Battle of the St. Paul Titans

It's Kelly vs. the City Council in a war of no words

In May, St. Paul City Council member Kathy Lantry heard rumblings about a proposed development project in her East Side ward. Apparently, the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development (PED) had been working on a proposal to revitalize the intersection of Seventh Street East and White Bear Avenue North. But nobody from PED had said a word to Lantry about the plan.

As the Ward Seven council member eventually figured out, there was a good reason that she was being kept in the dark. She says that PED staffers had been ordered by Mayor Randy Kelly's office not to discuss it with her. "I went over to the mayor's office and said 'Uncle! I can't work like this,'" Lantry recalls.

Relations between Kelly and Lantry have only deteriorated since then. In the three months since she made that trek down to the mayor's office, she's not had a single conversation with anyone on Kelly's staff. Even after Lantry was promoted to City Council president last month--a move that was, at least in part, a rebuke to the mayor--the silence has continued. In other words, the two most powerful elected officials in St. Paul, both Democrats with deep roots on the East Side, are no longer speaking.

Coup d'état: Kathy Lantry's ascension to city council president has led to further acrimony in St. Paul
Bill Kelley
Coup d'état: Kathy Lantry's ascension to city council president has led to further acrimony in St. Paul

Discord between the City Council and the mayor has never lurked far beneath the surface. Since being elected in 2001, Kelly has treated the body like a bothersome wart. He rarely consults with council members and is often openly derisive of them. Lantry and others report frequently having to contact the mayor's office themselves to find out about ribbon cutting ceremonies or housing projects slated for their wards. The sight of Deputy Mayor Flaherty trudging down to the council chambers on Wednesday afternoons to be publicly scolded for his boss's haughtiness has become routine.

But last month's elevation of Lantry to council president has brought relations to a prickly low. Some observers believe that the discourse has soured to a point not even witnessed when Norm Coleman--a man pathologically loathed by liberal DFLers in the city--was mayor. "There's just a huge amount of anger and frustration toward each other that I think is probably not serving the city very well," says former Ward Two city council member Chris Coleman, who supported Kelly in the 2001 mayoral race. "Randy is his own worst enemy. There's no question about that. The relationship that he has with the council right now is one that he created."

However, Coleman does not believe that Lantry and her allies on the council (Jay Benanav, Lee Helgen, and Dave Thune) are completely blameless. He argues that their decision to oust Dan Bostrom as council president was useless provocation. "It seems to me that this move didn't accomplish anything other than to anger a lot of people and just add to the acrimony down there," he says.

And Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty insists that the mayor's office is always open to Lantry, or any other city official. "There are some council members that quite frankly do not want to see Mayor Kelly succeed," says Flaherty. "And they will do everything in their power to circumvent him, frustrate him, or, if they actually could, derail his success."

Whoever is to blame, the rancor is not likely to subside any time soon. Mayor Kelly used last month's budget address to lambaste Lantry and her allies on the council for their "fairly extreme political ideology." "I thought I was there for a budget address and to find out how Randy was going to move the city forward," recalls Lantry. "Instead it was like a public spanking."

Kelly's City Council critics have already taken aim at his proposed budget. They rightly point out that his plan to raise assessments on homeowners for streetlight repairs by $15 to $19 annually is a tax increase no matter what he chooses to call it. Lantry further questions Kelly's assertion that his proposed budget will pump more money into the fire and police departments. She points out that the increase in the police department's budget is a measly .2 percent. Furthermore, Lantry argues that even that figure is misleading because, under Kelly's plan, each department will now be required to pony up money for workers' compensation coverage, an expense that was formerly covered by the city. "We're not investing any money there," Lantry says of police and fire.

Mayor Kelly's opponents have no doubt been emboldened by his recent political missteps. He threw his weight behind three candidates in last year's City Council elections, but his pick managed to prevail in only one race. This has left him with a council predisposed to eye his proposals with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Then there was Kelly's bizarre endorsement of George W. Bush for president last month. After declaring on Minnesota Public Radio that he intended to stay out of national politics and focus on the problems facing St. Paul, Kelly was crisscrossing the state a week later to shill for Bush. Although Norm Coleman pulled off the trick of switching to the Republican Party and still getting re-elected in DFL-dominated St. Paul, Kelly has never displayed that kind of political guile. Many Democrats who previously supported the mayor are now publicly railing against him. "Under no circumstances will I support Randy Kelly for mayor," says Chris Coleman. "And he needs people like me. He needs Democrats like me to support him to get elected in the city of St. Paul."

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