The Prides of St. Paul

The official theme song for Randy Kelly's mayoral campaign should be "Let the Good Times Roll," belted out with plenty of brass and a booming bass drum. From the start Kelly has attached himself to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman's legacy, which has been all about reinvigorating the capital city with big, splashy development projects, particularly in the once-moribund downtown area. For more than half his life, the 51-year-old

has represented the east side of St. Paul in the state Legislature (16 years in the House, 11 in the Senate), skillfully working the levers of governance to ensure that city residents reap their share of the state's budget.

While Coleman was being criticized for his plan to lure professional hockey back to Minnesota with a new arena, Kelly was the legislator who engineered the public funding that catalyzed construction of the Xcel Energy Center. Other landmarks that have been built before and during Coleman's tenure--the Science Museum, the Children's Museum, RiverCentre--also stand as testimony to Kelly's political strength.

Not surprisingly, Kelly's mayoral candidacy includes a robust development agenda, including an upgrade of the Union Depot, the refurbishment of Lowertown, improvements to the Farmers' Market that would make it a year-round facility, and development of the area between the state capitol and the downtown core. "And if there is an opportunity to get the Twins downtown, I'll go after that, because that would truly make St. Paul a major-league city," he claims, allowing that he wouldn't rule out a tax increase to build a new stadium.

The official theme song for Jay Benanav's mayoral campaign should be "Amazing Grace," sung by a neighborhood youth choir with heartfelt harmony and a touch of somber humility. Benanav, who has served for the past four years on the St. Paul City Council, has campaigned on the premise that an economic downturn and the changing social fabric of the city require a shift in priorities. "We had a downtown crisis in 1992. We don't anymore," the DFLer says. "There wasn't an affordable-housing crisis in 1992. There is now." At a time when nearly one in four children in the St. Paul schools is Southeast Asian, and when public services from libraries to skating rinks may face budget pressures, he believes the city needs to invest in communities, "so St. Paul can continue to be a wonderful place for all of us to live."

There is no clear leader in the race. In the September primary, among six major candidates (and 16 overall), Benanav squeaked out a 30 percent plurality, with Kelly close behind at 26.5 percent. Since then a lone, independent poll put Kelly slightly ahead, albeit within the survey's margin of error. The general consensus less than two weeks before the November 6 election: too close to call.

The suspense is heightened because the candidates' personality differences are as pronounced as their political priorities. Kelly is an amiable, easy-going glad-hander with a mischievous sense of humor, an Irish Catholic who was born in rural North Dakota and graduated from St. Paul's Harding High. When he's not at the capitol, he runs a small service-oriented business with his brother. The 50-year old Benanav is a Jewish immigrant from Israel with a reflective mien and a dry, self-deprecating wit, who spent most of his childhood in Yonkers. He moved to St. Paul for an attorney's position after graduating from law school at St. John's University in New York City.

In the minutes before last week's debate on WCCO-TV (Channel 4) at Macalester College, Kelly roamed the confines of Weyerhaeuser Chapel, stopping now and then to fiddle around on a piano. Benanav studiously perused the notes on his podium. "Hey, Amelia," Kelly said with a twinkle in his eye to the 'CCO moderator, just a couple of moments before the camera's red light went on, "good luck." Then, to Benanav, "It's a good-looking crowd." "Better-looking than the candidates," Benanav deadpanned, barely looking up from what he was reading.

It is clear that neither candidate neatly fits the negative stereotypes that would make life easier for his opponent. Benanav is not a naive do-gooder so blinded by "class warfare" that he can't parse the particulars of good business. When Kelly's supporters portray him as having been a nay-saying skeptic of the now-popular Xcel project, for instance, Benanav replies that he authored city council legislation changing the general-obligation bonds to revenue bonds, thus shifting the arena's financial risk from St. Paul taxpayers to owners of the hockey franchise. When pigeonholed as a classic tax-and-spend liberal, Benanav coolly counters that he has never raised taxes and he cites a litany of taxes that Kelly has approved. He is also sure to mention that former U.S. Congressman Tim Penny, one of the state's most prominent fiscal conservatives, has endorsed his candidacy.

