IT'S BEEN A tumultuous year at St. Paul City Hall. The mayor switched political parties midstream and went on a downtown-development spree, and the City Council was busy playing musical chairs. One Council member moved to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, leaving her aide to fill in, while another made a bid in the mayoral primary and lost her party's endorsement for both the mayoral race and her Council seat. Two more members, including Council President Dave Thune, are retiring.
But despite all the jockeying, St. Paul insiders contend this year's Council contests are yawners with the exception of wards 3 and 5. That may not come as a surprise in a city where the DFL still pretty much calls the shots; so far, Mayor Norm Coleman's conversion to the Republican Party hasn't inspired any imitators. Then again, the two races that remain close feature more than echoes of the mayoral contest.
Unlike its counterpart across the Mississippi, St. Paul is divided into seven wards, and being a Council member is a part-time job. (Minneapolis has 13 wards, and Council members work full time.) On both sides of the river, incumbents and DFLers have a distinct advantage over other candidates. In Ward 1, where Council member Jerry Blakey is both an incumbent and DFL-endorsed, conventional wisdom is that he'll wipe out challenger Leonard Jackson. St. Paul DFL Chair Jane Prince says numbers from the primary election are holding steady, giving Blakey 70 percent of the vote.
DFL-backed candidates in Wards 4 and 7--Jay Benanav and Kathy Lantry, respectively--also look like sure bets, and in Wards 2 and 6 DFL-backed candidates ran unopposed in the primary. (Council President Thune's successor apparent is Chris Coleman; Ward 6's incumbent is Dan Bostrom, a 26-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department.) In the two remaining wards, candidates have rallied around the same central issue as mayoral candidates Coleman and Sandy Pappas: downtown development.
In Highland Park, the heart of Ward 3, the race parallels the St. Paul mayoral contest. Incumbent Mike Harris has been drawing fire from his challenger, DFL endorsee Randy Schubring, for defending "the special interests of hockey-team owners and CEOs." Schubring contends that ventures like the city's commitment to build an office tower for Lawson Software are "risky," and says he "disagrees in general" with the city taking on such private development deals. Harris counters that such arrangements benefit everyone by keeping jobs downtown. So far, that argument seems to have gone over well; Harris drew 60 percent of the votes in the primary.
But recently the race heated up when someone mailed out anonymous brochures attacking Harris's status as an independent. The fliers--which included a copy of his campaign-contributions report--noted that Harris takes money from "lobbyists, business people, contractors who have dealings with the City Council, and prominent Republicans." Harris's defenders counter that lobbyist and business contributions are the core of any candidate's contribution roster, and point out their candidate refuses both money from political-action committees and party endorsements.
In contrast, even though insiders whine that the race in Ward 5 is "so civilized it's boring," they concede it's the race to watch. The ward is arguably St. Paul's most diverse--stately homes line the streets near the Como Park Zoo, while the north end encompasses the grittier neighborhoods of Rice Street. Joe Reiter, an independent, is running against DFL-endorsed Rob Peitzman for the seat occupied by longtime Council member Janice Rettman until she was elected to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners last spring. Polls suggest the contest is too close to call.
Ward 5 residents will be hard-pressed, however, to distinguish between Reiter's and Peitzman's stances on such perennial ward worries as crime and housing stock; Reiter is viewed as more fiscally conservative, but only by a hair. Instead, the race may come down to which coattails are more powerful: Rettman's (she tirelessly door-knocked the ward each Friday during her tenure and recently endorsed Peitzman) or Coleman's (he, along with Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, is backing Reiter).
Should Reiter capture Ward 5 next week, the coming year's Council will once again be heavy with Democrats, something departing DFLer Megard considers crucial. "The Council is the counterbalance to the mayor's office," she says. "If there's five Coleman supporters, it would be a different board than if the Democrats win [majority control]."
However, not everyone is convinced that party affiliation makes the difference. "This year's Council was packed with DFLers," one observer notes dryly, "and none of them stood up to Norm."
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