He reflects on achievements in human rights, diversity
By Charles Hallman
It’s time for someone else to occupy “the corner office” in city hall, says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who announced last week that he will not seek a fourth term in 2017. Prior to his December 1 announcement, Coleman talked to the MSR in his office at City Hall.
“I’ve been fortunate to be the mayor of the town I grow up in. It’s been an honor,” reflected Coleman. “I absolutely love being mayor. It is the best job I ever had. But I don’t believe that these jobs should be lifetime appointments.”
He fondly remembers working with community members to get additional Green Line stops on University Avenue. “That was a great moment” standing on one of the platforms with Nathaniel Khaliq, Marvin Anderson and Floyd Smaller — “the Sons of Rondo,” said Coleman proudly. “You realize the power of the voices of the community lifted up, and we changed policy based on that.”
Since he took office in 2006, Coleman made diversity and inclusion a top priority of his administration. “I hope that is what people know about the work we have done. That came in many different forms,” he explained.
It included the creation of the City’s human rights and equal employment opportunity office and [the] increased diversity of the City’s workforce. “We revamped the human rights department to be a more proactive department,” explained Coleman. “Our equal opportunity department is now more focused on how people can find jobs in the City, to get contracts from the City. We just embedded the work in every department of the City.”
“I like the risks he has taken,” said St. Paul NAACP President Jeffry Martin last week in an MSR phone interview. Martin added that he truly appreciated how Coleman “got out in front” on several racial incidents in St. Paul.
Although Philando Castile was not killed in St. Paul, “[Coleman] gave advice and counsel to the Falcon Heights mayor” to meet with local community residents and groups in the aftermath, which Martin noted the St. Paul suburban mayor was hesitant to do.
“I’ve found him to be a person willing to talk to community stakeholders about these things,” noted Martin on Coleman.
When asked about race and community relations in St. Paul, “I think it’s gotten significantly better,” said Coleman. “Not perfect in terms of the challenges we have faced, but if you look at some of the Black Lives Matter protests, the relationship [former head] Rashad Turner and I have established, a dialogue… I think when people understood that it was more than just talk, we made real progress.”
Coleman added, “These have been very difficult times for cities across the country,” but he said his city mostly has been addressing both economic and racial concerns. He boasted of his hiring of St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell earlier this year.
“We have an exceptional new chief,” stated Coleman. “[He] came up through the ranks under chiefs [Bill] Finney, [John] Harrington and [Michael] Smith, where [there is] that sense of policing in a true community-based fashion and an inclusion fashion, building those relationships in the community, and the hard work that has to happen so that there is trust. I think we do it better than most, but we are not perfect.”
As his final term winds down, Coleman pointed out, “Certainly we are going to continue to move forward the redevelopment of the Ford site. We will break ground soon on the soccer stadium. Great things are happening, but we have to keep pushing at every corner of the city” in economic development, he continued.
“I’m proud of the work we have done, but we have so much work to do,” he pointed out. “It’s not about bricks and mortar, but about human beings.”
Economic development, especially in the Black community, continues to be a challenge in St. Paul, stated Martin. “He [Coleman] has done a good job, but we’re still not where we should be or where we ought to be.”
The St. Paul mayor said he also wants to continue focusing on pre-K programs, because a child’s first three to five years of life are very important. “The work we have done in education is important,” such as his education leadership team; piloting preschool scholarships; and the Saint Paul Children’s Collaborative, which uses “data-driven grant-making to close [the] achievement gap.”
Coleman said, “The political landscape has changed on the local and national level. [But] the work in St. Paul hasn’t changed. We have been very fortunate to have in President Obama someone who understands the importance of work being done in cities. We will continue to do that.”
By announcing that he is not running for reelection, Coleman explained that this allows those thinking of running for mayor time to prepare for an open seat as opposed to running against an incumbent. “I wanted to make sure that the people interested [in] this position get ready,” said Coleman. “The political season will start soon.”
His decision to step down wasn’t an easy one. “I love this job. I absolutely love being mayor. It is the best job I ever had. You have the opportunity to make your mark, and I think we have accomplished many of the goals I set out to [reach] when I became mayor.
“I think it is a good thing to know when it is time to [leave].”
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