GOP host St. Paul gets its day in the sun

Republican Convention
Katie Peterson wipes off the teleprompter glass on the podium for the Republican National Convention which begins Monday at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Republican National Convention should be St. Paul's big moment. Too bad most everyone seems to think it's being held in Minneapolis.

"It's like nails on a chalkboard when I hear that," said Mary Lethert Wingerd, a St. Paul native and historian of the city.

Happens all the time.

This is, after all, the city that comes after the hyphen in the urban conglomeration known as Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's the city of Charles M. Schulz, whose endearing loser Charlie Brown could never catch a break.

For a few days in September, at least, call it St. Paul-Minneapolis, the underdog taking a turn as top dog. Charlie finally gets to kick the football that Lucy always pulled away.

The long rivalry between the Twin Cities isn't as potent as it was in the decades before freeways and automobiles shrank the 10 miles that separate the two downtowns. What hasn't changed is the conviction among many longtime St. Paulites that their hometown is just a little bit better than the bigger, flashier neighbor a few miles up the Mississippi.

"I love to visit Minneapolis, but there's something about St. Paul that's charming and simple," said Nick Linsmayer, a manufacturing executive whose St. Paul roots reach back to 1849.

Living in the shadow
Minneapolis takes bragging rights in the easiest measurement of civic strength, population: It has about 100,000 more residents than St. Paul. It's the state's economic and cultural center, while St. Paul is the seat of state government.

Minneapolis offers more modern architecture and fancier restaurants, the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, three pro sports teams, five major lakes within its boundaries and the University of Minnesota's main campus. The city launched rockers Prince and the Replacements.

St. Paul has a downtown shaded by historic buildings and neighborhoods lined with block upon block of pristine Victorian homes. It's got science and history museums, pro hockey, two lakes and a smaller University of Minnesota campus.

Literary heavyweight F. Scott Fitzgerald hailed from St. Paul. Schulz grew up in St. Paul and sold his first panel cartoon to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1947, three years before the debut of Peanuts.

"St. Small, don't they call it?" offered Carol Connolly, St. Paul's poet laureate and a lifelong resident whose ancestors moved here in 1885. "It is. You can hardly go anywhere in St. Paul that you don't see someone you know. Which is the great thing about it, I think."

Not always the little one
St. Paul was founded before Minneapolis and was larger for the first few decades of the two cities' existence. French-Canadian traders set up camp south of Fort Snelling on the Mississippi in 1840, dubbing the settlement Pig's Eye (the nickname of an original settler and bootlegger). In its earliest days, the area was hub of the whiskey trade that catered to soldiers at the remote military outpost.

Local Catholic leaders soon saw to it that the city was renamed St. Paul, cementing a relationship between the Catholic Church and the city's ruling class that exists to this day. By the time Minnesota became a state in 1858, St. Paul was its biggest city and a regional trading center.

Minneapolis began as something of an industrial outpost of St. Paul, but a late-19th century boom in lumber and flour milling brought a population explosion. By the 1880 census Minneapolis surpassed St. Paul in population, sparking the "Census War" of 1890 that saw census takers on both sides of the river charged with padding population tallies.

Minneapolis was host for the only other major party convention in Minnesota. In 1892, Republicans met at the Industrial Exposition Building to nominate Benjamin Harrison for re-election. He lost in the fall to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

By the early 20th century, St. Paul had become the smaller city — and sometimes, it acted out. In the first few decades of the 1900s, St. Paul became a haven for gangsters when the local police force enacted a policy of looking the other way as such notorious bad guys as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson set up shop in town.

"If you were one of these guys, when you got to town you'd literally walk up to the first police officer you saw and introduce yourself," said Paul Maccabee, author of "John Dillinger Slept Here," a history of St. Paul's gangsters. "You would have to promise you would not commit a crime in the city limits of St. Paul. You could kill anyone you wanted in Minneapolis. And you did."

Those were the old days.

Two cities, one urban center
Now, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says more binds the cities than separates them. Even so, he likes to joke about his "mixed marriage" to a Minneapolis girl.

Together forming the state's only true urban center, St. Paul and Minneapolis share an increasing diversity in population — led in St. Paul by the Hmong ethnic group from Southeast Asia and China; and in Minneapolis by Somalis. They also share a Democratic Party dominance in city politics.

The Democratic grip on the two cities has been a springboard to statewide success for liberal icons such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. But the state as a whole, from its agricultural south to its central lake country to its industrial Iron Range to its heavily forested northern reaches, has often overridden the urban vote.

That's helped Republicans such as Harold Stassen, Norm Coleman and current Gov. Tim Pawlenty, not to mention the maverick independent former Gov. Jesse Ventura, win office. But the strong Democratic tilt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has helped prevent any Republican presidential candidate from carrying Minnesota since 1972.

That might make St. Paul an odd place for John McCain to assume the Republican nomination. But when it came to landing the GOP convention and assuring the flow of Republican money into local coffers, Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders found themselves in harmony.

Neither city could have hosted the convention alone, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. Together, "you'll find the best combination of sophistication and friendliness of any community in America."