St. Paul voters will soon narrow the field of candidates hoping to succeed Mayor Norm Coleman, who is not running for re-election. The two candidates emerging from the September 11 primary will likely come from a group that includes Jay Benanav, Randy Kelly, Jerry Blakey, Bob Long, Bob Kessler, and Bobbi Megard. We take a closer look at candidates Megard, Long, and Kessler.
WHEN SHE WAS GROWING UP ALONG THE COLUMBIA RIVER
in eastern Oregon during the 1950s, Bobbi Megard didn't see any women running for mayor. Nor did she get much encouragement to change that state of affairs.
"I had a father who didn't believe that women should go to college because all they do is get married, and professors who didn't think that women should be in political science - this was a men's field," Megard says.
After earning degrees from the University of Oregon and Indiana University, Megard settled with her husband in the Twin Cities and became a school teacher. But in the mid-1960s, having children meant giving up her job. It was while she was a stay-at-home mother that Megard's political activism blossomed. She joined a crusade to desegregate St.Paul schools, then led an effort to force the local neighborhood association to admit women. Megard is proud of the changes she helped bring to the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. But - with 30 years of hindsight - she now sees other ways she might have accomplished them.
"I came in here and said 'We're going to integrate the schools and we're going to make sure this is done and that's done.' I'm a little older and I have a little different perspective now," Megard says. "It was the right thing to do - we might have done it differently and not caused such a rift, because some of the people involved with the association left it and never participated again."
Megard has learned more of the nuances of her neighborhood and city during the last 20 years - serving as organizer of her neighborhood's district council, director of the St. Paul League of Women Voters, and as a city council member for four years. These days, she's on a citywide campaign trail. She wants to bury rifts of the past and is campaigning on a theme of unifying St. Paul.
"It's time for us to put the struggles of downtown versus neighborhoods behind us. Time to put behind us the struggles between neighborhoods and businesses. It's time to bring this city together, Megard says.
Bob Long begins each campaign day on one of St. Paul's street corners, where volunteers hold placards while the candidate waves at passing commuters.
"I can't tell if they think I'm working hard or if I'm crazy. I'm not sure which but they kind of like it."
Long's practice at retail politics dates to the year he took a break from his studies at Macalester College and lived with his parents in St. Peter.
"I started collecting signatures in parking lots of grocery stores all around southern Minnesota to pass the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Act legislation. And I had the great honor of travelling to St. Paul in 1978 - I hand-delivered those petitions to Bruce Vento at the state DFL convention," Long says.
After a brief stint as an advance man for St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, Long enrolled in law school. He was still in his 20s when he was elected to the city council in 1987. Long now describes himself in those days as a hard-charging lawyer, prone to leap before he looked. After three terms on the council and unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and county attorney, he spent the past seven years developing his private practice and starting a small business.
In seeking a return to city government, Long says his priorites are housing, jobs, children, and neighborhoods. But from his street corner perch, he says an energentic personality is what sets him apart in the mayoral field.
"Among all these canididates, I think people kind of lose track of all the issues. But they're starting to get focused more on the style of the candidates and who's got the right personality, the right leadership skills to run the city. And I think that's what it's coming down to," says Long.
Long is not the only mayoral candidate getting up to greet morning commuters.
Bob Kessler toured the city's bus routes one morning, talking to riders about safety at transit stops, among other topics. Kessler has been a city administrative employee under St. Paul's last three mayors. He proudly calls himself the only independent candidate in the race. Kessler says he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican but has been influenced by both parties, dating to his days as a University of Minnesota student in the 1960's, when he publicized appearances by visiting speakers, many of whom came to campus to decry the Vietnam War.
"We had Eugene McCarthy, we had Margaret Mead, we had Saul Alinsky, we had Dick Gregory. In fact, I was in charge of publicity for Dick Gregory when we rented Williams Arena and he spoke on integration in the northern city in 1966, when people were hearing about Black Power for the first time and wanted to know what was that all about. It was an exciting time dealing with those issues," Kessler says.
In 1968, Kessler was drafted. He agonized over how to respond - torn between the patriotism of his family and the objections raised by his classmates. He finally reported for duty, serving in a medical battalion and seeing the war's ravages up close. He returned to graduate from the U of M in 1972 but felt uncomfortable on a campus where vets with crew cuts were ostracized.
He soon felt at home in City Hall, though, where he rose from staff assistant to city planner to license inspector. Under DFL Mayor Jim Scheibel, Kessler helped combine four agencies to create and lead the Department of Licensing, Inspections, and Environmental Protection. He later streamlined that department under Norm Coleman. Kessler says his knowledge of the inside of city government equips him to make it work more effeciently.
"Bureaucracies - according to Max Weber, the famous sociologist - in the first three to five years, they change their primary focus from the service they provide to survival of the bureau. And if you know that, you know that you need to work within that system to constantly rejuvenate the bureaucracy," says Kessler. "I come from the bureaucracy, I know how that can happen. It's not because the people are lazy or the people are "bad." It's the system that we create and it has to be dealt with."
Kessler is making his first run for public office. Both Megard and Long left the city council to run previous mayoral campaigns when they failed to gain DFL endorsement. This year each decided to stay in the race even after the DFL endorsed Jay Benanav.