Chris Coleman is going to win re-election as mayor of St. Paul. Barring incarceration or a Spitzer-esque political meltdown, this time next year he’ll be settling into his second term at City Hall. Four years ago, after all, Coleman trounced incumbent Randy Kelly by a ratio of more than 2-to-1, and no opponents have emerged to challenge him this time around.
But judging by his actions, Coleman seems to be winding up for an all-out political brawl. Yesterday’s announcement that John Stiles will leave his post as the DFL’s communications director to helm Coleman’s re-election effort is the latest indication that Coleman may have plans beyond another four years at City Hall.
“This is using the sledgehammer to kill the fly,” says David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “He doesn’t need this person, but it’s a great way of sort of building for the future.”
Coleman has been loath to publicly entertain whether that future might include a 2010 run for the governor’s mansion, maintaining instead that his focus is simply on winning a second term.
“We’re taking nothing for granted this year — and bringing on talent of this caliber shows that we’re going to run an aggressive campaign,” Coleman said in a statement announcing the Stiles hire.
But the hiring of a seasoned political operative such as Stiles is certainly a sign that Coleman is at least going to sniff the current political winds to see if a gubernatorial run would be viable.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is also frequently mentioned as a possible DFL candidate for governor in 2010, and he’s also assembled a conspicuously robust campaign operation for a re-election contest that’s likely to be a cakewalk. Rybak’s hired Jaclyn Urness, state field director for Barack Obama’s Minnesota campaign, as his campaign manager.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that both Chris Coleman and R.T. have higher aspirations with the real possibility that Governor Pawlenty will not be running for re-election in 2010,” says Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Jacobs argues that Pawlenty’s recent behavior suggests a run for national political office is more likely in the cards than a third term. He’s struck by Pawlenty’s reluctance to lobby for passage of the stimulus package despite a looming $5 billion budget deficit, positioning himself as a hard-line fiscal conservative.
In addition, Jacobs notes that Pawlenty has been conspicuously more aggressive in fundraising than he was four years ago, with nearly $600,000 in the bank at the end of the year.
“To me the behavior of Tim Pawlenty, in terms of fundraising and in terms of positioning, looks strikingly presidential,” he says.
Both Coleman and Rybak would face the tricky task of winning re-election and then almost immediately jumping into the governor’s race. In St. Paul there’s significant historical evidence that even the nimblest of politicians could find such maneuvering perilous. In 1986, George Latimer attempted to make the leap to the governor’s mansion but lost an inter-party fight to incumbent Rudy Perpich. A decade later Norm Coleman finished second to Jesse Ventura in a three-way gubernatorial contest.
Despite this track record, Latimer believes Chris Coleman’s statewide prospects are quite bright.
“I have no doubt that if things go well that he should look towards going the next step,” Latimer says. “I think that he should keep all of his options open to run statewide.”
Still, some observers noted that while Coleman’s campaign operation may seem suspiciously robust for the political task currently at hand, such preparations are also simple prudence.
“Political fortunes shift rather quickly, and it always pays to be prepared,” says state Rep. John Lesch, who served as Coleman’s legislative aide when he was on the St. Paul City Council.
“People are going to look very critically at how he runs his mayoral race. You’ve got to make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”