North St. Paul ‘lifer’ retiring after 11 years as mayor


Solomon Gustavo North St. Paul Mayor Mike Kuehn is retiring from City Hall at the end of the year, concluding 11 years in the office and nearly 30 years in North St. Paul politics.

The North St. Paul mayor’s office has been a seat of consistency. The mayor before last held the gavel for 30 years.

The current mayor, Mike Kuehn, was first elected 11 years ago after serving on the city council for 17 years. Rounding out nearly 30 years of North St. Paul public service, Kuehn is retiring at the end of the year. 

He sat down with the Review to look back on his years at City Hall. 

 

Hangin’ with Mr. Mayor

On a late November morning, Kuehn, 67, sat at a table in a room just big enough for a table, off the main floor at North St. Paul City Hall.

The sky had grown dark, primed but not yet snowing. Kuehn was dressed in an unassuming alma mater getup of a University of Minnesota hoodie, and a hat he periodically lifted to comb his fingers through the wispy white hair on both sides of his bald head. 

“You can tell I haven’t been to the barber,” he said with an indifferent smirk. 

When Kuehn became mayor in 2008, he was shown the large mayor’s office on the top floor of City Hall, which he immediately turned down. Sitting in an official, gaudy office wasn’t him. Plus, Kuehn figured city staff could use the office space. It filled up fast. 

Kuehn finds space in the building wherever he can, happy to meet in a general room the size of a couple utility closets, with the door wide open.

People wave as they pass by. He says hello. The noon fire whistle goes off.

Keuhn said the city stopped sounding the whistle after the new City Hall was built 15 years ago. 

“Nothing but complaints,” he said of the response to the move, adding people missed the whistle because it was a part of “the fabric of the community,” so the city brought it back.

Decades ago, the whistle was used to alert the fire department to fires, and was tested daily at noon. Modern fire departments don’t use fire whistles anymore. Neigher does North St. Paul’s, but, for comfort’s sake, the whistle remains. 

“They’re outside in their yard, working in the garden, ‘Oh, its noon, I gotta go in and make some lunch,” said Kuehn, noting he remembers hearing it everyday as a kid, the whistle being the signal that it was time to run home and eat.

“I’m a lifer,” said Kuehn, who has lived in North St. Paul since he was born in 1951. 

 

City service

Constructing the current City Hall, which houses the police and fire departments, and moving everyone out of the former building, a much more cramped City Hall, is a project of which Kuehn said he is proud.

That happened while he was a council member. Keuhn joined the council in 1990. 

Shortly after, the city broke ground on its community center. Though the fitness center “never seemed to gel” with the community, said Kuehn, the relationship with the rent-paying volleyball club is working out and the space works well for the North St. Paul Library. 

Kuehn also said redoing the Mcknight ball fields and the new public works facility are other cherished civic accomplishments. 

“Not a regret, but a low,” is how Kuehn characterized an interaction with a council member during a meeting that nearly came to blows. “I felt I lost a relationship,” said Kuehn of his disappointment with the terse moment with then-council member Scott Thorsen. 

Thorsen returns to the council next year after having won a seat in this November’s election. “It’s going to be interesting to see how he handles himself,” the outgoing mayor said.

Other low moments, which Kuehn had to search for over the years, were the various times the city lost out on developments, and the 2008 recession. 

Mayoral moments Kuehn relishes include things like the “Mayor For a Day” program, when a kid fills the mayor’s seat and bangs the gavel at a meeting, as well as the children’s drawing competitions.

Projects Kuehn said he was particularly proud of were housing initiatives. The construction of Polar Ridge Senior Living on Helen Street provided housing for people looking to downsize from their single-family homes. Recently, Kuehn and city officials broke ground an a 32-unit assisted living facility on 13th Avenue. 

“We have enough housing diversity that can satisfy anyone,” he said.

 

A city-history spanning lineage 

Kuehn’s political interests began when he was 9 years old.

Raised Catholic and funneled through the Catholic school system, Kuehn was attending St. Peter’s grade school in 1960 when the first Catholic with a shot at the presidency, John F. Kennedy, had secured the democratic nomination. 

The night of this historically close election, Kuehn recalls intently watching returns with his family in their North St. Paul home, five houses down from his grandparents’ place. 

The future city leader comes from a long line of North St. Paulites.

Kuehn’s great grandfather and great-great uncles settled in North St. Paul around the time the city was incorporated in the late 1800s. The Germans, who first made a stop working in lumber in Wisconsin, found work at the former North St. Paul Luger Furniture Factory. One great uncle opened an ice locker for people to refrigerate and store meat. 

Kuehn’s father and mother, both factory workers, lived in North St. Paul and had a boy and girl. After St. Peter’s grade school, Kuehn went to the “old” Hill High School, before the merger created Hill-Murray School.

Back then it was an all-boys school taught by Catholic Brothers. “It was different, I’ll tell ya,” said Kuehn. The teachers were nice but demanding. 

“I had a lot more studies at Hill than in college,” said the former student council member. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. “I was a goody two-shoes.”

He worked the meat counter at a grocer on Seventh Avenue through high school and college. 

Keuhn went to the U of M, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science. “I always wanted to work in government ... I was blessed my whole life to have a career in politics.”

Kuehn went and worked for the Metropolitan Council, with a brief stop as a committee administrator in the state Legislature before landing at a state regional transit board. 

In his free time he was a hockey coach and referee, and though he lived a life in government, it never occurred to him to run for office until his dad died in 1990.

“The last several years he was alive he expressed concerns about the town not having any energy anymore,” said Kuehn. Both father and son disliked how regional malls stripped downtown of its retail and eating-out gusto. 

A council member retired, but Kuehn didn’t want to run. “It’s a small town. People — enemies, you know,” he said. 

With some encouragement, particularly from then-council member and future U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, Kuehn ran and won a council seat.   

In 2008, then-Mayor Bill Sandberg died in office, ending his 30 years in the seat. Kuehn, by then a seasoned council member, decided to run for mayor and won. 

 

The gas light’s on

“The tank is running low,” said Kuehn. 

He’s retiring as mayor, having decided against seeking re-election this fall because he no longer has the stamina for another campaign. 

Kuehn lives with and takes care of his mother, who has dementia, and plans to concentrate on that. He retired from his regional transit board job in 2013. 

Though he is officially bowing out, Kuehn said he still wants to be involved in city projects, like development, and other programs. One thing he wants to focus on in his upcoming free time is starting a culture and arts foundation. 

“There is an unlimited amount of things we could do with that,” Kuehn said. For starters, he’s been thinking about art in public spaces, a sister program with a foreign city, and more cultural events as North St. Paul becomes more diverse. 

“We could have ethnic heritage days, maybe some German and Scandinavian stuff, but also Hmong and Somali, blend more cultures and share music and food,” said Kuehn. He also mentioned art shows and having churches host musical concerts. 

Replacing Kuehn as mayor, filing a seat held by only two people for last four decades, is current council member Terry Furlong. 

“I think he is an excellent replacement for mayor ... he’s going to be a good leader,” said Kuehn, adding it’s going to be hard to let go, but he understands he has too. 

What Kuehn will pick up instead will be golf clubs — he’s an avid golfer. He said he also plans to read more biographies, travel more and watch more hockey. 

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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