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St. Paul Candidate Profiles - Part Two
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
September 4, 2001
Part of two of two parts.
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St. Paul voters will elect a new mayor this year, with incumbent Norm Coleman stepping down after two four-year terms. Coleman's successor will likely come from a group of six candidates who have run the most aggressive mayoral campaigns.

CANDIDATES FOR OFFICE IN ST. PAUL often make campaign swings through senior citizen high rises. Typically they shake some hands, describe themselves and their priorities and are on their way.

But when Randy Kelly finishes his remarks, he's just getting warmed up. Kelly promised residents of this East Side high rise that if he's elected mayor he'll return to sing for them again.

Kelly was born in Rollette, North Dakota, and spent his boyhood on a farm there, his family moving to St. Paul while he was in high school.

Kelly traces his political activism to St. Paul's Harding High School, where he started a group in 1969 that campaigned to lower Minnesota's voting age from 21 to 18. Voters approved that measure the following year and Kelly says the experience left him invigorated.

"That really inspired me that you can, in fact, go to your government, put forward your grievances, and if it's logical and thoughtful and you want to work hard, you can get things changed. So, I've been intrigued by the process ever since," he says.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Kelly was elected to the state House of Representatives at the tender age of 23. He served in the House for 16 years, then was elected to the Senate in 1990. Like most St. Paul candidates, Kelly is a Democrat. But, unlike his leading rivals in the mayor's race, he has never worked for the city. Kelly considers that an advantage. He says a perspective that looks beyond the city limits is needed to turn St. Paul into more of a regional center.

"As Minneapolis is the epicenter of the western suburbs, St. Paul has to become and start thinking about a more regional approach, becoming the epicenter of the Oakdales, the Woodburys, the Hudson, Wisconsins, western Wisconsin. Our mayors in the past have not tended to think in that way. I think one of the advantages I bring to this race is that as a state public policymaker, I'm used to looking at systems broadly," Kelly says.

Kelly appears to be the only candidate who sings about Folsom Prison or Stewball the race horse, but there is another whose rural roots include riding horses. Jerry Blakey and his 12 siblings grew up on a farm near Lindstrom, about 45 miles northeast of St. Paul.

Blakey's father was a railroad employee, whose work frequently kept him from his family for weeks at a time. Blakey says his father moved his family from St. Paul to the country largely to keep the kids away from big city trouble.

"I never figured this out until I got older, but during the summer when we were out of school, we had maybe 30 pigs. So, what he would do is in the morning let the pigs out in the pasture where there's no fence. And I just thought that was the dumbest thing because all day the three boys who were at home would be running all day, keeping the pigs together. I just thought that was the dumbest thing. But, really, what it was was he was keeping us occupied, keeping us out of trouble," Blakey recalls."

Blakey settled in St. Paul after graduating from Macalester College in 1981. He says he never harbored political ambitions, but got involved in a crusade to save the local, city-owned swimming pool from being closed by budget cuts. When Bill Wilson retired from the City Council, voters elected Blakey to represent a district that includes some of St. Paul's wealthiest residents and many of its poorest.

In seven years on the council, he's gained experience speaking in such forums as the affordable housing tent at the State Fair.

Blakey has promised not to raise taxes during a first year as mayor. Even though his entree to city politics came through fighting a service cutback, Blakey says as mayor he would respond to a tight budget by cutting services rather than raising taxes.

"I would have a conversation with the citizens and say 'What is it that you would do without? Where do we cut vs. raising taxes?' In representing a part of the city that I think is a microcosm of the city, Ward 1, I hear from the wealthiest all the way down to the poorest who are saying 'Please don't raise my taxes,'" Blakey says.

Blakey is the Republican-endorsed candidate in the mayor's race. He joined the party this summer after failing to gain the DFL endorsement, which instead went to a fellow City Council member, Jay Benanav. Benanav had a more urban upbringing than many of his mayoral rivals.

He was born in Israel and grew up in Yonkers, on the edge of New York City, where he says he often ventured into the streets for a game of stickball. "My mother really, really was annoyed because she'd go to sweep the house, the kitchen and couldn't find the broom handle, all she'd find was the end of the broom. So, I was notorious for taking the broom handle. But, hey, I needed a bat. I needed something I could hit the ball with," Benanav says.

After finishing law school in New York, Benanav looked for work in Minnesota, thinking the state's populist reputation made it a good fit for a young lawyer looking for a way to make a difference in the world. He followed a stint on the staff of the state Senate by becoming Deputy Commissioner of Labor and Industry under Gov. Rudy Perpich. Now, he's president of the Worker's Compensation Re-insurance Corporation, a non-profit that provides secondary insurance to some of the state's largest employers.

As the DFL standard bearer in a city with a strong Democratic tradition, Benanav enjoys the support of prominent party members, such as U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Benanav calls housing the number-one issue in the mayor's race. His other priorities include economic development, especially in the neighborhoods; more opportunities for youngsters; and communicating with citizens. Benanav says as mayor he would open satellite offices in St. Paul's neighborhoods. "What I would do is talk to people. I think one of the greatest skills I have really is collaborating, bringing people together. Bringing diverse people together to talk about their issues and listen and take those ideas and move forward with them," he says.

The party endorsements of Benanav and Blakey will not appear on the ballot in St. Paul's September 11th mayoral primary, which is a non-partisan election. The top two finishers, regardless of party, will move on to the general election on November 6th.