Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Minnesota First: Q & A with Craig Morris

Craig Morris was elected mayor of Lakeland in 1986.
February is Black History Month. We recently talked with Minnesota’s first African-American mayor, Craig Morris, who served the St. Croix River Valley-city of Lakeland (population 1,796) for more than a dozen years. He shares what holding this distinction means to him, what his greatest challenges and accomplishments were as mayor, and how the League helped his city.

What year were you elected—and for how long did you serve?
I was elected in three consecutive races: 1986, 1988 and 1990. In 1991, I was appointed to the Metropolitan Council by then-Governor Arnie Carlson, so I was away from the Lakeland mayoral office from 1991-1994. I was re-elected as mayor in 1994 and served again until the end of 2002, for a combined total of 13 years.

When you were running, did you know you might become the first black mayor in Minnesota?
I did not. It was not even a consideration. I learned about this after the election, when I was informed by the media.

What did that mean to you?
When I learned of this fact, I was taken aback. It was 1986 in the state of Minnesota. My initial thoughts were not about me, but rather me questioning “why it had taken so long.” I didn’t want to be the first because I anticipated additional expectations would be placed on me. I had never held this office and wanted to focus on those matters only, not also being the first of something.

My concern was that as an African-American mayor, that others might be judged based on me, what I did, and how I performed. However, soon after the election when I realized how others had embraced the significance of my election, I quickly felt a profound sense of a greater need to do well.

A few years later, Sharon Sales-Belton and Dr. Jean Harris were successful in their own mayoral pursuits, for Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, respectively. I would like to think my election may have caused some thought on the part of others to consider running for public office. I hold this today, for more people regardless of their gender, ethnicity, and alike should be more involved in seeking a local office, predicated on what they know, willingness to serve, and what they can accomplish.

What made you decide to run for mayor?
The motivation for me was a sense of duty to the community and wanting to ensure that we had leadership and accountability in this office. My wife and I moved to Lakeland in 1979, had a young family, and we wanted to help in any way that we could, because of the great opportunities in the St. Croix Valley.

Do you remember any particular dealings you had with the League and how they were helpful to you as mayor?
My first encounter with the League was indirectly through an instructor I had while attending the University of St. Thomas. Mr. Gene Ranieri was an adjunct faculty member who conducted two of my classes while employed as a lobbyist with the League. Thus, he represented the League to me and was a great friend and mentor, even prior to my involvement in local government.

I also had interaction with the League as I served on community committees prior to holding an elected office. After my election, the League was a superior technical and administrative resource, policy advisor, legal advocate, and lobbyist for our municipality. The League was crucial to us, especially given our city’s small size and limited staff resources. The League’s direction and advisement was always well received and accurate with regard to property, litigation, zoning, and staff-related matters.

What were your greatest challenges as mayor?
Most people don’t realize that as mayor, there is a narrowly defined scope of duties and responsibilities. Serving the office within that scope can sometimes frustrate people who think a mayor has more power than he or she can actually wield. Cities do not have unlimited powers—and the same holds true for its mayors. Explaining to people about what we could and could not do was sometimes challenging. We wanted to help, but could not always rise to their expectations.

Also, not many people realized then that between 1960 and 1980, Lakeland doubled it housing stock. Our city’s population rapidly expanded, and the need to address infrastructure and services was not meeting the expectations of both the established older community members and the newer community members. This made for many interesting meetings in council chambers.

What were your most satisfying moments as mayor?
It may sound cliché, but I really enjoyed hearing from people about ways to make our city stronger and more attractive, as well as to protect and preserve the integrity of our neighborhoods from a safety, sanctity, and solitude perspective. Working to resolve these problems was important to me.

Serving in public office was instilled in me at an early age, as my family historically established a number of firsts in both St. Paul and Red Wing, Minnesota. Since I had the opportunity to meet, work, and learn from leaders at the national level in the 70’s, I always had a sense of duty. Serving as mayor afforded me the opportunity to practice the likes of which I had learned.

I was also able to help shape a stronger sense of community and alignment amongst the lower valley cities. Collaboration on joint services and forthrightly addressing one of the most significant groundwater contamination problems in the history of our state was important, because it mattered to others. We were able to make changes to the Superfund Law and redirect funds that resulted in the deployment of our water system in less than three-and-a-half years from the time we were notified of the problem, until we began construction on our system.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One cannot do this by themselves. There were—and remain today—many great people in the community, who encouraged me, endorsed me, and supported me, along with my family. Without these people I could not and would not have sought office. I will be forever grateful and humbled by their kindness and support.

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