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Coleman, Ng offer clear differences in St. Paul mayoral race

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Chris Coleman, Eva Ng
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Republican challenger Eva Ng held their final debate before Tuesday's election on MPR's Midday program on Monday, November 2, 2009.
MPR Photos/ Laura Gill

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a DFL politician who champions light-rail transit and after-school programs for kids, will be challenged at the polls Tuesday by Republican-endorsed business executive Eva Ng, who has made her disdain for rising property taxes her central issue.

Coleman and Ng squared off Monday in their final debate, on Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday" program.

Ng challenged Coleman on just about every major position and act of leadership he's taken during his four years in office. From the city's hosting of the Republican National Convention:

"The RNC convention was an abysmal failure," Ng said.

To the proposed Central Corridor light-rail transit line.

"I don't see this particular project as good for the citizens of St. Paul," she said.

Ng said the Central Corridor project is too expensive for what it will deliver, and the RNC didn't pay off for the city.

"We've got to do projects that are cash-flow positive to put St. Paul on a long-term course of stability and self-sufficiency."

She said if she were elected mayor, she would freeze property taxes, which have risen every year that Coleman has been in office. And while she didn't specify what she would cut to balance the budget, Ng said fiscal troubleshooting is her forte.

"So when you go into a company that is sick, you not only look to help them streamline what they're spending, you also look for ways to help them create new income," Ng said. "We've got to do projects that are cash-flow positive to put St. Paul on a long-term course of stability and self-sufficiency."

But Coleman countered that running a business isn't the same as running a city. He said while businesses can kill ventures that fail to turn a profit, a city is obligated to offer basic services.

"You can't get out of the library business, you can't get out of the parks business, and you certainly can't get out of the public safety business, which is about 75 percent of what we do on the general fund budget," Coleman said. "As any mayor will tell you, you better not get out of the snow-plowing business or you're gonna lose your job."

Coleman counts his structural balancing of the city's budget one of his most responsible acts as mayor. And while that's not as sexy as a new sports stadium, he's the first to say that his track record in this economy is made of smaller, incremental victories rather than home runs.

New bars and restaurants have helped revive the pulse of downtown nightlife, and he considers a program pumping $25 million into the city's most blighted neighborhoods one of his hallmarks. Out-of-school programs reflect his values as mayor, he said.

In Coleman's attempt to keep his job, he's been constantly needled by Ng, a long-shot candidate since she entered the race in April. Up until three weeks ago, she accused him of being, in her words "totally checked out" from his job while eyeing a possible run for governor next year.

Coleman ultimately decided not to enter the already crowded field of gubernatorial candidates, saying his work in St. Paul was not yet done.

The biggest challenge ahead is guiding a nearly billion-dollar light-rail transit project to completion. Recent talks between project planners and the University of Minnesota have been rocky. In September, the U sued over the project.

Coleman said the Central Corridor light-rail line is the East Metro's chance to catch up to the transportation initiatives across the river.

"Minneapolis has Hiawatha Corridor; they have the North Star commuter rail opening up in a couple of weeks," Coleman said. "They're talking about lines going out to the southwest. If the city of St. Paul is going to continue to thrive, if the East Metro is going to continue to prosper, we need to be part of a first-class transportation project."

But Ng said issue after issue has plagued the Central Corridor plans, from the U's lawsuit to angry business owners along University Avenue.

Ng has not made her race or gender a focus of her campaign, but she did urge listeners on "Midday" to make history at the polls. She's the first Asian-American woman to advance to the general election.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas was on also on the general-election ballot in St. Paul in 1997, but then lost to then-mayor Norm Coleman, no relation to the current incumbent.

Yet, Ng is still the clear underdog. She has raised about $49,000 in campaign contributions, while Chris Coleman has received about five times that amount.