Centrist vs. Centrist

St. Paul DFLers pick a well-heeled moderate to take on big, bad Randy Kelly

St. Paul Democrats voted with their heads instead of their hearts on Saturday. In a closely fought intra-party battle, former City Council member Chris Coleman--a moderate DFLer from a storied political family--emerged with the party's backing from the citywide party convention to take on Mayor Randy Kelly.

Coleman turned aside a spirited run by Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who tacked to Coleman's left, positioning himself as the true promoter of progressive DFL beliefs. Coleman out-polled Ortega, 281 to 240, in the first round of balloting. After the gap widened slightly on the second ballot, a tearful Ortega conceded the race. "I promise you I will be there working for the Democratic Party," Ortega told the crowd of 500-plus DFLers at Arlington High School. "We will beat Randy Kelly." He then offered a motion to unanimously endorse Coleman's candidacy, which was supported enthusiastically.

DFL mayoral endorsee Chris Coleman: "My campaign fund is already this much bigger than the mayor's"
Paul Demko
DFL mayoral endorsee Chris Coleman: "My campaign fund is already this much bigger than the mayor's"

Despite Ortega's touching concession, the most visceral emotion on display at the convention was a deep-seated loathing for the incumbent mayor, largely owing to his endorsement of George Bush for president last summer. When a delegate attempted to nominate Kelly for the party's mayoral endorsement, he was greeted by snickers and boos.

Coleman's endorsement is an indication that, because it's been 12 years since a DFL-endorsed candidate has seen the inside of the mayor's office, St. Paul Democrats are more interested in electoral victory than ideological purity.

After all, Coleman has shown little fealty toward the DFL endorsement process in the past. In 2000 he unsuccessfully ran against the party's standard-bearer, Betty McCollum, for an open congressional seat. The next year Coleman again bucked the DFL by supporting Kelly over the party's favored mayoral candidate, Jay Benanav.

Even so, Coleman garnered early support from many of the city's political powerbrokers, including former Mayor George Latimer and retired police Chief William Finney. Coleman was widely viewed as the only candidate who could raise sufficient funds to successfully challenge the incumbent. He romped in the working-class East Side precincts and the vote-heavy Highland Park neighborhood, while holding his own in the rest of the city.

Ortega gambled by largely ignoring the East Side during the run-up to the endorsement convention. "We didn't sit out anything," noted Kris Fredson, Coleman's campaign manager. "The fact that they sat out some may have been a mistake."

Despite the show of party loyalty on display from the convention stage, there was some uneasiness about Coleman among the delegates even after the endorsement battle was over. "The good news is that he can be nasty like Randy," laughed one veteran St. Paul politico. Others grumbled that Coleman is little different from Kelly and his conservative allies in the Republican Party and at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. "I think that same well-financed money machine took this endorsement out of the hands of the people where it belongs," one delegate was overheard saying.

But ultimately the overwhelming majority of loyal Democrats, incensed by Kelly's backing of Bush, will enthusiastically rally behind Coleman. Ward Five delegate Willie Snyder, for instance, supported Ortega during the endorsement campaign. He expressed deep misgivings about Coleman's past history of betraying DFL-supported candidates. "I don't believe that he's honest on certain issues," Snyder said when the mayoral contest was still undecided. "I still wonder if that means he's not really locked into this process." But after Coleman had secured the endorsement, Snyder rallied behind the prevailing anti-Kelly sentiment: "We all suck it up and do what we need to do to get that guy out of office," he said.

Despite the fact that more than 70 percent of St. Paul voters supported John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, the Coleman campaign undoubtedly faces an uphill battle. Kelly has vowed to raise an unprecedented $1 million to protect his post. He's a tenacious political veteran, unafraid to engage in hardball tactics. Shortly after Coleman--whose father, Nick, served as a state senator from St. Paul for 18 years--secured the endorsement, the Kelly campaign issued a statement casting themselves as the political outsiders in the race. "We expect to be outspent and we begin this campaign as the underdog," said Ryan Kelly, the mayor's son and campaign manager.

Fredson said post-convention that the Coleman campaign will focus on meat-and-potatoes issues like job growth and education. "This isn't going to be a referendum on Kelly's decision to support George Bush," he insisted. But he also speculates that the incumbent mayor's embrace of Bush may help spur fundraising efforts from national political groups such as Moveon.org. "He's one of the three most prominent Democrats in the country to stand up for George Bush and he's the only one up for reelection," Fredson noted. "I think that's compelling."

The Coleman campaign manager believes that the DFL party will be united in attempting to knock off Kelly. "I think in the end everyone's going to come together," he concluded. "We know what's at stake. Randy Kelly's been a disaster for St. Paul."

 
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