Twin Cities mayors are eyeing the governor's office

Chris Coleman at a Capitol press conference
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has been steadily building his political profile, including the launch of a campaign last month to block cuts in state aid to cities across Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Call it a tale of two cities, but without the best of times.

Even as Minneapolis and St. Paul struggle with the housing crisis, rising property taxes and waning political power, their mayors -- both DFLers -- look like they're eyeing yet higher office.

In St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman is running virtually unopposed for re-election, yet his campaign staff includes former state DFL spokesman John Stiles and the fundraiser for Al Franken's U.S. Senate campaign. He's also hired Diane Feldman, one of the pollsters for Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.

R.T. Rybak addresses a Capitol youth rally
Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak has been quietly raising his political profile, ahead of what observers expect to be a bid for governor. He spoke to a youth rally at the Capitol today.
MPR Photo/Tim nelson

But Coleman remains coy about his plans.

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"There's no question that we need a new governor in the state of Minnesota so that the cities across Minnesota have support," Coleman said.

When asked whether he might be that new governor, he dodged the question.

"That's a question for another day," he said. "Right now, we're focused in on St. Paul."

Coleman recently reported he raised $134,000 in cash last year, about 80 percent of what his predecessor, Randy Kelly, raised four years before, in what turned out to be the most expensive mayoral race in state history.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak reported raising less than $10,000 last year. He declined to discuss his political plans, although he admitted to MPR last month that he was looking beyond his city's limits.

"I have looked at running for governor," Rybak said, "and I will leave that open in the future."

Meeting the media
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak held a joint news conference the night of the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Sam Keenan

Rybak has hired the former state field director for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Jaclyn Urness, to run his mayoral bid.

Rybak's campaign is also working with the LKK Partners political ad agency, noted for its work on U.S. Senate campaigns in Montana and Michigan. Rybak is also working with Al Quinlan, a Democratic strategist whose clients have included White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

For now, Rybak and Coleman are jostling to be the champion of urban Minnesota, publicly taking on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty on local government aid cuts and public safety.

They've been making regular appearances at the Capitol for months.

Political analyst and former state DFL strategist Todd Rapp said both mayors are well positioned for higher office.

I think both Coleman and Rybak overestimate their significance in 21st century Minnesota."

"Both are well liked, popular mayors," Rapp said. "That will get them to start with a good base, and that's what you want at this point in the race."

They've got other political assets, as well. Coleman is the son of the late Nick Coleman, once one of the state's most powerful lawmakers and a serious contender for governor himself 40 years ago.

For his part, Rybak won wide respect -- from some surprising places -- for the way Minneapolis handled the I-35W bridge collapse.

"I can't tell you how grateful and proud I am for Mayor Rybak's leadership in this time of crisis," Gov. Pawlenty said at the scene of the collapse in August 2007. "He has been extraordinary. He's been omnipresent. He's been effective. He's been the right person at the right time for this situation."

President Obama also praised Rybak's fiscal management of the city during his address to Congress last month.

But the DFL field is already crowded with potential contenders. They include former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, former legislator Matt Entenza, Rep. Paul Thissen, state Sens. John Marty and Tom Bakk and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Both mayors have also had political missteps in the past.

"Rybak and Coleman have struggled in some situations with party support," said analyst Todd Rapp. "Coleman when he ran for Congress in the race that I think Betty McCollum won; Rybak when he was first running for mayor, and I even think in his first re-election, he failed to get the [DFL Party] endorsement. so, it's not necessarily a perfect fit."

Republican political analyst Sarah Janecek says she thinks the mayors would find a statewide general election an even tougher sell.

"As do most Democrats, I think both Coleman and Rybak overestimate their significance in 21st century Minnesota," Janecek said. "The idea that the big-city mayor is greatly known around the state, is A, an issue, and has always been an issue; and B, a big city mayor, does that person have great respect in suburbia, exurbia and rural parts of the state? Not so much as it used to."

Attempts by former urban mayors such as Norm Coleman and George Latimer to run for governor have been unsuccessful.

Observers expect the mayors to show their political hands this summer, after filings for their re-election races close July 21.