Chris Coleman grabbed the microphone at a bar and grill in Savage. The crowd of suburban DFLers, plus some of his potential rivals in the race for governor, chatted as he launched into his two-minute pitch.
"In the city of St. Paul, we have been able to govern with traditional DFL values but we've been able to move the city forward," Coleman told the half-listening party faithful, many of whom admitted they know little about the mayor who has run St. Paul for nearly 12 years.
Coleman is facing the biggest test of his political career as he steps into a wide-open 2018 gubernatorial race just getting underway. His public work has become an extension of the family's deep roots in St. Paul and statewide politics. Coleman's father, Nicholas, became an influential state senator in the 1960s and 1970s who went on to run unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. Senate. Coleman now must prove he has appeal beyond his hometown and can connect with Minnesotans in rural areas, in smaller cities and on the Iron Range.
Coleman, 55, is trying to highlight his record in St. Paul to voters across the state from Morris to Warroad. He is credited with rejuvenating the city by adding CHS Field, Palace Theatre, Red Bull Crashed Ice and a Major League Soccer stadium. Hip bars and restaurants proliferated during his tenure and the Green Line spurred development along University Avenue.
He also leaves behind budget challenges, neighborhoods that feel left out of the city's economic growth and the ultimate redevelopment test at the former Ford plant site.
Friends and political allies say Coleman epitomizes the "guy you want to get a beer with." He's quick with a joke. He has played guitar with the local band Suicide Commandos and can jam on the bagpipes. He loves hunting and fishing. He mentions the Minnesota Wild in at least half his political speeches.
But big-city mayors historically have not won the governor's seat in Minnesota.
Coleman faces a particularly tough battle outstate, where potential DFL candidates congressmen Rick Nolan and Tim Walz would get a lot of support, said Aaron Brown, a college instructor and political blogger from the Iron Range.
"I don't know how Mayor Chris Coleman breaks into the top three, the top five even, short of spending a lot of money time here," Brown said. "It would require some kind of connection with people, and that would have to start tomorrow."
Seeking common ground
Coleman said he announced his campaign nearly two years before the 2018 election so he would have enough time to do that legwork.
The father of two, whose go-to weekend bike ride runs along the Mississippi River and Chain of Lakes, said he wants to bring a divided state together by finding common ground on topics like education and protecting rivers and lakes. He declined to elaborate on his plans, and said he is still gathering input.
He was the second candidate to announce, after DFL state Rep. Erin Murphy, also a St. Paul resident. That creates a challenge for Coleman, because Murphy draws from a similar base, Don Slaten, of Hastings, said at the recent Friday night event in Savage where Coleman and Murphy spoke.
"We have a problem drawing outstate voters," Slaten said of the DFL Party. He contemplated whether Coleman could change that, and replied: "I don't think so."
State DFL Chairman Ken Martin said the party has learned from the 2016 election, when they lost control of the state Senate. Candidates need to address voters' anxiety about the economy, health care, infrastructure and the cost of education, Martin said. Coleman listed those topics among his top priorities.
"I've worked on every one of those issues as mayor of St. Paul," he said, and can appeal to voters all over Minnesota.
At a wedding this winter, he met a man from Warroad who supports GOP President Donald Trump. Coleman told the man about his long-held dream of attending a Warroad-Roseau hockey game — a dream that was fulfilled during a recent campaign stop — and soon they were having a beer together.
Coleman mulled a gubernatorial run in 2009, but said he decided his work in the city, which was adding the Green Line light rail, was not done.
The timing is better now, he said, though many challenges remain for the next mayor.
The city faces a potential $32.5 million budget gap after a legal ruling forced St. Paul to change its right of way assessment process, which paid for street maintenance.
"Financially, we're in tough shape," said John Mannillo, spokesman for the open government advocacy group St. Paul Strong. The group formed during Coleman's tenure and frequently criticizes the mayor's administration for a lack of transparency.
George Latimer, the only St. Paul mayor to surpass Coleman for most consecutive terms served, has a rosier view. A self-described "Coleman cultist," Latimer revered Coleman's father. The elder Coleman shared his wit and passion for serving marginalized residents with his son, Latimer said.
Budget pressures, like state aid cuts, have been one of the biggest challenges during Coleman's tenure, Latimer said, and he lauded the younger mayor for maintaining the highest possible credit rating.
Final year as mayor
Employment is one of Coleman's top priorities during his last year in office. There were 179,235 people working in St. Paul in 2016, according to state data. That is back at the city's pre-recession employment level, but 18,674 fewer people than in 2000.
At a statewide carpenters' conference Tuesday, Coleman trumpeted the jobs the soccer stadium and Ford site overhaul will generate.
People will remember Coleman for those major developments, Frogtown Neighborhood Organization Director Caty Royce said. The mayor, a longtime West Side resident, previously lived in Frogtown and served on the Planning Council. Royce said she knows he cares about the neighborhood, but he seems somewhat disconnected from it.
"In his last time in the city, it would be great if he focused on neighborhoods instead of those big projects," she said.
Ann Mulholland, who was deputy mayor during Coleman's first term, said he invested in libraries, recreation facilities and housing across the city.
"As someone who was there … he was absolutely thinking about every corner of St. Paul," she said.
With projects big and small, Coleman said he's left his imprint on his hometown. It's time to do that statewide.
If he doesn't land in the governor's seat?
"I'll be the best fly fishing guide in Montana," he deadpanned.
Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649
St. Paul mayor and DFL candidate for governor in 2018
Family: Wife, Connie, and two adult children, Molly and Aidan
Fun fact: He plays guitar in his City Hall office as he thinks. His deputy mayor, whose office shares a wall with Coleman’s, said he has music on constantly and often responds to her with song lyrics.