Requiem for a Lightweight


Sex and vanity, Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying. Those are the two things that’ll make a politician act like a fool faster than anything else.

And Johnson, whose appetite for praise and pulchritude was prodigious, was in a position to know.

Which brings us to Randy Kelly. On Nov. 8, Kelly lost his bid for reelection as mayor of St. Paul by nearly 40 percentage points to Chris Coleman, a candidate whose position on issues differed only marginally from Kelly’s and whose candidacy never particularly electrified the masses. A likeable sort of guy, Chris, but hardly charismatic. And in many ways, just as much of a corporation-friendly Democrat as the man he vanquished.

Given that in response to recent polls almost two-thirds of St. Paul residents said that they were satisfied with the direction the city was taking, Kelly’s reelection should have been a shoe-in, barring, as the old saw goes, his getting caught with a dead woman or a live boy. Since neither occurred (although, as I will point out shortly, there is something in this story about a live boy), his defeat must be placed squarely at the feet of his suicidal decision not only to endorse, but actively campaign on behalf of, George W. Bush in 2004.

There has been a lot of speculation about this move, even as Kelly’s own statements have deepened the mystery in the name of clarifying his actions. Was he offered a quid pro quo? A deal where he’d end up with a position in the Bush Administration (and who, today, would want one of those?), or perhaps the Pawlenty Administration (see preceding parenthetical statement)? Or was he, as he continues to claim, motivated solely by principal and therefore does not regret his decision?

The answer, as is usually the case in matters of human motivation, is a mixture of impulses, both light and dark.

First there was vanity. It’s fair to say that Mayor Kelly has a slight vanity problem. There’s the coif. The natty garb. The strut. Certainly it’s not unusual for a public figure to have an inflated opinion of his or her own personal worth; such a misconception is probably a prerequisite for the job. But in Kelly’s case, vanity – and a touch of spite – helped lead him to disaster.

From the get-go as mayor, Kelly saw himself as playing to a larger audience than merely the St. Paul electorate, hoping to cut a large swath for himself with ambitious development projects and bold initiatives. Above all, he wanted to be seen as a business magnet, a la Norm Coleman. Indeed, his eagerness to ingratiate himself to developers, out-of-town corporations ,and sports team owners early on led me to think of him as “The Indian Agent,” the guy whose job is to keep the natives pacified while allowing the Overlanders to come in and carry away everything of value (cf., the grotesque plans for “The Bridges of St. Paul” monstrosity).

This kind of human weakness is precisely the sort of thing the vultures around Rove, Weber, and Norm Coleman specialize in exploiting. “You’re much bigger than your job,” these operatives whispered in Kelly’s ear. “You’re a major player – a politician of national, not simply municipal, stature.” And what better way for Kelly, the Democratic mayor of a mid-sized, Midwestern city, to leapfrog his way into the national limelight during a presidential year than to endorse Bush, not only the nominee of the other party, but the bete noir of all things liberal. And what better way for Kelly, who did not receive the DFL endorsement in 2001 (and who reportedly ordered a vanity plate bearing the slim number of votes by which he beat Jay Benanav, the DFL-candidate in 2001, which Kelly is said to display whenever Benanav or one of his aides comes to visit the mayor’s office), to show the St. Paul DFL who’s the boss? Lastly, the endorsement was meant to pave the way for Ryan Kelly, the mayor’s son and campaign manager (and leading candidate to replace Rudy Perpich Jr. as Weightiest Millwheel Around His Father’s Neck) to achieve his dream of getting to play political operative in the Rovian boar’s nest.

Sure enough, Kelly’s ploy got him his 15 minutes of national media attention, and his move certainly stuck in the craw of the party faithful – who, in St. Paul, much to his dismay, turned out to include nearly 70 percent of the electorate. Whether or not his endorsement of Bush greases the wheels for his kid is anybody’s guess. The Bushies are known for exploiting people, not for gratitude. And, as I said earlier about the prospect of the mayor landing a post in either the Bush or Pawlenty administrations, a place at Karl Rove’s table isn’t something most of us today would wish on our worst enemies.

Unfortunately, the ultimate losers in this debacle were the citizens of St. Paul, who were deprived of any kind of real discussion over the future of River City. St. Paul is a town that finds itself at a crossroads; will it continue to be a city of strong neighborhoods and vibrant local business districts or will it be completely absorbed into the Borg of big-box bullies, like WalMart and CVS, and upscale fashion franchises? Will it continue to try to rely on regressive (and escalating) residential property taxes to fund services and some of the costs of operating its public schools, or find a saner, more progressive method of paying its way? Will it nurture the grassroots democracy of its district councils and myriad community organizations or become just another top-down, top-heavy urb with a simulacrum of democratic process and a handful of big hitters calling all the shots? Some of these questions came up during the campaign, but with Chris Coleman needing to do no more than persuade the electorate that he is not, I repeat, not Randy Kelly, the debate was never really joined.

Rich Broderick lives and writes in St. Paul.