Politics

Minnesota Maverick

Getting reelected as a party outcast isn't easy, but Randy Kelly is trying.
by | July 2005
 

One big-city mayor who wouldn't mind having a few plum partisan jobs at his disposal is Randy Kelly, the Democratic mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. As things stand, Kelly has lost the support of his party, and has no easy way to get it back. Although St. Paul is heavily Democratic, Kelly campaigned actively for President Bush last year, leading former city council member Chris Coleman to charge that Kelly isn't a real Democrat at all. "I can call myself a professional basketball player," Coleman says, "but it doesn't mean I am one."

Coleman, who is challenging Kelly in the general election this fall, has won the endorsement of the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party as well as backing from AFSCME, the United Auto Workers and a panoply of former and current elected officials. There are, in addition, a lot of rank-and-file party members who feel that Kelly, given the extraordinarily polarized presidential election, crossed a line beyond which they won't follow him. The mayor insists he is still a Democrat but made no effort to win the party's formal endorsement at its convention this spring.

It's an odd way to seek reelection, but Kelly could still succeed. It's not clear that most St. Paul Democrats care enough about party loyalty to let it determine their vote, and the challenger isn't gaining much traction so far on issues of governance. He complains that Kelly hasn't been enough of an advocate as state aid to the city has fallen, but crime is down on Kelly's watch, taxes haven't gone up, and the local economy is in pretty good shape. A Kelly aide resigned in the face of an FBI bribery investigation, but it doesn't appear the case will touch the mayor directly.

The reality is that politics in St. Paul is more fragmented than it appears in presidential vote totals. A freelance incumbent such as Kelly may have an easier time stitching together a winning set of constituencies than an opponent who has to stick to the program of a broad-based party.

And despite their unchallenged numerical majority, Democrats have not managed to get one of their endorsed candidates elected mayor since 1989. "There has been this history of mayors of St. Paul taking on the party and doing okay," says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. "The DFL party organization is not irrelevant, but it's not the most important factor anymore in mayoral elections."

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