A Face-Lift for the St. Paul City Council?

Primaries could mean a stronger, tougher lineup

The St. Paul City Council often seems irrelevant. The city's strong-mayor system of governance--coupled with a leader, in Randy Kelly, who is not shy about wielding power--frequently renders the council superfluous. At times, city council members have been reduced during public meetings to existential musings about the significance of their standing in the municipal universe.

The primary elections on September 9 could set the stage for a council better equipped to do battle with the mayor. With two generally Kelly-friendly city council members dropping out, this fall's races could change the council's dynamics considerably--from a body that grudgingly accedes to the mayor's wishes to one that actively challenges his authority. "The reality is that this year's elections are pretty important," says Ben Goldfarb, executive director of Progressive Minnesota. "There is an opportunity to change the balance of power on the council."

Most of the attention is focused on the two races where incumbents have chosen not to seek reelection. In the First Ward, which runs through central St. Paul, Jerry Blakey is stepping down after 10 years in the post. Chris Coleman has declined to seek a third term in the Second Ward, a district that includes the city's west side, downtown, and the West Seventh Street neighborhood. Both races have generated a small throng of candidates; in each ward, only two candidates will move on from the primary.

In Ward Two, there are four different women running whose last names end in "son." Naturally they worry that voters will have a difficult time simply remembering which candidate they intended to support. The lack of distinctive monikers among the field has led to some fairly resourceful (some might say desperate) marketing techniques. Elizabeth Dickinson, the Green Party candidate in Ward Two, is constantly reminding voters that her last name is the same as the late poet's, while Donna Swanson has taken to linking her candidacy with frozen foods. "I'm Swanson," the DFLer tells voters. "Just like the frozen dinner."

Ward One is the most diverse, politically combative district in the city. Among the nine candidates seeking to fill Blakey's post, six are members of minority groups. The ward has traditionally been a base of political power for the black community, but the significant spike in Asian residents over the last decade has altered that fact. "The demographics of Ward One have really changed drastically," acknowledges the Rev. Devin Miller, a local political activist. "But the African-American community still has a stronghold in Ward One. It's just a matter of getting them out to vote."

Mayor Randy Kelly has attempted to sway the outcome of the two races by throwing his support behind two candidates, Debbie Montgomery in Ward One and Christine Nelson in Ward Two. (Both candidates are also supported by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, a key Kelly backer in the last mayoral election.) "St. Paul is at a crossroads," Kelly argues, alluding to recent cutbacks in state aid. "I feel that we must look to the future and a new reality, and elect office holders that realize the world has changed for local units of government in Minnesota."

But some candidates question how much bounce Kelly's blessing will have. "The mayor's not the most popular guy in Ward One," argues Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action and a Ward One candidate. "A lot of people feel that the mayor doesn't pay a lot of attention to Ward One."

Whoever makes it through the primary--and the general election--will confront a grim reality upon taking office. St. Paul faces significant budget shortfalls for the foreseeable future, with the latest budget forecast projecting a $19 million deficit in 2005. After a decade of holding property taxes level, the city's coffers are empty.

 

Dave Thune is undoubtedly the front-runner in Ward Two. The former city council president, who served on the body from 1992 to 1998, garnered the early support of many labor unions and in April secured the DFL endorsement--a blessing akin to beatification in Ward Two.

The strong support among DFLers for a second Thune tenure is somewhat bewildering. An examination of the 53-year-old motorcycle enthusiast's record over just the last five years reveals instances of political opportunism, questionable ethics, and dubious fiscal management.

While Thune was still on the city council in 1997, he landed a $2,000-a-month job as a consultant with M.A. Mortenson Company. This just happened to be the same company that was awarded a lucrative contract to build St. Paul's new publicly financed hockey arena. Although Thune did not play a direct role in awarding Mortenson the contract, he did cast a vote in favor of allowing the Minnesota Wild to privately bid out the construction work. And in practice, that was the same as voting for Mortenson--the company had put up the Wild's initial $100,000 National Hockey League application fee.

The state auditor launched a probe of Thune's fiscal ties to Mortenson and ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing. Spurred in part by this incident, however, the council amended its conflict-of-interest rules to eliminate such cozy relationships in the future.

Thune then surprised DFLers during the 1998 gubernatorial race by endorsing his former nemesis, Norm Coleman. Despite the then-St. Paul mayor's electoral defeat, Thune's political patronage was rewarded: He landed a job in Coleman's municipal administration as the housing information officer.

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