In the Spotlight

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Back to business in St. Paul
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
October 11, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Campaign 2001
Voter turnout is typically low in off-year elections, when only local races are decided. But in St. Paul this year, at least one constituency claims to be more involved in the mayor's race. Some of the city's business leaders say their interest in local politics grew during the administration of Mayor Norm Coleman, and business people seem to be paying more attention than usual to the race to succeed Coleman.

BUSINESS FORUM Listen to a forum held by the St. Paul business community on October 8, 2001 featuring the two candidates for mayor of St. Paul.
INTANGIBLE QUALITIES LIKE CONFIDENCE AND RESPECT are often hard to measure, but Dwayne Radel says you could feel them rippling through St. Paul business circles in recent years. Radel, an executive with insurance giant Minnesota Life, says self esteem in St. Paul has been rising together with the city's new office buildings, museums, arena and convention space.

Reinvigorated business folks, he says, are anxious to maintain some momentum, even as the name changes on the mayor's door. "We have, led by the Chamber of Commerce, really made a very conscious decision to be more involved. And I think the business community is more united in this mayor's race and more involved in this mayor's race than the business community has ever been involved in an election in St. Paul," according to Radel.

Radel chairs the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, which has endorsed state Sen. Randy Kelly in his mayoral race against City Council member Jay Benanav. Radel says chamber members want a mayor authoritative enough to balance St. Paul's abundant interest groups, each of which has its own particular agenda.

"It really does take a strong mayor that is able to work with all of those diverse interests and make decisions that are in the interests of the common good and then proceed. If you have a weak mayor, those special interests can just stymie the entire city and prevent anything from getting done. And we see Randy as a very strong leader," Radel says.

A sweeping view of downtown Saint Paul spreads out for customers at Swede Hollow cafe, which is perched on Dayton's Bluff, just east of the business district. Sandi Younkin started the cafe five-and-a-half years ago and says she's still hoping to see more businesses open in the neighborhood.

Younkin is among business owners supporting Jay Benanav. She thinks the paramount skill for a mayor is the ability to manage people effectively. "I think a really effective manager knows how to get the best out of people. I really believe that if you want the best from people, you have them participate and you have them be a part of the process. It doesn't mean you always listen, that they're always going to have their way exactly. And that I particularly like about Jay, because he has managed for quite awhile," says Younkin.

Benanav is the CEO of a non-profit company that provides secondary worker's compensation insurance to state agencies and large companies. His City Council district includes much of the Midway neighborhood, a busy commercial-industrial district which Benanav says employs more people than the downtown.

The president of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, Ellen Waters, says the neighborhood chamber is making no endorsement in the mayor's race but she agrees that business people do seem more engaged in the race this year than in the pre-Norm Coleman years. "Certainly our members are paying attention to it. Even if they don't live in the city, they have begun to realize that the city administration does have something to do with their being successful in their own business. We have a number of members who are active in the various campaigns and pushing one candidate or the other," Waters says.

Before the September 11th primary, six candidates were actively campaigning for mayor of St. Paul. Much has changed since that date, though, and some business people concede they're paying less attention to the mayor's race now than they were earlier in the year.

Jeff Johnson of West Seventh Pharmacy is one example. "With all of the things going on nowadays, the race is sort of taking a second back seat and it's not as important as it used to be," Johnson says."

Johnson agrees that Norm Coleman got many St. Paul business owners engaged in local politics, but he thinks neither of this year's candidates will inspire the same level of business involvement.