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St. Paul mayoral candidates debate taxes, campaign tactics

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Challenger Chris Coleman was all smiles after a Wednesday night debate with incumbent St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly. Coleman has a nearly 2-1 lead in the race, according to two recent polls. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
St. Paul mayoral candidate Chris Coleman says if he's elected, he'll raise taxes in the city by no more than $8 million over four years. Coleman made the comment Wednesday night during a debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio. Incumbent Mayor Randy Kelly accused Coleman of low-balling his estimate.

St. Paul, Minn. — Chris Coleman's campaign promises include creating what he calls a "second shift" to keep the city's parks and recreation centers open later. The idea is to provide a safe place for kids to go after school that will keep them out of trouble.

Coleman also says he wants to keep fire stations open and restore public safety jobs. Throughout the campaign, the former city council member has avoided putting a pricetag on those proposals.

At the Wednesday night debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio and other city organizations, Coleman put a number on how much his promises would cost.

"Eight million dollars, an additional $2 million in revenue over each of the next four years," Coleman said.

Coleman says the additional cost would amount to about a 3 percent increase in property taxes. He says he would work to keep property taxes low by expanding the city's tax base and securing state and federal dollars.

But Kelly says fellow DFLer Coleman's proposals would increase spending more like 15 to 20 percent.

"Now, I know that probably isn't something you want to tell people," Kelly said to Coleman, "because most people don't like surprises other than at Christmas."

Coleman accused Kelly of making up numbers and using "Rovian" campaign tactics, referring to President Bush's senior advisor and chief political strategist, Karl Rove.

Coleman also accused Kelly of not running a fair campaign, saying Kelly's operatives are misrepresenting his record.

"There's been a distortion of my image, there's been kind of shadowy figures, and now the mayor has telephone solicitations or telephone calls going out just blatantly lying about my record," Coleman said. "The specific call that is going out is that I raised my salary 60 percent when I was on the city council. I never once voted for a pay raise for myself while I was on the council."

Later in the debate, Kelly admitted to having seen a script for telephone solicitations, but he initially tried to distance himself from the phone calls.

"I don't know what is going out on the telephones, I really don't," Kelly said. "However, I do believe that you carried the ordinance, the resolution, that increased the city council salaries by 50, 60 percent, is that right?"

Coleman acknowledges he did author the resolution in his last year on the council. But, he says, the increase did not benefit him in any way because he left the council before it took effect.

Kelly is trailing Coleman badly in two recent polls. Likely voters in the heavily DFL city are choosing Coleman over Kelly by more than a 2-1 margin. A majority of respondents who said they wouldn't vote for Kelly cited the mayor's endorsement of President George W. Bush, a Republican, for re-election in 2004 as the reason.

Kelly has had to defend his endorsement at every debate, including the one Wednesday.

"It seems a little strange to me that supporting the President of the United States during a time of war would cause such consternation," Kelly said. "Be that as it may, it was a position I took on principle, and I stand by it."

Kelly says even though he's mayor of a predominantly Democratic city, he still has to build relationships with people from other parties.

Kelly told Coleman he doubts the challenger would be successful working with a Republican president or governor.

But Coleman disagreed.

"I've known Tim Pawlenty since we went to law school together. We've played hockey together," Coleman said. "We have a vast philosophical disagreement about the future of the state and where we want to go. But that doesn't mean I can't sit down and talk with him."

It's not clear whether Wednesday's debate helped the mayor gain ground on Coleman, but with the election less than a week away, Kelly is running out of time to cut into his rival's huge lead in the polls.

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