Coleman's staff cracks City Hall's glass ceilingby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
The mayor of St. Paul gets to appoint dozens of city department heads and advisors. Since taking office last month Mayor Chris Coleman has filled four key positions with women. Coleman says it wasn't necessarily intentional. He says he was just looking for the best people to do the work.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's certainly not the first time City Hall has had women in top positions. But Coleman's choice of four women in key leadership jobs is unusual.
Chief of Staff Ann Mulholland is Coleman's "right hand." She oversees a staff of 17 who have been working long hours since Coleman took office on Jan. 3, 2006. She says in addition to her work in the office, she's constantly talking with people at the grocery stores, at church, in the neighborhood.
"It is exhausting," Mulholland says. "But it is the reason I love my job. Because I get to play a part in shaping the city that I love, and work and live and play in."
In these first weeks, Mulholland and her colleagues have been busy meeting constituents and promoting Coleman's top initiatives, including an after-school program for kids and light rail along University Ave.
Mulholland and the staff are also learning how city government works.
Only one of Coleman's top advisors, Director of Policy Nancy Homans, has city experience. Homans was a St. Paul planner for 20 years before she became Coleman's aide in 2001, when he was a council member.
"That's the remarkable thing about this group. Everyone else is so new to city government, which is wonderful," says Homans. "They're young, they're bright, they're coming from community organizing backgrounds, arts backgrounds, nonprofit backgrounds, legal backgrounds, all kinds of places. But city government is a little bit foreign to them."
Homans jokes about the fact that she's the oldest person on staff, 49. She's become the de facto office "Yoda" -- the advice-giver.
"They are kind of coming in, looking kind of quizzically and saying, 'We do this why?' Or, 'Who do I talk to?' Or, 'How do I get this done?' So hopefully I am able to introduce them to city government and to introduce city government to them," says Homans.
Luz Frias, 43, is a lawyer coming to city government for the first time as the mayor's director of external affairs. She is a lobbyist responsible for St. Paul's efforts to secure state and federal funding for the city.
Unlike Mulholland and Homans, who both had been close friends with the mayor before joining his staff, Frias had never met Coleman before her job interview.
"I think I've reached a point in my career that I can really choose what jobs I want," Frias says. "And when I was approached with this job opportunity, I did some homework after the interview in terms of who Chris Coleman was, and what his priorities were, and what his style was -- work style, and so forth -- and everything I heard was positive. He's been so welcoming of many of us who didn't have any ties to his campaign or to him."
Filling another top position for Coleman is environmentalist Anne Hunt. The mayor created her position -- deputy policy director with a focus on the environment. Hunt says she enjoys working with Mulholland, Homans, and Frias.
"We'll be having an opportunity to learn a lot from each other," Hunt says. "And really support and help move the mayor's agenda forward."
Hunt is a longtime activist who has worked with a number of environmental agencies on issues including smart growth, river cleanup, and energy conservation.
She says over the next four years, her office will look at reducing the city's greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency.
"We're also going to be trying to figure out some really measurable goals," says Hunt. "I'll be looking at community initiatives through the lens of sustainable development. So that would be balancing both the community interests with the environment interests and economic interests of the city."
Coleman says he never set out to hire only women for his top four advisory positions.
"I want people that are looking at it from the best interest of the city," Coleman says. "Looking at it from the best interest of the future, to give me that information. And so, these are the folks that really can do that." Still, Coleman does see an advantage to a majority female staff.
"I hope that what we have is a group of people who check their ego at the door. And if there is a gender difference between men and women, I think that women tend to do that better, they tend to check their egos more," Coleman says. "It ends up being more about policy than it is about the personal. Obviously that's not universally true, but I figure I have enough ego for the entire office."
Coleman's self-described big ego doesn't appear to translate into an overbearing style. Each of the women describe the office as open and collaborative.
Chief of staff Ann Mulholland says she thinks in general, the women's work styles have been an asset in Coleman's first weeks as mayor.
"I think we are collaborators, I think we are conversationalists, I think we are communicators," Mulholland says. "And I think that's important for government. I think we ought to be talking to people more and listening more. And I do think women do that. I think that's pretty anecdotal but that's what my sense is."
Mulholland says she believes opportunities for women in government are still limited, especially for women with children.
She says that's exemplified by a question she heard a lot when she accepted her position as Coleman's chief of staff.
"Which is, 'Boy how are you going to do this with four kids?' Not one person has asked the mayor that question, and he has two young kids," Mulholland says. "The credit that I give him is that he never asked me that question, because he knew that was a personal choice that I made."
Fifty-one percent of Minnesotans are women, but the number of women in elected offices lags the number of men.
The Minnesota Legislative Commission on the Economic Status of Women says women in local elected office reached an all-time high of 27 percent after the 2004 election. The number of women in the state Legislature also topped out at 30 percent after the 2005 special elections.
"Lord knows, Minnesota has a lot of highly qualified professional women who can do excellent work in all kinds of positions," says Kay Wolsborn, a professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. She applauds Coleman for appointing women to his top four positions.
"These kinds of entry positions, where women are active in politics at the staff levels in a variety of positions, are terrific as gateway positions for women who want to move on," Wolsborn says. "I have to say, as an educator, they're excellent role models for our students who need to see themselves in a variety of careers."
Chris Coleman acknowledges he and his staff are still untested. He has yet to present his first budget, and has not had to deliver on his campaign promises.
And, as far as the honeymoon he's experiencing with his own staff, Coleman says with a laugh, "It's early yet. Come back in about six months and see what they really think about me."