An exit interview with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

SAINT PAUL — It was October 2011, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was debating whether to use the city’s Public Works trucks to block light-rail contractors from laying down the Green Line. Or perhaps a restraining order might send a stiff message.

Roughly three miles of University Avenue were reduced to a single lane in each direction. Coleman wanted the street reopened to four lanes, two in each direction, before heavy snow fell.

The DFL mayor, then halfway through his second term, pondered his legal options with then-City Attorney Sara Grewing. Coleman meant business.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman sits where his mayoral plaque and photo will be placed -- on a wall adorned with every St. Paul mayor to date -- in the St. Paul City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 14th, 2017. (Matthew Weber / Pioneer Press)
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman sits where his mayoral plaque and photo will be placed — on a wall adorned with every St. Paul mayor to date — in the St. Paul City Hall on Thursday, Dec. 14th, 2017. (Matthew Weber / Pioneer Press)

The two eventually decided to soften their message a bit before Walsh Construction officials walked into the room.

“The tone from my standpoint was, I need you to put everything you can into this project to make sure it gets done,” Coleman told a reporter a few days later.

It wasn’t the first time the mayor took a tough stance on Metro Transit’s $957 million light-rail line, a project he had pushed for. Years earlier, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks almost blocked the trains from rolling through campus until Coleman sat down to negotiate. Discussions with Minnesota Public Radio and other affected property owners were no less contentious.

While the project was led by the Metropolitan Council, the Green Line will probably be recorded by Coleman’s fans and critics alike as St. Paul’s most transformative project during his 12 years in office.

When Coleman, who is running for governor, exits City Hall, he will leave behind a diverse, growing city that has survived the worst recession and housing crisis since the Great Depression, embraced luxury apartments and built a $64 million St. Paul Saints ballpark downtown. A $200 million Major League Soccer stadium is being built in the Midway neighborhood.

St. Paul still faces challenges. Mayor-elect Melvin Carter will inherit a city with a growing but uneven real estate climate, concerns about poverty and an unsteady track record of drawing private-sector jobs. The city faces hot-button questions about police-community relations and racial disparities. Institutional changes are still being rolled out for organized trash collection, mandatory earned sick leave and possible changes to the citywide minimum wage.

A lifelong St. Paul resident, Coleman was raised deep inside St. Paul’s political scene. His father, Nicholas Coleman Sr., served as state Senate majority leader from 1973 to 1981.

Chris Coleman, a former public defender and city council member, emerged from a crowded field of candidates in 2005 to defeat incumbent Mayor Randy Kelly by a landslide. He took office with the nation less than two years away from the start of a recession.

To get things done, Coleman discovered the challenge to be one of style as much as substance. The following is an excerpt from a 40-minute “exit interview” with the mayor, who was accompanied by mayoral spokesman Ben Petok in a City Hall meeting room. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?
A. Well, I think it’s just the overall change in the vitality of the city of St. Paul. St. Paul is a very different place than it was 12 years ago. People are moving into downtown, building all across the Central Corridor. We have bars and restaurants and people moving into neighborhoods that they had historically been dis-investing in. There’s a sense of self-confidence that we really hadn’t seen for a while. … The soccer stadium, the impact that will have on the Midway district, and obviously the vision that we’ve laid out for the Ford site; there’s a lot more to come.

Q. What’s been the biggest challenge? 
A. The recession was a huge challenge for us. It really set us back on housing, particularly. We really scrambled to keep things moving forward in spite of the downturn. One of the reasons we got involved in the (downtown luxury housing) Penfield project was because there was no private equity flowing into development projects anywhere, not just in St. Paul but across the country. … We still have huge challenges on racial equity and huge challenges on educational outcomes for our kids. Those have been and continue to be persistent challenges.

Q. I want to take you back to October of 2011. This was kind of the heat of Central Corridor construction. Things were pretty hairy up and down University Avenue. Was that a near-death experience for the Green Line?
 No, not at all. That was just an interesting moment in time, an example of when mayors just have to stand up for their community and force timelines on people that don’t understand the gravity of the situation. The Green Line was the largest infrastructure project in the history of the state. It was a massive undertaking. I talked about the construction of the Central Corridor in my first inaugural (address) specifically talking about learning the lessons of Rondo, and not making the same mistakes, and making sure that we fought on behalf of the community and didn’t fight the community. When the moment came where a contractor said we may or may not get the street back open, it wasn’t acceptable. I’ve had a series of those things … where you have to step in and said, ‘We have to get this done, and if you don’t get this done, we have to figure out someone that can.’ There was a moment where I did threaten to bring out the Public Works trucks.

Q. Did the Green Line survive some near-death experiences?
A. 100 percent. A lot of people were talking … as if I had single-handedly built the Green Line. I did not. But there were a lot of opportunities that if I had not been insistent that that line get built, it could have easily died. I think you’re seeing that play out on the Southwest line right now. … There were moments where I sat down and the president of the University of Minnesota (Robert) Bruininks at the time said we’re going to pull the plug on this project. And I said I understand that the university has concerns. I understand that you have an important research function. But the future of the city of St. Paul is dependent upon that line being constructed. And we could not allow that to be derailed — pun intended.

