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St. Paul debate puts housing at number-one issue
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
September 5, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Campaign 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

The six leading candidates in Saint Paul's mayoral race gathered at Concordia University for their last debate before Tuesday's primary. The six are competing for the City Hall office Norm Coleman is vacating after two terms.


Listen onlineto the St. Paul mayoral debate, held on September 4, 2001.
AFTER A SUMMER-LONG crescendo of joint appearances, Bobbi Megard, Jay Benanav, Bob Long, Jerry Blakey, Bob Kessler, and Randy Kelly have refined their pitches and learned one another's positions on most issues. The issue that's at or near the top of everyone's to-do list is housing and creating more of it.

Bob Kessler, a longtime city employee who's headed the Department of Licensing, Inspections, and Environmental Protection, says he'd rearrange city staff to make the commitment to housing more explicit. "We need to reorganize ourselves to focus on housing and I would do that by creating the Department of Housing. So that it's clear that that's the number-one priority. We are a city about providing services and those services are provided by city employees. We need to focus their energies and their priorities on housing," he said.

Other issues came up during the discussion of housing. For City Council member Jerry Blakey, the Republican-endorsed candidate, said the housing crunch is related to social issues. "One of the reasons why we're seeing a lot of homeless children is because we have a lot of broken families. There's a lot of unwed mothers. There's a lot of men that aren't doing their responsibility and making sure that they're fathering children that they're taking care of. So as mayor, I would talk about it. We know that government can't intrude in the personal lives. But I would call on and challenge the faith community to really re-engage what they need to be talking about on Sunday and Saturday about family values," Blakey said.

Former City Council member Bob Long says a shortage of housing makes Saint Paul residents more transient, which in turn limits improvement in the city's schools. "We know there are some schools in St. Paul where there's up to a 74 percent turnover in schools. Seventy-four percent of the kids who start in September are not there in May. That's a housing problem. It's another set of problems, but housing is a big issue. And teachers, no matter how good they are, cannot succeed when they've got 74 percent turnover," Long said.

The candidates talked about other ways to help teachers succeed. A few mentioned strengthening ties between public schools and the several colleges and universities in St. Paul. Most were leery of raising taxes to fund schools. The exception was City Council member Jay Benanav, the DFL endorsee, whose wife is a schoolteacher. "It is criminal that we haven't put the resources into our schools that we need to educate out young people," he said. "The fact that my wife spends $750 to $1,000 a year out of her own money - out of her own money - to provide the kind of resources her kids need is a problem. I might be alone on this, but I'd probably support another increase for the schools, for our kids."

Economic development and how to nurture it also popped up often in the debate. The consensus among candidates is that St. Paul's neighborhoods could use a business boost like the one that sparked the downtown in recent years. There's also agreement that the downtown and neighborhood economies must work in concert instead of being at odds.

State Sen. Randy Kelly talked about connecting them in biological terms. "You've got the downtown, which is the heart. You've got to keep the heart healthy. But you do have the arteries - the West Seventh Street, the East Seventh Street, the University Avenues, the Snellings - and you need to be working on those arteries, the old streetcar lines of the '20s and '30s. And the way that you can do that is working in partnership as a city with the local businesses and the residents."

Of course, arteries are less effective when they are clogged. Former City Council member Bobbi Megard was the only candidate to cite congested roads as one of the problems limiting quality of life in the capital city. "We have to reinvest in our commercial corridors and make sure that we have public transportation that really serves the city. Because I believe that the single greatest detriment to a city like ours is traffic. And we've got to figure out a way to control what's going on here because it's not making our city livable," Megard said.

Sixteen mayoral candidates will appear on Saint Paul's primary ballot. Only the top two finishers in Tuesday's primary will go on to the November election.