In October 2017, the Civic Caucus began a
series of interviews with major, announced candidates for the office
of governor of Minnesota.The interviews are centered on what can be
done to keep Minnesota and its people competitive in a number of
realms. This interview with Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens is
the eighth in that series.
Minnesota stands at an important
intersection in the state's history, with the challenges of economic
change, rapid innovation and demographic transformation.
Woodbury Mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Giuliani
Stephens said she wants to bring her record as mayor and as a
Woodbury City Council member to the whole state as governor. Her
priorities when she first ran for city council were job creation,
economic development and making government efficient and effective.
During her 11 years as council member and
mayor, she said jobs in Woodbury are up over 17 percent and the city
has added over 2,800 new housing units. Over the last four years,
over 270 new businesses have opened in the city. She said Woodbury
has consistently been recognized as one of the best places to
live--not only in Minnesota, but in the rest of the country, as
Stephens said she is running for governor
because the governor's office requires chief executive experience
and a champion who has a creative, can-do, common-sense approach.
Policymakers have been looking at
tomorrow's challenges and applying yesterday's solutions.
Stephens said Minnesota is one of the highest-taxed states and our
tax climate has become more burdensome. The education achievement
gap in the state has gotten worse, she said, and our infrastructure
continues to deteriorate while we have polarized discussions on
transportation investments. And families throughout the state are
struggling, because there are too many low-paying jobs and not
enough workers and job-connection skills.
"We need better answers," Stephens said.
"I believe that sometimes the best policy is for government to get
out of the way. Government isn't always the solution for every
problem." She said we often look to government first to solve our
problems and we're missing a lot of opportunities in other sectors,
like business, faith communities and nonprofits.
Minnesota is ready for a courageous leader
who's focused and disciplined. Stephens listed what she would
bring to the office of governor:
- She has executive experience as mayor. She said she knows how
to balance a budget, propose solutions and get things done.
- She's a bridge builder and her foundation is built on strong
principles. "I don't lead a political life," she said. "I live a
Minnesota life that happens to involve politics. I'm not out to
grab headlines or score points with anybody. I want to do for
Minnesota what I did in Woodbury. I want people to have an
opportunity to thrive."
- She brings attributes Minnesotans are looking for in their
governor: boldness, innovation, an understanding of the role of
government and an understanding of what Minnesotans value.
Transportation is a core role of
government. According to the State Constitution, Stephens
said, the state must provide funding for a highway system at the
state, county and municipal levels. She said in looking at
transportation funding and mobility funding, we must recognize the
disrupters happening in the transportation world: autonomous
vehicles, electric vehicles, rideshare services and the role of
drones. "Part of the problem is that we're looking at tomorrow's
challenges and applying yesterday's solutions," she said.
The gas tax is regressive, Stephens said,
and better-mileage cars bring in less revenue. "It's probably not
the right source of funding," she said.
We put too heavy an emphasis on transit in
Minnesota. Stephens said most people think of light rail when
they talk about transit. "Transit is bigger than that," she said.
"The dollars are huge with respect to light rail. The infrastructure
is permanent and it's being placed over deteriorating and aging
infrastructure--wastewater, water pipes and sewer pipes. Light rail
is not flexible, compared with a bus route or bus rapid transit,
which have more flexibility and can adapt to changes and new
technology." She said buses cost much less and dedicated bus lanes
are accessible by emergency vehicles. We must set priorities, she
said, and when we invest in one area, we can't invest in another.
It's too early to tell what the impact of
the current federal administration's policies will be on
transportation. Stephens said she's an advocate of the
federal government doing less and giving funding to the states. And
communities want states to let go of the money and give more back to
the communities and school districts. But federal policy, she said,
will be important to how the state makes decisions in
We need to put more emphasis on our roads
and bridges. But, Stephens said, we must look to the future and
not just limit our scope to deteriorating roads and bridges. "We
need a bigger vision for what that's going to look like in the
context of what these major disruptions are going to do," she said.
She said recent studies coming out of
civil engineering schools are finding that millennials' behavior
patterns aren't that different from those of their parents.
There has been criticism that transit has
been driven by community development interests instead of focusing
on how to get people to jobs. An interviewer made that comment
and asked how we might better align options for transportation with
getting people to jobs.
