By Andrew Tellijohn
He’s testified in front of Congress, welcomed President Obama and other political leaders to St. Paul, participated in wilderness trips with hundreds of kids and organizational volunteers, and worked tirelessly on issues such as education, transportation, economic development, and tax policy.
These are just a few of the things St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has done as president of the National League of Cities (NLC).
And while he admits he’s not necessarily mourning the end of his term as president—and the long hours it takes to balance his day job with this additional role—he’s proud of the work he and his colleagues have done over the past year. They’ve made progress in raising the organization’s profile, he says, and in helping St. Paul and cities across the U.S. solve many problems they face together.
Right: Mayor Coleman testifies in front of the U.S. House Highways and Transit Subcommittee. ______________________________________________________________
His one-year term will end at the NLC’s annual Congress of Cities this November in Austin, Texas.
“It’s been a great year,” Coleman says. “It has given me an opportunity to play a role in the national conversation around issues that are important to cities.”
Official issues of importance
When Coleman took the helm, NLC was focusing on three main policy priorities: passing immigration reform law, preserving the tax exemption on municipal bonds, and establishing a sales tax for Internet commerce.
NLC is advocating for the federal government to provide a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, strong border enforcement, and support for cities and towns to integrate immigrants into their communities and allow them to make both cultural and economic contributions to the nation. Coleman says he and other NLC leaders have been frustrated, as have many, with the lack of movement on this issue.
NLC has been successful, he says, at building a coalition of allies to fight against eliminating tax exemptions on municipal bonds, arguing that eliminating them would shut down a lot of infrastructure projects that are vital for cities. “It’s critical that we not do that,” Coleman says.
He’s also hopeful that there can still be some movement this year in closing the loophole on Internet sales tax collections. “We haven’t accomplished the goal, but we think there is an opportunity after the elections to get something passed,” he says.
Ending the achievement gap
While NLC had its official set of issues, Coleman also brought attention to some of the issues he is passionate about. He’s had a voice on topics related to transportation, economic development, climate change, and the need for infrastructure improvements across the country.
Coleman is perhaps most passionate about education. He’s done a lot of work in St. Paul, and now nationally, to try to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color. His efforts helped cement a memorandum of understanding between NLC and the U.S. Department of Education that gives mayors, city leaders, and their community partners access to federal education leaders and an opportunity to advance their local education priorities.
In addition, NLC hosted a two-day conference on social and emotional learning. Coleman says several cities have used elements of those discussions in their efforts at bridging the achievement gap.
Coleman also believes it’s important for young people to experience nature. One of the highlights of his term, he says, was a trip to the Anacostia River at Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland. There, the Youth and America’s Great Outdoors event brought together more than 400 kids, organizational leaders, and other participants for canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, tent pitching, and educational demonstrations centered around nature. More than 30 organizations participated in the event.
“I’m such a believer in kids being in the wilderness, and its connection to kids gaining life skills,” Coleman says.
NLC appreciative of Coleman’s work
NLC CEO and Executive Director Clarence Anthony said he appreciates and is proud of the work Coleman did on education as well as other issues.
Coleman encouraged cities to work with school boards and the U.S. Department of Education to design programs and initiatives that actually prepare kids for learning when they go to school, Anthony says. Coleman also worked with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on a memorandum of understanding aimed at providing more outdoor opportunities for young people.
“His focus on education has been unparalleled to any other president we’ve had,” Anthony says.
In addition, he says, Coleman spent considerable time on Capitol Hill meeting with elected officials and staff to ensure that NLC was at the table and represented the voice of cities across the country.
Coleman, who is the fourth NLC president from Minnesota, “worked very hard with us internally as well as with his team at the city of St. Paul to make sure that we elevated our brand and that we became a relevant voice for cities nationally,” Anthony says. “The mayor has done a wonderful job in leading our initiatives around those kinds of issues.”
Minnesota leaders take note
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, past president of the League of Minnesota Cities, has taken note of Coleman’s efforts.
In addition to his work on educational issues, she says his ability to get President Obama and many other high-ranking federal officials to St. Paul elevated the exposure of the city and the region. He likely built a lot of relationships that will provide resources and brainpower going forward.
“He was able to bring a lot of heavy hitters from Washington, D.C., here to Minnesota, and give them a chance to see where we shine and where we could use their assistance,” Hodges says. “He was clearly being very deliberate about doing that. He was deliberate about being an excellent leader for the entire organization, but also knowing that his leadership there could bear fruit at home.”
Former Minnetonka Mayor Karen Anderson, who served as NLC president in 2002, says Coleman’s work on behalf of teenagers is praiseworthy. She adds that Coleman has done a wonderful job exposing the country to St. Paul and the state of Minnesota.
More than 200 elected officials descended upon the Twin Cities in June for a summer NLC board meeting. And visits by President Obama and other dignitaries can only help the city in its marketing efforts, Anderson says. And the benefits of the year Coleman spent as NLC president and in other leadership positions will likely continue into the future, she adds. For one, while the role will be less formal, Coleman will probably be called upon to take on some additional responsibilities as past president. In addition, he’s built several relationships that will allow for the sharing and dispersing of best practices that will help locally and elsewhere. “It’s really exciting to see those opportunities open up,” Anderson says. “And Chris is bright and on top of things, so he should be able to seize those opportunities and make the most of them.”
Proud of his city
NLC’s Anthony says Coleman’s legacy with the organization is cemented through his work on behalf of youth across the country. St. Paul is lucky to have him as mayor, he adds.
“He’s a wonderful and inspirational leader, who has a real passion about public service,” Anthony says.
For his part, Coleman says he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with many leaders from across the country in his role as president and in previous NLC leadership positions. He, too, thinks that St. Paul may benefit from the experiences and connections he’s made through NLC.
“It has exposed St. Paul to a larger national audience,” Coleman says. “And it has given me an opportunity to see what is working in other cities and what’s not.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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