Meanwhile, it's hard to peg Kelly as a shopworn pol, out of touch with the common man and beholden to big developers. His legislative district is one of the most ethnically diverse in the state. He is known at the capitol for consistently championing increases in the minimum wage, and he has generated millions of dollars in funding for housing, affordable and otherwise. "After Jay got the [DFL party] endorsement, I walked the streets of my ward thinking about it," says progressive state Rep. Andy Dawkins, whose constituents include some of St. Paul's poorest residents. "And I decided that Randy could help these people more than Jay could. When it comes to getting from point A to point Z and producing results, there is nobody better. And his heart is in the right place."

Of course, there are crucial differences between the candidates. Kelly's yeoman work on anti-crime legislation, gun control, and new facilities and funding for police and prosecutors have resulted in a nearly unanimous pile of endorsements from law-enforcement officials. He has used them as a cudgel, declaring public safety as a top priority--not a bad move, considering public fears prompted by last month's terrorist attack. Benanav gamely protests Kelly's politicization of the safety issue, and points out that it was he, not Kelly nor his patron Mayor Coleman, who secured full funding for the city's police force. But it's a defensive posture.

Conversely, Kelly's fidelity to Coleman carries some political risks. A lifetime DFLer in a Democratic city, he testily refuses to endorse either the Republican Coleman or Sen. Paul Wellstone, a DFL incumbent, in next year's U.S. Senate race, which, given the razor-thin Democratic majority in that body, calls into question his commitment to gaining federal assistance for working-class issues such as affordable housing. Former Mayor George Latimer, a Benanav supporter, asks, "If you care about affordable housing or the quality of the city or the condition of refugees, how can you consider putting things in the hands of [Republican minority leader Trent] Lott rather than [Democratic majority leader Tom] Daschle? Randy has got to decide who and what he really believes in."

On the stump, though, Benanav's relative lack of political experience seems to put him at a disadvantage. When the two candidates rotated through a series of small forums at a community center on St. Paul's west side on October 24, Kelly took pains to compliment the culture and history of the mostly Hmong and Spanish-speaking participants. By contrast, Benanav was stiff and formal. When he mentioned that he too was an immigrant, there was no personal anecdote to cinch the connection.

At one forum, St. Paul School Board member Gilbert de la O, a Benanav supporter, urged him to talk about the living-wage issue. Benanav spoke eloquently about his reasons for opposing a $7 million city subsidy to remodel the downtown Dayton's, a stance owing mostly to the company's refusal to grant a living wage of $8.50 for all the store's employees. "Only 86 full-time employees would have been affected," he said, fingering the label of his sport coat. "I bought this at Dayton's.
I wouldn't have minded if it cost a little more, if people were getting a decent wage in exchange for $7 million of taxpayer money. And that much money could be used to start 15 new businesses, with a million left over for other things."

It was a perfect story for the many eager but still poor potential voters in the building. But in eight subsequent discussions that night, Benanav never repeated it.

Kelly's electoral handicap is a relative paucity of volunteers. Although both candidates received plenty of endorsements, Benanav's include the grassroots-oriented housing and environmental groups that pay off in sweat equity, the public employees unions (especially significant in St. Paul), and, of course, the DFL.

Those who chart precinct totals with a jeweler's eye and treat the campaign as a horse race say that Kelly's decided edge in the Sixth and Seventh wards on the east side, where he has represented citizens for decades, will be mostly offset by Benanav's margin in the more populous Fourth Ward, his home base. The predominantly low-income First Ward is generally conceded to Benanav. The Fifth Ward is expected to tilt to Kelly. That leaves the Second and Third wards as the primary battleground, and both are regarded as toss-ups.

In those two wards and throughout the city, it's likely that the election on November 6 will come down to which vision the voters choose to embrace: "Let the Good Times Roll" or "Amazing Grace."

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