Randy Kelly R.I.P.?

Can the St. Paul mayor rebound from an awful primary showing?

The beating that St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly took in last month's primary election is nearly impossible to overstate. The incumbent received just 27 percent of the vote--or barely half the total amassed by former City Council member Chris Coleman.

Put another way, out of 161,538 registered voters in St. Paul, only 6,740 managed to show up and cast a vote for Kelly. He nearly got knocked out of the contest by Elizabeth Dickinson, a Green Party candidate whose campaign barely had sufficient funds to pay a monthly phone bill.

For Kelly, the news was grim across the city. The mayor won just 6 precincts (out of 105) citywide, even losing his home precinct. In the vote-heavy 4th Ward, where fully a quarter of the primary ballots were cast, the incumbent got just 28 percent of the vote.

It was such a profound whipping that when the Kelly campaign announced last month that the mayor would be making a "major announcement," there was wide speculation that he would drop out of the race entirely. Instead Kelly merely deepened his quagmire by announcing...well, no one's quite sure what he announced. The event was a ham-fisted attempt to explain away last year's much-maligned endorsement of President Bush, with Kelly imploring citizens not to "vote angry." He compounded his troubles by making the assembled media wait for nearly 30 minutes while his camera crew got their equipment running.

The event was such a debacle that even Kelly's allies are questioning the competency of his campaign staff. A recent item in the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, written by Sarah Janecek and Blois Olson, is headlined "Dead Man Walking." "Yesterday's press conference by St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly was an unmitigated disaster," it begins. The newsletter goes on to question whether Eric Mische, the political guru who has pulled the strings for both Kelly and former Mayor Norm Coleman, had "lost his touch."

"The mayor is stuck between a rock and a hard place," says Janecek, a Republican who has contributed money to the Kelly campaign. "There is no question that for a lot of voters in St. Paul this is about George Bush, not Randy Kelly."

But DFLers maintain that their beef with Kelly goes well beyond the Bush endorsement. State Rep. Alice Hausman says she was flabbergasted earlier this year when Kelly threatened to use his sway with Gov. Tim Pawlenty to sabotage St. Paul items in the bonding bill if funding for his pet project, a dike around the St. Paul Downtown Airport (also known as Holman Field), wasn't included. "He sat there, in his inimitable style, and he said to me, 'If Holman Field isn't in the bill, there will be bills authored by St. Paul legislators that will be vetoed,'" she recalls.

Any doubts Hausman might have harbored about whether Kelly really had Pawlenty's ear were erased during final negotiations over the bonding bill in the Republican governor's office. As Hausman recalls it, the airport dike was the last item raised by Pawlenty. "He simply said to everyone at the table, 'If Holman Field isn't in this bill, I will veto every St. Paul project.'"

Despite the steady drumroll of bad news for the Kelly campaign, most political observers aren't counting him out completely. Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, recently put together a study scrutinizing voter turnout in recent primary and general elections. He found that in the last three St. Paul mayoral elections, there were roughly three times as many voters in the general election. This means that an additional 45,000 or so people are likely to be casting ballots on November 8.

What's more, these folks are more likely to be Kelly-friendly voters. Liberal Democrats--smarting from last year's presidential election and 12 years of moderate-conservative municipal rule--were giddy to cast a vote against Kelly. "People who are ideologically motivated tend to vote in primaries," observes Janecek.

The Coleman campaign can barely conceal its glee about the primary results. "When you look at an incumbent mayor who has spent, through the primary, well in excess of $500,000, for him to lose three-to-one ultimately is just unprecedented and it shows the lack of support that he has," says Coleman. "It's very clear through his actions and his deeds that he's a Republican in a Democratic city." (But doesn't that describe Norm Coleman's tenure as mayor, too?)

In arguing that the Kelly camp still stands a chance, political observers frequently point out that Kelly continues to boast a considerable fundraising advantage over Coleman. The incumbent has collected close to a million dollars, and as of the end of August still had roughly $400,000 on hand. By contrast, Coleman had barely half that amount left to spend. Television advertisements touting Kelly are expected to start hitting local airwaves any day now.

But Janecek argues that with less than a month to go until the election, the Kelly campaign needs to devote its considerable resources to ensuring that people who are inclined to vote for him go to the polls. "Any new message at this point is somewhat irrelevant," she says. "You're either with Randy or not."

 
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