Norm Coleman's decision not to seek a third term as mayor of St. Paul made for a crowded field of would-be successors this summer. But since the September 11 primary narrowed the list of candidates to two - Jay Benanav and Randy Kelly - the campaign has become more focused. In several debates, Kelly and Benanav have become practiced at challenging one another and rebutting the criticisms each raises. Here's a profile of Jay Benanav.
Since September 11, public safety has often been at the top of the headlines, the newscasts, and the candidates' lists of priorities. To Jay Benanav, though, there's not much to debate about public safety. Benanav says it's indisputable that the well-being of its citizens is a government's most important responsibility, to be supported by any public official. He says there's more political significance in the policymaking choices involving the things that make a St. Paul a desirable place to live and work.
"Housing, I believe, is perhaps the number one issue right now in all of St. Paul. I hear from employers all over town. Their biggest frustration is that they can't find places for their employees to live, which makes it hard for them to attract those workers," says Benanav. "I think the housing crisis is an economic development crisis. As mayor, I believe that through the partnership of the various groups, we can solve that problem."
Benanav is a St. Paul City Council member. He's CEO of a non-profit company created by the Legislature to provide Worker's Compensation re-insurance to state agencies and other self-insured employers. He touts his management skills, and says better managing of city resources could prevent the reduction of library hours and recreation center services contained in Norm Coleman's 2002 budget.
To his opponent, state Sen. Randy Kelly, Benanav's budget criticisms are the latest in a string of complaints the council member has leveled at Coleman. Kelly has Coleman's endorsement. In debates, he casts Benanav as a naysayer who has looked for the negative even as St. Paul enjoyed a development resurgence. Kelly says mayors should inspire confidence.
"You don't want to be criticizing your city. Yesterday in the paper he said 'There are rats running downtown - it's unsafe - a law firm is going to leave the city.' You have got to sell your city. You've got to be positive, you've got to be passionate about your city. You've got to sell hope - not despair, not gloom," says Kelly.
Benanav counters that Kelly is failing to look to the future, working instead to associate himself with the accomplishments of the Coleman administration over the past eight years.
"Norm certainly has set a standard, there's no question about that. But today, in 2001, it's a different world than it was in 1993. The issue of affordable housing was not even on the table eight years ago. As mayor, I would look at what the issues are today - housing, neighborhood services, public safety - and would strengthen those areas."
Both candidates are DFLers. Kelly is endorsed by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and by a handful of Republicans, including Coleman and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher. Benanav was endorsed by the DFL party at its convention this summer. He is backed by such elected officals as U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, whose testimonial Benanav used on the radio in one of the campaign's few advertisements.
"Jay Benanav is one very bright and thoughtful guy. He runs a billion-dollar company. He understands the complexities of running a major modern city. Jay Benanav has the courage to make tough decisions and to lead our city into a sound future," Latimer says in the ad.
As of last week, Benanav had raised $342,000, about three-quarters of Kelly's fundraising total. But campaign staff members say wise spending can allow the Benanav camp to do more with less.
Benanav says his experience managing staff and budgets would also help him get more production out of city resources - without raising taxes.
"The way you make St. Paul run efficiently is by making the smart investment. You make investments in technology. You make investments in how people process their work. And those are smart investments. You can do it all if you know how to manage," he says.
Benanav and Kelly will debate again Sunday, Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
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