Our goal should be to move people and
goods, Stephens responded. Buses and Metro Mobility, she said, are
areas where we need to focus, whether in the metro area or in
Greater Minnesota. "With a bus system, you can make a connection
between where the jobs are and where the bus routes ought to be,"
The interviewer pointed out that 80
percent of the jobs in the metro area are outside of the two
downtowns. "They're highly scattered," the interviewer said. "The
bus system can't do a good job with highly scattered trip origins
Stephens said Metro Mobility has a $22 to
$27 per ride subsidy and that there are many challenges with the
system. "The need is growing and the cost is growing," she said.
"And this is a group of people we want to service."
Stephens is a member of the Metropolitan
Council's Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) and said she has
suggested studying public/private partnerships with employers and
ridesharing services. "I think you can provide the same service for
a whole lot less cost," she said. "That's an option to look at for
getting people to jobs that are scattered all around. There are
creative ways to solve those problems that aren't the typical
inside-the-box, old ways of doing things."
State Planning Agency.
Should we have a State Planning Agency
like we used to have? (The State Planning Agency was formed in
1965 and abolished in 2003.) An interviewer asked that question and
Stephens said she didn't know about the past State Planning Agency,
but she wasn't ready to say yet that we should have a certain
agency. She thinks our state agencies work in silos and as mayor,
she has experienced their conflict and overlap, which, she said,
lead to inefficiencies.
She said there is a great need to look
ahead to 21st-century solutions, whether it's our education and
workforce or our infrastructure or transportation. "It's definitely
worth exploring, but it's too early to say," she said of the State
How do people in city government look at
the school district and the school board? An interviewer asked
that question and wondered how city government discusses the
activity and the performance of the school board.
Stephens replied that the Woodbury City
Council just updated its list of critical success factors for the
city. One of those, she said, is education. "We don't do education,
because there's a separate elected school board," she said. "But we
know that without a successful education system, we aren't
successful as a city. While we don't make the policy decisions, we
know it's critical to our city's success."
She noted that there are three school
districts in Woodbury: South Washington County, North St.
Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, and Stillwater. South Washington County
includes the largest part of Woodbury. Stephens and the city
administrator meet quarterly with the South Washington County School
District superintendent, a school board member and usually someone
from the school district's departments, such as finance or property.
She meets yearly with the superintendents of the other two
"We want to make sure we're coordinating
where we can," she said, "because we overlap in a lot of
programming. We don't want to be duplicative and we don't want to be
The way we operate schools is a
19th-century model. Stephens gave that response to an
interviewer's comments arising from the recent school shooting in
Parkland, Florida. The interviewer said whatever troubles students
have, whether it's academic performance or behavior, school boards
never talk about changing school and schooling.
The interviewer said we see some of this
in Saint Paul's public schools. "They talk about security, police,
social workers, mental health and now guns, but they almost never
talk about changing school," he said. He noted that there are a lot
of 3,000-student high schools. "The day doesn't change, the year
doesn't change, schooling doesn't change, the organizational
arrangements don't change--they tend to get larger and they don't
change what teachers and students do," he said. "And they don't
allow the schools to make the decisions about these things. Does
that bother anyone in city government?"
Stephens said it bothers her and she'd
like to see more local control at individual schools and at the
school district overall. Reflecting on the Florida shooting, she
said we tend not to get to the underlying issues. With respect to
the school itself, she said, we're never going to prevent all
disasters and catastrophes in the world we live in. "I would rather
have good training for when something is going to happen than to
pour a lot of money into the physical structure of schools," she
She said she doesn't know that having a
large school versus a small school addresses the issue of a school
shooting. The same interviewer asked if there's a risk of kids
getting lost and really going bad, why is that helped by having such
large schools? Stephens responded that the drive toward larger
schools was to save on costs per pupil, although she doesn't know if
it actually did that.
The interviewer asked Stephens to comment
on the differences in the political and administrative leadership
arrangement in Woodbury's city government and that in a school
Stephens noted that as mayor of Woodbury,
she sits as chair of the city council and the council hires the city
administrator. There is no ward system in Woodbury, so all the
council members are elected at large, along with the mayor.
She said the school board provides policy.
All of its members are elected, but the chair is elected by the
school board, not by the voters.
Money and government are not necessarily
the answer to solving the achievement gap. Stephens gave that
response to an interviewer's comment that we must address both the
economic side for families with no housing or not enough food and
the educational side to solve the achievement gap. Stephens said we
tried putting in more money to solve the achievement gap and the gap
In some communities around the state, she
said, the schools are partnering with some of the social services
and nonprofits that are available in doing things like offering
classes for mothers to teach parenting skills and providing
mentoring and before-school and after-school programs. "If we just
address the education piece, we'll miss the underlying issues and
challenges faced by families," she said.
