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BY CHARLES FREDEEN — As the son of an influential Minnesota State Senate senator and majority leader, politics was probably imbedded at an early age in St. Paul Mayor Christopher (Chris) Coleman, who was elected as the 45th mayor of the city, and home of the state’s capital, in November 2005.
Coleman, who promotes the civic title for St. Paul (which is sometimes overshadowed by its across the river and larger sibling, Minneapolis, thus the Twin Cities references) as the “Most Livable City in America,” is one of seven children born to an Irish-American St. Paul family. His father, Nick Coleman Sr., championed progressive causes during his time in the Minnesota senate. Coleman’s mother, Bridget, was an owner of an Irish imports shop while also raising the seven children.
The mayor is a life-long St. Paul resident who graduated with a bachelors and a law degree from the University of Minnesota. He has worked as both a public defender and a prosecutor. Coleman (who is no relation to former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman) has been a strong advocate for affordable housing, education and health care during his tenure on the St. Paul City Council and subsequently as mayor.
He answered a few questions regarding his life.
Why did you decide to enter the political arena?
I grew up in a family where being engaged in civic life was critically important. I’m motivated in helping shape the community I grew up in.
What influence did your father, former Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman, Sr., have on your political aspirations?
Obviously, my father was elected to the State Senate when I was a year old, so I grew up realizing the impact you could have from an elected position. My siblings and I grew up learning from him and my mother the importance of being involved in and working for your community.
Education seems to be a priority for you. How is St. Paul measuring up?
St. Paul is taking an innovative approach to education through our school systems and educational partners. Education has been on the top of my priorities list since taking office in 2006. In St. Paul, we are facing one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation. Among many programs, we are attempting to close this gap in two very innovative ways.
The first is through a project called Sprockets—an initiative which networks our out-of-school-time programs. Sprockets not only provides an easy way for residents to find out-of-school programs near them, it connects all of these programs together with data-sharing, which allows us to see what is and isn’t effective.
The second way we are addressing education is through an incredibly innovative program called Promise Neighborhoods. The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood is based off of an extremely effective Harlem-based project called Children’s Zone. The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, which spans a 250-block area, is an effort to support students from cradle to career by treating everything they do—from their class time to their free time to their meal times – as an educational opportunity. St. Paul was one of only 21 cities chosen for a federal grant to fund the project, and I am excited to watch how our Neighborhood develops and to work to expand the program.
Transportation also seems to be on your list. How is the city doing?
For 30 years, we’ve been talking in Minnesota about Light Rail Transit connecting St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. After 30 years of talking about it, the construction has officially begun with a line called Central Corridor. This investment in first-class transportation will spur economic growth in businesses and communities along the line. We are working with our communities and businesses as construction continues to ensure their vitality and success. We see Light Rail Transit not as an end, but as a means to a more vital community.
How is the unemployment rate impacting St. Paul?
Our region and our state have fared well historically when it comes to the unemployment rate. Currently, Minnesota’s and St. Paul’s unemployment rate are lower than the national average. However, we do have one of the highest employment disparities between minorities and whites. This is a result of the large educational achievement gap in St. Paul between minorities and whites—success in education generally leads to jobs. However, in St. Paul we have instituted several programs to help advance minority residents. One such program is our Road to Success—a training opportunity for those hit hardest by the recession to obtain commercial driver’s licenses and access good-paying jobs in multiple industries. Another great program is our EMS Summer Academy. The academy allows at-risk youth to take a 10-week training course, for which they are hired and paid to attend, to be trained as emergency medical technicians. At the end of the course, the participants are eligible to take the EMT certification test and the St. Paul Firefighter entrance exam.
Is the state providing enough local funding to you?
We’ve lost something like $150 million in state aid over the last 8 years, so we’ve continually had to rethink how we deliver services. We have addressed this reduction by focusing on our service and activities versus how many bricks we have. What I mean by that is that while we’ve had to close some buildings, we have improved how we deliver those services and programs.
Currently, we have a Republican legislature which has proposed phasing out all local government aid to Minnesota’s three largest cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth). However, we have a Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, who is committed to preserving local government aid for our cities.
According to your biography, your two children have attended public schools. Do they, public schools, measure up to private education?
One of my two children graduated, so I have one child left in St. Paul schools. St. Paul has one of the best school systems in the country and provides great education for thousands of kids a year. My daughter went to Saint Paul Central High School which, at various times, has produced more national scholars than any other school in the country. St. Paul schools provide incredible and unique educational programs and a student body that reflects our community. St. Paul schools have provided an exceptional opportunity for our children. From my perspective, what makes a city great is investing in our schools, community and infrastructure. This is what makes a city a great place to live, work and grow a business. That is a reflection of the values of the residents of St. Paul.
Is there a top priority that the Feds could do to help St. Paul that you see and could use?
Under the Obama administration, for the first time in my political career, I feel like we have a partner at the federal level who understands the importance of investing in our cities—whether it’s by investing in education, transportation, etc. A continued sense of partnership with the federal level will be important.
How do you think St. Paul’s economy competes with other cities within Minnesota?
One thing that we have tried to do is get our region out of the “competition” mindset and understand we are all in this together. We have strength when we work together as a region—we have high quality colleges and universities, a high quality of life, a highly educated workforce and something like 20 Fortune 500 companies. We are strongest when we stop competing and work together.
Do you have higher political ambitions?
I am focused on making St. Paul the most livable city in America. We have an incredible parks and libraries system, great local businesses and an extraordinary sense of community. We are working hard to develop our riverfront area, closing the achievement gap and strengthening our economy. Honestly, I’m not looking past that right now.
What is your favorite St. Paul restaurant?
It’s dangerous for a mayor to pick one favorite out of the city.
Do you ever eat in Minneapolis restaurants?
My wife is from Minneapolis, so she makes me go over there once in a while.
And, finally, would you rather be the mayor of St. Paul or Minneapolis?
I was born and raised in St. Paul. It would be heresy to think about being mayor of Minneapolis, but having worked a lot of my adult life in Minneapolis, I realize it’s a great partner to have across the river.