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St. Paul candidates try to break from the pack
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
August 15, 2001
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In less than a month, St. Paul voters will narrow a crowded mayoral field from 16 candidates down to two. The six leading candidates in the primary race to succeed outgoing Mayor Norm Coleman took part in a forum on MPR's Midday.

Listen to the 8/15/2001 broadcast of MPR's Midday featuring the major candidates for St. Paul mayor.

Hour One: Kessler, Long, Megard

Hour Two: Blakey, Benanav, Kelly
STANDING OUT AMID THE GROUP of candidates for St. Paul mayor is difficult, not just because of the abundance of candidates. There's also a consensus on the leading issues that has the frontrunners saying many of the same things. More housing, economic prosperity, and better schools are favored by all; wasteful spending and gun violence are unanimously opposed.

But some specifics and differences emerged in the radio appearance involving City Council members Jerry Blakey and Jay Benanav, former City Council members Bobbi Megard and Bob Long, longtime city administrative employee Bob Kessler, and state Senator Randy Kelly.

A couple of candidates called housing the number-one issue in the race. Bob Kessler, who has worked in the city's bureaucracy since the 1970s, says administrative jobs should be re-arranged to help resolve a housing shortage that's pushing up costs.

"That's why I've called for the creation of the Department of Housing and Small Business Development," he said. "Right now we have the Department of Planning and Economic Development and their agenda is very broad. We need to focus them on housing, on affordable housing and bring together everyone in the city that works on housing. We have several different agencies in the city that work on housing, one of which spends all their time issuing code orders to have housing demolished. I would like to have those people sitting down in the same department with those that are responsible for creating more housing."

Jay Benanav says Saint Paul needs to be innovative about finding locations for new housing. "We have to look at what I call non-traditional housing sites. There's a development that just broke ground on Fairview and University - right on University, senior housing. Not what we sometimes think of as a traditional housing site. We need to look at those sites, we need to clean up our brownfields, we need to build higher density in places that can support that kind of density," Benanav said.

There is a separate election this fall for three seats on the St. Paul school board, but that didn't stop the mayoral candidates from talking about boosting the city's schools. Kessler and Blakey said they would attend school board meetings and meet with the school superintendent.

Bob Long was even more specific. "What I will do as mayor, I will in the first 90 days call an educational summit that will bring together both academic community; not just our own public and private schools, but our colleges and universities, the business community, the religious community, to talk about how we as a community can commit ourselves to improving educational performance. And some of it will be around school issues, some of it will be around social issues," Long said.

Similarities on the prompted the candidates to distinguish themselves by highlighting their experience, their leadership qualities, their endorsements, or their lack of endorsements. Megard, Long, and Kessler say not being endorsed by major unions or political parties means they are not beholden to any interest groups and would be more independent-minded in the mayor's office.

Benanav is endorsed by the DFL Party and by some of the city's leading public employee unions. Blakey recently left the DFL and became the Republican-endorsed candidate. He highlighted his City Council role in keeping city taxes down over the last eight years and promised more of that.

"Right now I am the only person in the race that has signed the Taxpayer League pledge that says '(in) your first year and term as mayor we will not raise taxes.' (I'm) The only one that has done that. My goal is that the four years I'm in office, I would not raise taxes for those four years," Blakey said.

Kelly is endorsed by St Paul's police officers and firefighters. He also enjoys the support of Mayor Norm Coleman, who is not running for re-election. Kelly piled praise on the mayor and vowed to carry on Coleman's work. He revived a Coleman feud with City Council member Benanav over competing proposals to let private vendors bid for the chance to provide city services.

Kelly says such competition is necessary to cut city costs and he criticized Benanav for blocking the mayor's plan without pushing an alternative. "You could have at any time over the last three years called a press conference, used your position as a city councilman to put pressure - if the mayor was not providing the leadership for that. The fact is that you haven't done that. And the fact is the public employees have endorsed you because they feel you're the kind of guy that's going to sit there and listen to them and pander to whatever they want to do," Kelly said. Benanav says as mayor he would push his plan, which he says is based on a successful model in Indianapolis that does a better job than Coleman's proposal of reducing costs without hurting city staff.

Cost cutting was another recurring theme in the discussion. Some candidates said they'd try to find savings that would spare libraries and recreation centers from cutbacks. Bobbi Megard offered specific ideas involving accounting. "We can retire the tax increment districts as quickly as possible. Those are taking money not only from the city but also from the county and the school district. We can reduce our debt, I think, by refinancing some of our bonds as the interest rates come down if Mr. Greenspan and company keep going in the direction they're going," Megard said.

A number of other candidate forums are scheduled before the September 11th primary, including a Thursday evening event hosted by the St. Paul Tenants' Union. The top two primary finishers will move on to November's general election.