Our school financing formulas are
outdated. Stephens said nobody has tackled how we're funding
schools. "Local communities and schools have lost the ability to
control some of that," she said. "We tend to think one size fits
all--that if we send money to school districts, what works in
Wayzata will work in Minneapolis. We need to allow for more
flexibility and creativity in the financing formula. We can keep the
same formula and we can keep sending more money, but we aren't
seeing the results change."
"We need to get more local control back to
the community and the schools," she said. She believes we could
start with a pilot project that would allow an innovative public
school district to give its schools more flexibility and more leeway
to see what they could do in a more creative environment.
Stephens is opposed to funding universal
preschool education. She said we must instead address the kids
who are falling through the cracks and suggested pre-K scholarships
might be an answer. That would leave more resources available for
the kids who need help.
Stephens has a vision of a P-20 school
system. She said such a system would start with early education
and go through high school and into college and careers. She has an
education policy team that is putting together a plan for such a
Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.
How do you get Democrats and Republicans
to have loyalty to Minnesotans and not to their parties? An
interviewer asked that question and Stephens said the answer is to
elect people who are not life politicians and who can transition
from politics to being a policymaker.
As governor, Stephens said, she's not tied
to any lobbyists or groups and she would base appointments on
talent, experience, and the necessary skills and would not make
"There are lots of ways to improve our
public process to engage those who are most directly affected by the
results coming out of a policy," she said. It's not an efficient
public process to post a 600-page proposal and then ask citizens to
comment on it online, she said.
As governor, Stephens would be willing to
work together with both parties to find solutions. She said she
would keep her priorities and wouldn't change her core values, but
she knows the importance of getting all stakeholders around the
table and trying to find the common ground. "Sometimes it's little
steps and you must accept that it will take awhile to find a
solution," she said.
The governor must be involved from day one
in the legislative process. Stephens said there is some
frustration with the process that leaves so many decisions until the
end of the legislative session. "A lot is dumped into omnibus bills
and then decisions are made by smaller groups," she said. "Many
legislators feel excluded from this process. It needs to be an
Minnesota's Economic Climate.
The economic climate, education and
competitiveness are key to attracting more talent to Minnesota.
Stephens said it's important to have an education policy that goes
from high school to college to the workforce. The missions of
colleges, universities and tech schools should align so that we're
educating the workforce for the jobs that will be out there. "In
order to attract businesses and talent, you need to have a
competitive environment," she said.
The current Legislature will have to deal
with reconciliation of Minnesota's tax system with the new federal
tax law. Stephens said we need to reform our tax environment in
Minnesota. "I don't propose that we be the lowest-tax state, given
our quality of life and our climate," she said. "But we need a goal
of getting out of the top 10. We need to get competitive again in
our economic environment."
A change in the governance and the scope
of the Metropolitan Council is long overdue. Stephens pointed
out that the Met Council was a creation of the Legislature to design
and operate the wastewater treatment facility. Among other things,
the Council is involved in parks planning and operates a
In 2014, the Met Council came out with a
plan called Thrive 2040. Stephens said the report extended
the Council's scope by quite a bit to areas it had never done
before, such as climate change, economic development and water. She
believes that in expanding its scope, the council is becoming less
effective. "They're an appointed body; that's not the role they
should carry," she said.
She said the Met Council's governance
structure needs to be changed, as does its scope. "There are council
of government models and other models out there," she said. "The
reason we have the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) is because
the federal dollars that come to us have to come to an elected body.
Because the Met Council is not elected, TAB had to be created."
"I think there's a model that's better,"
Stephens said. "I don't know exactly what that is now, but I think
it's long overdue." The council of government model would be
representation by current elected officials, she said, not a newly
created set of elections and a new body. "There would have to be a
process in place for how they're selected, given that it's cities
and counties that are affected by those policies," she said. "We
need to get out of the partisan role of the governor choosing the
Met Council's members."
Minnesota has had a pretty good health
care system, although maybe we've gone backwards a bit. Stephens
said we want a system that provides high quality care that's
accessible for medical and mental health issues. She would look at
the following principles for a health care system:
- Allow patients to select their own health care providers.
- Support continuity of care in the finance and delivery
- Ensure competition among providers and payers.
- Support innovation in access and in health care services.
She said innovations in communications
technology and, perhaps, partnerships between clinics and rideshare
services could improve access to health care.
One good model for affordable housing is