St. Paul Mayor's Race: Who Will Take On Kelly?

Ortega and Coleman are neck-and-neck during the endorsing season. Will one emerge to seriously challenge Bush's favorite Democrat?

The answer to the Kelly question remains decidedly murky with just a month left before the St. Paul DFL mayoral endorsing convention. After last week's final ward convention, the two top contenders to run against Randy--former City Council member Chris Coleman and Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega--remain virtually deadlocked.

In the four wards (out of seven citywide) where delegates have been given a chance to express their preference for a candidate, Ortega has tallied 107 votes while Coleman has garnered 101. Given the huge number of undecided voters, this difference is negligible.

Randy Kelly still calls himself a Democrat, and hasn't publicly ruled out seeking the DFL's backing, but it's clear that the mayor's endorsement of President Bush last summer has left him with zero support among the party faithful. "We don't feel that the Kelly campaign will have any influence at all at the city convention," says Dennis Hill, Ortega's deputy campaign manager.

The continuing tightness of the race raises the prospect that the April 30 convention will end up deadlocked and that all three candidates will continue on to the primary election. This would be a disaster for both Coleman and Ortega, since they wouldn't have nearly the financial resources needed to compete with Kelly and his conservative allies in the business community, most notably the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. If Kelly has lost friends in the DFL, he's found others with very deep pockets: Hizzoner already has some $250,000 in his campaign coffers, and plans to raise more than $1 million to get reelected.

Both challenger campaigns insist they appreciate this reality and are committed to settling on a party standard-bearer. "I think all of us recognize that we need an endorsed DFL candidate to beat Randy Kelly in November," says Coleman campaign manager Kris Fredson.

Most observers have long viewed Coleman as the favorite owing to the belief that he can raise significant amounts of money and stands the best chance of beating Kelly in November. After 12 years of conservative municipal governance, even unrepentant St. Paul liberals have turned into political pragmatists. But last week's Ward Five convention, at which Ortega tallied nearly twice as much support as his rival, has rejiggered the conventional wisdom.

The biggest unknown at this point is whether any labor unions will throw support toward either Coleman or Ortega. So far organized labor has stayed on the sidelines, and most St. Paul political observers believe that that will continue to be the case through the convention.

Pat Flanagan, president of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21, sums up the sentiments of many union activists. "Basically, our position is anyone but Kelly," he says. "Right now we're endorsing both Ortega and Coleman, and we've given them both money."

 
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