ago. Never mind that Council members such as the Fourth Ward's Bobbi Megard still say both deals make them nervous. The Council backed both projects with a 7-0 vote, a fact Coleman is quick to use when the critics wax cynical.

"It's tough, because Coleman has had the votes before he gets to the table," Megard says. "If you go against the grain you look like a naysayer. So you look at the thing and figure out how you can vote for it--is there something you can do? I have to be real honest, I believe there are imbalances in these deals. And questioning some of these things at the table is what I do consistently. But in some cases it is important that these big projects have a unanimous vote because we're saying we believe it's best for the city."

"I believe good politics leads to good policy," Coleman likes to say, and there's no question he has mastered the former. Pundits on both sides of the ideological fence are convinced he's already become a legitimate candidate for governor in 1998. Having learned that 66 percent of the St. Paul citizenry could care less if he abandons office after another year, Coleman can barely muster the energy to deny the certitude of this eventuality. "I'll make that decision at the beginning of next year," he says.

According to critics, many of whom won't comment on the record, Coleman's run at the governor's mansion is already in a full sprint. The advocacy group Minnesota ACORN found that his campaign already boasts a healthy roster of potential statewide-campaign givers: Two-thirds of those who've contributed to his mayoral bid live in the suburbs. Neighborhood activists speaking as citizens, such as the Urban Coalition's Yusef Mgeni, say the most expensive deals he's cut in the name of the city actually benefit the region. And DFL loyalists maintain that if Coleman can get away from City Hall before the economy takes a downturn or his heavily leveraged development deals go south, his reputation will remain unscathed.

"It's insanity," one St. Paul lawyer says. "But if Coleman can get to the state Capitol before everything goes to hell, the Pioneer Press can still give him fellatio. Meanwhile, some poor schlep will be sitting in the mayor's office scratching his head."

In the '80s, then-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer went on a development binge that produced, among other things, the World Trade Center and Galtier Plaza. In 1990, when Jim Scheibel took control of City Hall, downtown found itself stuck with empty buildings, empty streets, and a massive debt load. "In hindsight, there was too much development," recalls Scheibel, who says he inherited both good and bad from Latimer. "There was a recession. We were overbuilt and some of the property got pretty expensive."

Coleman, like Latimer in his day, is being praised for bringing vitality back to St. Paul's metropolitan core. Specifically, he and a group of local and regional business people dubbed the Capitol City Partnership have been given credit for the expansion of St. Paul-based Ecolab, Inc., the luring of Lawson Software away from Minneapolis, the revitalization of the Radisson Hotel and the acquisition of a NHL hockey franchise. Of these projects, which all rely heavily on city-backed loans, the Lawson deal and the negotiations for a hockey team received the most favorable publicity. They also carry the most risk. Because if things don't go exactly as planned, St. Paul could once again be saddled with too much real estate and not enough capital.

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