A HYBRID GROWS IN ST. PAUL
Jan 5, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 16 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
Now the question is whether Coleman, 48, will run for governor. If so, he will be forced to start electioneering just months into his second term; the primary is in September 1998. Coleman's opponent in 1997, a liberal state senator, pressed this point in her campaign to unseat him. But her attack only emboldened the mayor to say in his public appearances that he thought most St. Paulites would be delighted to have him as governor -- and Election Day interviews with voters leaving the polls conducted by the Twin Cities' largest radio station seemed to confirm this.
As he ponders his next move, Norm Coleman leads in most GOP voter polls for the gubernatorial race. Rural conservatives like his pro-life position and economic views, and suburban moderates appreciate the revival of St. Paul as well as his personal style.
His critics include some old-time Republicans who mistrust a Johnny-come- lately, as well as liberals who say he is an opportunist and too pro-business. Many Democrats suggest that his development projects are a house of cards. Coleman waves off these voices of gloom. "A mayor these days has to be an agent of change," he says, "and my first job was to generate confidence and hope." Although a recent fiasco over a new baseball stadium has clouded the outlook for the Minnesota Twins, he remains optimistic that his high-profile effort to bring NHL hockey back to the state -- in a St. Paul rink -- will bear fruit. "People expect elected officials to solve problems," Coleman declares, "and that's why I'm working to bring businesses back, jobs back, and pro sports back to St. Paul."
Eric Mische, Coleman's adviser and political alter ego, insists that Coleman is a natural coalition-builder whose economic message appeals to Minnesota's new but sizable minority groups, such as Hispanics and Southeast Asians. Coleman's St. Paul, Mische says, "is an incubator for change, a laboratory for Republican ideas." Kemp calls him "an empowerment conservative, " adding, "It's not natural for people in our inner cities to live in poverty and squalor. Norm Coleman is trying to come up with answers to problems. He's tenacious. I think he's destined for higher office."
Coleman himself is more tentative, for now at least. "I'd have to be away from my family for another year," he says. "Besides, I don't think I want to be in government forever. If I run for governor, or I finish out this term as mayor -- that's it, then I want to go into the private sector." Whatever he does, Coleman has already shown the way to a new urban Republicanism in St. Paul.
The electorate here is in a volatile mood. Although threatened with the loss of their beloved baseball team, Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly backed severe limits on public expenditures for a new stadium. In spite of an enormous Democratic registration advantage, St. Paul voters handily reelected a Republican mayor. Even in Minneapolis, a controversial Republican candidate for mayor made a contest of it.
In the northern heartland, Minnesota's ultraliberal image seems to be fading. Liberal Republican Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey probably couldn't be nominated and elected to any statewide office here. Norm Coleman has won twice in St. Paul, first as a maverick Democrat and now as a hybrid Republican. It's a phenomenon that merits watching.
Barry Casselman writes about congressional and presidential campaigns for the Preludium News Service. St. Paul, Minn.