Come to Pappas

THE LACK OF difference between state Sen. Sandy Pappas and St. Paul City Council member Bobbi Megard was readily apparent to the honorably foolish St. Paul DFL convention delegates who shunned the gorgeous weather and holed up in the Arlington High School auditorium Saturday to decide who to endorse against party turncoat Norm Coleman in the race for mayor. Pappas's campaign signs were bluish-purple; Megard's merely blue. There were large placards bearing the phrase Endorse Megard on a photo of Mayor Coleman about to insert a stogie into a mouth enraptured in a smug laugh; Pappas countered with T-shirts that proclaimed that she was Better Than The Norm.

More to the point, in the stump speeches and question-answer session, the two candidates sounded remarkably similar on the themes and the details of their positions. Both, for example, would clean up the city's polluted land so that businesses could relocate to lower-income neighborhoods and provide living-wage jobs for nearby residents.

Not surprisingly, DFL delegates had trouble making up their minds; the biggest lead Pappas--ultimately the victor--amassed over the course of four separate ballots was 25 votes out of the more than 530 cast. Knowing that a gridlocked convention would ensure Coleman's re-election, some Megard supporters from the public-employees union and "superdelegate" officeholders signalled their movement to Pappas on the fourth and (officially uncounted) fifth ballots, prompting Megard to take to the podium eight hours into the convention to urge that Pappas be nominated by acclamation. In terms of realpolitik, it was the right choice. While a woman of principle, Megard's style couldn't quicken the pulse of even the party faithful. She delivered an adroitly written speech--contrasting her vision with Coleman's--like a schoolmarm, plodding through the punch lines as she ironed out any sense of cadence into a wrinkle-free nap-time narrative. Indeed, Megard sounded most enlivened when noting that she composted her garbage back in 1967, a too-accurate metaphor for her unglamorous good-government sensibility.

Pappas, on the other hand, is feisty and patently ambitious, one reason why the 30-40 Coleman-oriented delegates at the convention supported Megard. While a state representative, Pappas had no compunction about ousting her political mentor, Don Moe, during a state-senate primary. Asked on Saturday what she would cut from the city's budget, Megard opined that aside from some "efficiencies," the thing was already bare-bones; Pappas, whose knowledge of the budget is dwarfed by Megard's, hit the applause button by quipping that she'd do away with Coleman's six PR people. Pappas is sharp and quick-witted enough to score points against even a slippery campaigner like Coleman, and as an ethnic female she presents a compelling foil to the mayor's Kennedyesque charisma.

Coleman isn't without his own resources. Like his hugely popular predecessor, George Latimer, he has played upon St. Paul's inferiority complex by proposing grandiose projects of questionable merit and financing. His ongoing effort to bring pro hockey to St. Paul has become a political bonanza beyond probably even his own expectations. Pappas took a lot of heat for leading the legislative opposition to an arena proposal that would have added tens of millions of dollars onto a half-cent city sales tax increase already being used to pay for another facility. When Coleman and his political ally, Gov. Arne Carlson, came out with a revised arena proposal last week that could extend the tax decades into the 21st century, Pappas waffled for a few days before again affirming her opposition. Either way, this week's decision by the National Hockey League on whether to award St. Paul an expansion franchise is problematic for Pappas: If it's vetoed, Pappas is the politician who killed St. Paul's chances. If it's approved, the pressure to go along with an arena plan will be enormous--especially now that the city council has given its blessing.

Plus, hockey headlines could drone out the more meat-and-potatoes issues facing St. Paul voters. Taking a page from Paul Wellstone's successful statewide U.S. Senate campaign, she promises to hammer on improving life for families and children, the way more populist, anti-corporate campaigns avoid the "liberal" epithet nowadays. Pappas kicked off her campaign this week in Highland Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of liberal and neo-conservative voters that will be a key battleground in November.

Pappas likes to point out that St. Paul hasn't elected a Republican mayor in more than 30 years. She neglects to add that the last Democrat elected was an unendorsed candidate by the name of Coleman. Still, the DFL put its most aggressive foot forward on Saturday, and Coleman-Pappas could be a real dogfight, with sharp differences that both sides will be anxious to draw.

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