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St. Paul Mayor Coleman gets raked over record in debate

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Tim Holden
In a photo taken at their last debate on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, Tim Holden listens as Chris Coleman speaks at the St. Paul School District offices in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

If Mayor Chris Coleman and challenger Tim Holden agree on anything, it's that Tuesday's election is a referendum on Coleman's two terms in office.

But in an hour-long forum on MPR News -- their one and only debate -- they presented starkly different assessments of Coleman's record as mayor.

Listen to the whole debate

"We've done a lot of work over the last eight years to move St. Paul forward, to create new vibrancy, to create new opportunities," Coleman said. "Whether it's to create new housing in downtown or new businesses across the city of St. Paul. I think St. Paul's in one of the best positions it's ever been in -- certainly in lifetime -- and I've lived here my entire life."

Holden couldn't disagree more.

"I don't know how (Mayor Chris Coleman) can sit across from me and say there are so many positive things going on, when there's a lot of negatives going on."

"As I sit here today, I don't know how Chris can sit across from me and say there are so many positive things going on, when there's a lot of negatives going on," he said.

Holden pointed to a list of problems, including high unemployment among minority residents and the city's growing legal costs in cases of alleged police misconduct.

While Coleman said the Central Corridor Light Rail Line will drive economic development when it opens next year, Holden, who owns a building along the line, said it has eliminated parking spaces and forced businesses to close. According to the Metropolitan Council, since 2011, 90 businesses along the line closed, while 122 have opened.

Holden also reiterated his opposition to the $63 million, publicly subsidized ballpark the city is building for the St. Paul Saints.

During the debate, Holden repeatedly questioned why the city attempted to award the design and construction contract for the ballpark to Ryan Companies without a competitive bidding process.

"Why did you hand a contract to one specific contractor and not put it out to bid?" he asked Coleman. "And the governor had to slap you on the wrist and put the process out to a bidding so it would be done fairly?"

Coleman initially ignored the question, but eventually responded. He said when the city ultimately solicited multiple bids for the project, it didn't change the outcome.

"And when it was all said and done, Ryan still continued to be the, absolutely the best partner for the City of St. Paul on that project, and I think we'll see the results of that by 2015," Coleman said.

Asked if he wanted to pose a question to Holden in return, Coleman declined.

Coleman is widely regarded as a shoo-in for re-election.

He has the endorsement of the DFL Party, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and all seven members of the city council. Campaign finance reports show that he has raised six-times as much money as Holden, who is funding his campaign largely out of his own pocket. 

If re-elected, Coleman will become president of the National League of Cities next year. But Holden doesn't see that as a plus for St. Paul.

"Chris, I don't think you can dedicate your time to both things," Holden said. "You need to focus on taking care of the city, and that's a big, big issue."

Coleman responded that his position will put the city on a national stage. He said running a city requires the ability to multitask.

"Mayors don't have the luxury of just wearing one hat," he said. "You have to know public safety. You have to know parks and rec. You have to know libraries. You have to know environmental issues. You have to do all things that create great cities. And I think that that is one of the things we are doing very well which is to create a vibrant and wonderful St. Paul."

While the candidates for mayor of Minneapolis have debated more than two dozen times, this was only the second debate in the St. Paul mayor's race.

The previous one, held last week, featured two other candidates, Sharon Anderson and Kurt Dornfeld. Both drew uproarious laughter for their performances, but neither is waging an active campaign and they haven't filed campaign finance reports.

As a result, MPR News did not invite them to today's debate, although Coleman's campaign initially pressed for their inclusion.