Q. You see taprooms and bars opening in corridors like Payne Avenue, but you’ve also lost major employers like Ford and Macy’s and Cray. It’s been kind of an uneven growth, with a lot of residential more so than commercial.
A. That was the task force that (Ecolab CEO) Doug Baker chaired with Michael Langley, (CEO) of Greater MSP, that came back and said you need to grow your residential base downtown, creating more vibrancy, and that commercial development will follow as a result of that. We had laid that out. And I don’t remember exactly what the timeframe was for that, but it became so accelerated — the growth in residential units downtown, it was the Custom House, it was the Penfield, it was the Pioneer-Endicott building, it was all those things that really accelerated that much quicker than we had anticipated. And as a result of that you started to see things like Three-Deep Marketing, and Createch and Creed (Interactive) and all these companies that started to come in. Macy’s (leaving) was a reflection of downtown retail across the country, more so than anything else. They couldn’t stay in downtown Minneapolis or cities across the country.

Q. Does development remain a challenge, whether it’s retail, or just commerce in general or tech firms? Minneapolis’ North Loop was able to grow those kinds of tech firms and creative firms faster than St. Paul has.
A. They have more mass over there, which makes it a little bit easier. Companies that would never have considered downtown St. Paul a dozen years ago are now moving into downtown St. Paul. If you look at what Scott Burns and Rich Pakonen are going to do with the Osborn building (formerly Ecolab Tower), I think the whole “Full-Stack” approach to this is building on what we have and taking it to the next level. … There isn’t a switch that you can turn on and say, ‘OK, now your city is vibrant.’ This is a journey. I think people look at ‘well, we don’t have this or we don’t have that,’ but I think you need to look back at where we were 10 years ago. We didn’t have the kind of upscale residential units that we have now. We didn’t have a full-service grocery store like a Lunds (downtown). We didn’t have the night life that have now.

Q. The protests on Interstate 94 and in front of the governor’s mansion after the shooting death of Philando Castile really brought a national discussion to St. Paul. Was that one of the hardest moments for you? There was a balance there to achieve between the public’s right to publicly grieve and the neighbors’ right to get some sleep. 
A. Those are very difficult challenges. When Black Lives Matter came and said that they were going to shut down the Twin Cities Marathon, and prevent people from finishing the race, we knew we couldn’t have that happen. But we didn’t just take a law enforcement approach to this thing and we’re going to just shut it down. We had a conversation. We brought (BLM leader) Rashad Turner into this room and said: ‘Look, let’s talk about the issues of concern to you. But understand that we’ll honor your right to free speech, but we’re not going allow you to prevent people from finishing the Twin Cities Marathon.’ So we struck that balance. And we struck that balance in other instances. As hard as the protests in front of the governor’s mansion were, at the end of the day, nobody died, no houses were burnt down or destroyed. … I think we struck the right balance in St. Paul.

Q. Was that the hardest moment of your 12 years?
A. There were a lot of hard moments. The Republican National Convention was a hard week. The 16 inches of snow made for a hard week (in 2014). … The hardest moment for me was the death of the two young students in Lilydale. It was hard as mayor, it was hard as a parent, it was hard just as a member of the community. That was a day I’ll never forget, being with that family as they waited to see whether their child was going to be found alive. I’ll never forget those days. Everything else to me was challenges. But that was loss at its worst.

Q. Do you have any advice for Melvin Carter?
A. I’ve given him the advice ‘Be bold.’ Don’t be reckless, but you have to take calculated risks. That’s the only way you ever move forward and you have an opportunity to put your seal on the city that you were born and raised in, you have an opportunity to build upon the work that we’ve done over the last 12 years, and mayors before me have done. Set your vision. … Hire good people. And don’t be afraid to take risks.

Q. Any regrets? Do you look back and say I could have handled that a little better?
 Of course, you always look back. And that’s another thing I would advise Melvin not to be afraid to look back and kind of examine ‘Did we do that right?’ The Republican National Convention was a classic (example). We had an after-action report that was (conducted by outside organizational and law enforcement experts). By and large, it went well. But we made mistakes. And it’s OK to acknowledge that you made mistakes. … We didn’t do it perfectly.

Q. You called for the resignation of the St. Paul Police Federation leadership. The next mayor obviously took a lot of fire from them and is going to inherit some of those discussions.
 I think the rank-and-file police officers have to decide if it is acceptable for them to have a leader who has no relationship with the mayor of the city of St. Paul. I think that that’s a mistake. I will stack my record of support for the police department over any other mayor in the history of the city of St. Paul. We’ve added more officers and invested more resources than at any other time or at any other 12-year period in the history of the city. I started out with 574 (officers), around there, and we now have 626.

We have the new training facility. We’ve invested in new technology, the body-worn cameras. We had questions about our crime lab. We’ve invested millions of dollars in our crime lab. No one has been more supportive of our police department. But when they haven’t acted to that best and highest standard of what we expect in our police officers, I’ve held them accountable. They shouldn’t be afraid to be held accountable. I think the current head of the federation has taken the position (of) ‘you’re either 100 percent with us, or you’re 100 percent against us.’ And that’s not true.

Q. What else would you like to talk about, and what would you like to emphasize?
A. The work that we have done around racial equity has been groundbreaking. We had an external audit of all of our hiring and contracting practices … that led to the revamping of the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Department. That was really tough work but absolutely critical to confronting the issue of inequality and inequity in this community head on. We’ve changed practices in all of our departments. We’ve done internal and external audits of our departments. We’ve brought in groups to our Public Works Department to say how can we plow better? How can we do our jobs better? On our budget stuff, to create structurally balanced budgets didn’t mean that we weren’t ever going to have budget challenges — it just meant we were on a solid foundation in order to address them.

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