In St. Paul mayoral race, the biggest issue is ... Bush

Democratic incumbent Randy Kelly endorsed the president last fall - a move that could cost him reelection Tuesday.

By all conventional wisdom, the mayor's race here in Minnesota's capital city should be an easy win for first-term incumbent Randy Kelly.

Unemployment is low, property taxes haven't gone up, new development has come in, and most residents are happy with the direction the city is headed. A sitting mayor hasn't lost a reelection bid here in more than three decades.

But if the polls are right, Mayor Kelly faces not just defeat but a trouncing in Tuesday's election. He was defeated in the open primary by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, and the latest poll has him trailing his opponent, former city council member Chris Coleman, 66 percent to 25 percent. Kelly's mistake? This moderate Democrat endorsed President Bush last November.

It may be the clearest example yet of the ripple effect of Bush's sinking popularity. And it's drawing an unusual amount of attention. Even Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and former New York mayors Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch have stumped for the candidates in what would normally be a local race in a small city.

"St. Paul is Exhibit A of the damage the president's weak political standing is having on his allies," says Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. Both candidates, he notes, are moderate Democrats, and there's little difference between their platforms. "The only difference is one has a George W. mask on and the other one doesn't."

A survey by Professor Jacob's institute showed just 8 percent of Democrats supporting Mr. Kelly. Sizable portions of those who approved Kelly's handling of issues such as crime and housing said they will vote for Mr. Coleman (no relation to the state's Republican senator, Norm Coleman). And 53 percent said Kelly's endorsement of Mr. Bush would influence their votes.

In this highly Democratic town - Mr. Kerry won 73 percent of the presidential vote here - few seem prepared to forgive what they see as the ultimate act of political apostasy.

"When you endorse a political candidate you endorse his policies, and pretty much everything George Bush does I disagree with," says Kyle Larson, a musician and barista at Amore coffee shop. "Kelly may have done an OK job for St. Paul, but thinking in the larger picture, I just can't get past [the endorsement]."

Some St. Paulites use Bush's own term for Kerry - "flip-flopper" - to describe the endorsement, and they have a hard time accepting it from a Democrat, at a time when politics are so polarized.

"Pick a party and stay with it!" says Brian DuChien, a retired hairdresser, as he drinks his morning coffee. The endorsement, he says, "was bad news, especially in light of recent discoveries in Washington." Like many others, Mr. DuChien says his vote won't be so much for Coleman as against Kelly.

Over at his campaign headquarters, papered with Kelly-green signs and shamrocks, Kelly isn't about to concede defeat. Only a fraction of voters came out for the primary, and he's hoping that when more head to the polls Tuesday they'll consider his accomplishments with taxes, crime, jobs, schools, and housing.

"If people are going to only look at the endorsement, clearly I'd lose," he acknowledges, noting that he made the decision based on who he thought could keep the country safer from terrorism. "But I've tried to encourage people to look at what I've done. If that's what they do, I think I'll be reelected."

While Kelly won't take back his endorsement, he says he may have underestimated the degree of partisan bitterness. "I was hoping that by looking across party lines I might be able to diminish some of that polarization," he says. "Clearly that doesn't seem to be happening."

Not far away, Coleman is busy shaking hands, and he can't get the smile off his face. Relaxed and happy as he meets with hundreds of vendors and shoppers at a colorful Hmong marketplace, he characterizes the race as a difference in political approach.

"St. Paul is a big small town. People need to feel a connection to their mayor," he says. "It's currently a top-down style."

Although Kelly helped welcome a new wave of Hmong refugees - a minority group from Laos - to the city, many Hmong, a politically important group here, say they're supporting Coleman.

"Mayor Kelly is good, too, but I think he becomes friends only with the leaders, not for the people," explains Charles Vu, a reporter for a Hmong radio station and flower-shop owner who's helping to introduce Coleman to vendors. "Kelly said he was going to support minorities, but he jumped to support Bush and people didn't understand."

Not everyone is deserting Kelly. On the city's east side, green Kelly signs pepper the lawns, and some residents say federal politics shouldn't matter in a local election.

"As long as Kelly's been in we've got success," says William McDonald, a bishop with the World Christianship Church who's been a Democrat his whole life and plans to vote for Kelly.

Still, the St. Paul election illustrates to observers the degree to which the president's detractors dislike him. But they differ on what that will mean in places that aren't as slanted as St. Paul.

"What's key is how profoundly he's disliked by Democrats," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The Bush endorsement would be like being in Crawford, Texas, and endorsing John Kerry."

But Jacobs, at the University of Minnesota, points out that Minnesota is a swing state that in recent years has seen a GOP surge. Now, he says, it's not just Kelly who's in danger. "You go around the country and start listening to what Republicans are saying and they're very nervous."

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