The Magazine


Jan 5, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 16 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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THE REELECTION OF NORM COLEMAN as mayor of St. Paul passed almost unnoticed in the national coverage of November's races. First elected as a Democrat in 1993, Coleman switched parties a year ago. Yet he never caught the eye of Beltway pundits. The national media paid attention to just two East Coast governors' races and a lone U.S. House contest -- while out in Minnesota, people were beginning to say that Norm Coleman was the most charismatic politician since Hubert Humphrey and might be the state's next governor.

Coleman's success as a Republican -- he took 59 percent of the vote -- is a departure for St. Paul, long a stereotypical liberal Midwestern city. Its voters had elected few Republicans -- none as mayor -- for thirty years. The first time Coleman, then an assistant state attorney general, ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor, in 1989, he lost to a liberal city councilman whose base was the powerful neighborhood organizations. But St. Paul's fortunes were sagging -- its population declining, its downtown crumbling, its businesses fleeing the city's high taxes and labor strife. Traditional liberal solutions had clearly failed. Increasingly conservative, Coleman upset the liberal-endorsed candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1993. And this time, he won.

In his first term, Coleman took some effective steps to halt St. Paul's decline. Yet neither local nor state Democrats (their proper name in Minnesota is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, or DFL) were impressed. On many issues, Coleman was diverging from the party line.

Soon after taking office, he established himself as a fiscal conservative, writing off a $ 20 million debt of the city's housing agency, merging the city health departments, cutting property taxes, and subcontracting election- bureau work to the private sector. He put more policemen on the streets and became an advocate of light rail. In an early confrontation with AFSCME, the public-employees' union, he rejected city workers' pension demands. And when Coleman endorsed Republican governor Arne Carlson's controversial school- voucher proposal, the local teachers' unions were enraged. The more conservative unions supported him -- the construction trades, pleased with his development program, and police and firefighters, who liked his tough stand on crime. His pro-life position was a serious political liability in the staunchly pro-choice DFL. (A Brooklyn-born Jew, Coleman had married into one of St. Paul's most conservative Irish Catholic families.) The DFL was becoming an uncomfortable home.

While still a Democrat, Coleman sought out Vin Weber, the state's most powerful behind-the-scenes Republican. Weber had been elected to Congress in 1980 and had soon become one of the leaders of the conservative Young Turks, along with Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Trent Lott, and Bob Walker. But Weber retired in 1992 and became a Washington consultant. He helped found Empower America and began reestablishing ties back in Minnesota.

In 1994, he teamed up with an old antagonist, Gov. Carlson, a moderate. He helped Carlson win the biggest landslide in state history since 1881, uniting Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) against an ultraliberal opponent. Weber built a house in the state, sought out old allies and staffers, and settled into a new life as a political kingmaker.

By this time, the shrewd and ambitious mayor of St. Paul knew he had no future in his own party. Pro-life Democrats held no statewide office. Ultraliberals controlled the party apparatus and the tortuous (and undemocratic) precinct-caucus system. In fact, the extremes in both parties had held the state's politics hostage for some time. Now, with Weber grafting his conservative rural "outstate" base to Carlson's moderate suburban base, it was plain that a politician like Coleman might find a place in the GOP.

Last year, Weber staged a colorful party-switching announcement in Coleman's living room. In attendance were Jack Kemp, Carlson, Rep. Jim Ramstad, pollster Frank Luntz, and the local and national press. At a St. Paul hotel reception afterward, the GOP masses ecstatically received the convert. Blocks away, at DFL headquarters, politicos began a campaign to portray Coleman as a "turncoat," though he would argue he was pushed out by the party's left-liberal organizational base.