When Dave Kleis ran for mayor of St. Cloud in 2005, he made just two promises to voters.
First, he would find a way to bring back paddle boats to Lake George, a popular recreation squeezed out in city budget cuts. Second, he would hold at least one town hall meeting, open to everyone, every week.
Kleis, then a Republican state senator, won the election that November, and soon lured a private business to get paddle boats back on the water.
That second promise, the one about town halls, he’s still working on: This week, nine months into his fourth term as mayor, Kleis held his 613th face-to-face meeting with the public.
He still remembers his first. The week he was sworn in Kleis invited anyone and everyone to meet him at a Perkins. “There is no more comfort-food place than Perkins,” he says. “I always think it’s better to have dialogue over food. That’s how I grew up. There were nine of us kids, a big family. My mom and dad pretty much had their own town hall meetings!”
Since that first chat, Kleis has convened town halls next to controversial development proposals, on a moving city bus, on his front lawn, in people’s homes, and at bar closing time in downtown St. Cloud. One time he staged a “24-hour town hall,” and made himself available for every minute of an entire day.
Did people show up in the middle of the night?
“I did have someone come at 3 a.m.,” Kleis says. “Just one gentleman who said he just came to see if I was there.”
For 12 years, Kleis has always been there. “The man is everywhere, and I think you’ll hear that from everybody,” says King Banaian, dean of the public affairs school at St. Cloud State University. Back when Banaian served as a Republican representing St. Cloud in the Minnesota House, he attended a few of Kleis’ town halls. If just two people showed up, the mayor listened intently, and made them feel like nothing was more important than hearing from them.
“Real things happen from them,” Banaian says. “[Kleis] will say to someone, ‘Let me take down your number, someone from my office will call you, and we’ll get to the bottom of this.’”
Kleis recalls being invited to a cul de sac for a meeting, where neighbors told him about a nearby house that was being illegally rented out. Kleis’ office looked into it and found several houses similarly skirting city regulations. One turned out to be a meth lab. The city rewrote an ordinance, Kleis says, and has “cleaned up three or four” such properties.
“Without that [town hall], those people who invited me, they might have just given up, maybe moved out of the neighborhood,” Kleis says.
Kleis also does a weekly appearance on a call-in radio show, so people can speak anonymously, but he prefers face-to-face. That’s why he invites seven random people once a month to his home, where he makes them dinner.
This commitment to access has led to victories that would be the envy of dictators: Kleis has run unopposed in three straight elections, and last year got 97 percent of the vote.
City Council member Carol Lewis says some of his popularity stems from his calm, competent steering of the city through the recession, which came during his first term.
Councilmember John Libert has another theory. Mayor “can be a thankless job,” he says. Who’d want to do it if you had to follow Dave Kleis?
“To be out there and involved as Dave is, he’s actually made the job even more difficult,” Libert says. “If someone else became mayor, and started backing off from communication and openness, then the citizens are going to back off—from you.”
Not all town halls are breezy. In 2010, when a man was arrested for hanging racist, anti-Muslim cartoons in public spaces, 500 people packed City Hall for an emotional meeting. Last year, after a Muslim man stabbed nine random people at the Crossroads Mall, Kleis went back to his comfort-food theory, and invited everyone to a restaurant.
He cannot solve everyone’s problems, and often has to admit that. Usually, he finds they understand. Sometimes they just want to vent, to know they’re being heard. If they’re still unhappy at the end of the meeting, they know Kleis will be back next week.
That’s what he would say to the many politicians who treat their own constituents like bug-eyed townies wielding pitchforks. If you have town halls all the time, people get used to you. They trust you, even when they disagree with you.
If you never meet with the people, their issues, their frustration, and their suspicion build up over time—and explode.
“My advice is to have that access as often as one can,” Kleis says. “It really creates the dialogue. Think about it. Do you have a conversation with your family once a month? Or every night at the dinner table?”
That’s a rare image, envisioning a politician who seems just like family. Certainly not what comes to mind for GOP Congressmen Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis, who hide from all but the friendliest of “crowds” in their districts. Or, for that matter, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, whose most compelling moments have been Facebook posts.
One person interviewed for this column wondered if St. Cloud’s mayor was even an interesting subject. “If you’re looking for dirt on Dave Kleis,” the source said, “you’re not going to find it.”
Ask yourself: When’s the last time you thought that about a politician?
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