Is a gubernatorial run next for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman?

Published 10:14 am Monday, September 19, 2016

By Frederick Melo

St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman spent part of a recent Monday speaking to the Rotary Club — the Owatonna Rotary Club, to be precise — about an hour south of his hometown.

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On the Fourth of July, the mayor took in the sights in cozy Gilbert, Minn., about three hours north of Minnesota’s capital city.

And in June, Coleman was in front of a union workers protest at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which is not officially part of any city at all.

Then there were the Labor Day parades in Duluth, Cloquet and Virginia’s Olcott Park, where the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party mayor made a pitch for Hillary Clinton for president.

Great parade in Aurora. Happy 4th of July!

— Chris Coleman (@mayorcoleman) July 4, 2016

Coleman, a former St. Paul City Council member, has been mayor since winning the 2005 election. He’s been mum on running for re-election before his third term wraps up at the end of 2017.

However, his recent travels strike political observers as more closely resembling those of a gubernatorial candidate than a mayor seeking a fourth term, despite any official explanation from his staff.

Kicked off the 4th of July weekend w fantastic parade-goers in @coonrapidsgov w @melissahortman and @johnhoffmanmn.

— Chris Coleman (@mayorcoleman) July 3, 2016

Coleman, who had considered a gubernatorial run in 2009, appears to be at the very least testing the waters again.

Others say the mayor could just as easily be chosen for a federal appointment if Clinton wins the White House.

Top staffers around him are mum.

“In the face of considerable inaction at the state and federal levels, mayors are turning toward one another for examples of how to get things done,” said mayoral spokeswoman Tonya Tennessen, addressing Coleman’s out-of-town visits shortly after the Labor Day parade. “The mayor is very happy to share St. Paul’s story with others.”

“The mayor loves his job, and is focused on the significant work underway in St. Paul,” she added Thursday. “Running for governor is something he is considering, but there’s lots of work left to do in St. Paul.”

If Coleman chooses to enter the 2018 gubernatorial race, the news would come as little surprise to anyone paying attention.

Coleman publicly withdrew from the 2010 gubernatorial race before even officially announcing he was in. This time around, he has since filled his staff with veteran political campaigners and DFL activists and courted fellow DFL leaders such as Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges as allies.

His ongoing service to the National League of Cities — he was president in 2014 — frequently drew him to the White House and other cities around the country, boosting St. Paul’s profile alongside his own.

A gubernatorial bid would surprise no one.

“No, definitely not,” said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield. Schier recalled former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s unsuccessful bid for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement in 2010. “But as R.T. Rybak can tell him, it’s not easy to move from being mayor of a major city to governor of Minnesota. If you look at state legislative elections in 2014, there’s a big rural-urban split.”

Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey said he could not speculate how many contenders will emerge from within the Republican Party, and said pols are more focused on this November election.

“The DFL is going to have a long list of candidates for governor,” Downey said. “The general discussion that I have heard is that you can legitimately have 8 to 12 people with some statewide reputation and name recognition. I don’t honestly know within the Democrat Party where Chris Coleman would actually stand.”

Marty Seifert, a former Republican state lawmaker who twice ran unsuccessfully for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, noted that Coleman’s father was a majority leader in the Minnesota Senate in the 1970s, giving him a bit of name recognition, however dated.

“I consider him a credible candidate,” Seifert said. “I think a lot of mayors across the state would have respect for him, because he understands some of the challenges they face. … I think it would be an uphill climb, but achievable.”

Impact of city’s image

St. Paul is staring down the prospect of a property tax increase for 2017. The mayor’s office has said a tax bill not signed into law contained a $3 million increase in state aid the city was counting on to balance its books next year. Without the new funds, the tax levy could go up as much as 7 percent, or important programs might be reduced.

“To greater Minnesota, and suburban Minnesota, St. Paul is a city that gets a lot of governmental assistance, spends a lot of money and is now on the verge of a huge tax increase,” Schier said. “Those are three tough arguments to carry outside of the borders of Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

Nevertheless, the mayor has maintained a more cordial relationship with business advocates, union leaders, community groups and the DFL political establishment than some of his predecessors.

St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer, a former spokesman to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said Coleman’s time in office would serve him well at the Capitol.

“While I’m not privy to the mayor’s future plans, I can say that having worked in a governor’s administration, I wish anyone well who aspires to deal with that level of headache,” Kramer said. “Certainly Mayor Coleman, as mayor of the second-largest city in the state, has the experience to deal with the complexities that come with that role.”

Professor Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, foresees a crowded field of DFLers in 2018.