MANKATO — There have been more than 30 mayors in Mankato's century and a half of existence. The list includes three Georges, multiple Johns, a couple of Charleses, a Jeff, a Vern, a Herb, a Cliff, a Rex, a Frank ...
The one constant — from James Wiswell in 1868 to Eric Anderson in 2014 — is that everyone elected to the city's top post has been a white male.
On Tuesday, that will change.
Voters will choose between Bukata Hayes and Najwa Massad and elect either the first African-American man or the first woman as mayor. So voters will be facing an historic choice. They'll also see two candidates with unique backgrounds but a unifying message of deep affection for their adopted home.
In interviews with The Free Press and in an hourlong televised candidate forum hosted by Greater Mankato Growth, both said their motivation to serve as Mankato's mayor stems largely from a desire to give back to a community that's given much to them.
"I came to Mankato as an 18-year-old really looking for a better life," said Hayes, a Milwaukee native who was recruited to play basketball at Bethany Lutheran College. "Mankato provided that. ... If you invest all that you can, if you fully commit to being a Mankatoan, then Mankato won't let you down. There's opportunity to move up the ladder. There's opportunity for you to provide better for your children and your children's children. I think that's the thing I love most about this community."
Massad, a native of Lebanon who came to Minnesota to escape civil war, said the community feels like a family 40 years later and she wants to sing its praises.
"I tell it from my heart: Why do I run? Because I love Mankato," she said. "... I want people to know that Mankato is a phenomenal place. We have so much to offer. We've got the arts, we've got the schools, we've got the trails, we've got the parks, we've got so much. So when I talk about it, I get so passionate."
Prior to Aug. 14, it was a six-way contest to replace retiring two-term Mayor Eric Anderson. Voters in the primary election pared that to two finalists with Massad winning 38 percent and Hayes picking up 28 percent.
"The most important thing ..."
Throughout the campaign, Hayes has invariably introduced himself the same way: "The most important thing about me is that I'm the son of Dia Damani Courtney and Karen Hayes, husband to Lisa and father to Damani, Jalen, Zavier and Zuri."
"I speak of those relationships because I believe relationships, connections and networks are what make a community work great," Hayes said. "I'm running to be the next mayor of Mankato to make those relationships, those connections and those networks work best for our community."
With the city's strong growth in recent decades, Mankato's population has become more racially and ethnically varied, Hayes said. Demographic changes also include the aging of baby boomers and an expanding economy that's prompted a worker shortage only projected to become more severe.
"I believe it's critical to be active in creating the community you want — to be active in creating a community that's socially and economically inclusive," he said, adding that his work with the Mankato Diversity Council has been centered on building relationships and promoting understanding between different groups. "... When you actually sit and talk with folks, you learn, you build, you develop common ground."
"I believe I can understand ..."
Massad's connection to Mankato was made twice. As a young child in 1960, she immigrated with her parents from Lebanon and graduated from Mankato Catholic schools. After returning to her native country and marrying John Massad, they decided to make a new life in Mankato when the Lebanese civil war worsened.
Both arrivals brought challenges, Massad said, recalling her father earning 75 cents an hour and her mother watching soap operas in an effort to learn English. Nearly two decades later, her husband struggled to find someone willing to hire a young immigrant.
"I found it was interesting. I was an outsider even though I grew up here because my husband didn't speak English," she said.
Good Counsel eventually gave John Massad a job as a cook and in less than a decade John and Najwa were opening their first restaurant, named after their daughter Meray, on Hickory Street. She remembers a local businessman walking into Meray's, looking over the small space, and saying "So, this is your restaurant?"
"I said, 'Yes, sir!' because hospitality is part of who I am, and I smiled. And he said, 'You won't last six months.' It was a stab in the heart, but John and I worked very, very hard to prove him wrong — that small businesses can survive. And we worked and we worked, and with God's blessing and this community, we succeeded."
The Massads now own a quartet of businesses — Olives in the Hilton Garden Inn, the Massads' fast-serve Mediterranean restaurants in River Hills Mall and near Minnesota State University, and Najwa's Catering, which has the catering contract for the civic center.
Those experiences as a business owner and an immigrant would be invaluable as mayor, Massad said.
"I have lived through many things, so I can connect with the immigration crisis we have here, raising their children and wanting the best for them and their lives," she said.
Likewise, Massad said she has firsthand knowledge of the needs of local entrepreneurs, who are a critical part of Mankato's economy.
"I want to be an ambassador to this town," she said. "I want to be the voice of the people because I believe I can understand when someone talks to me, I can relate to the things that have happened in their lives because I have gone through it."
A former long-term member of the Planning Commission, Massad promised to be an advocate of smart growth and avoiding poorly planned sprawl seen in other growing cities.
"A part of the fabric ..."
A top priority of local business leaders is developing a comprehensive approach to attracting and retaining young workers, based on concerns that demographic trends are going to leave America with more jobs than employees. Both Massad and Hayes list that as a critical issue, and both say city leaders need to be willing to invest in quality-of-life amenities ranging from parks and trails to youth sports facilities and cultural activities.
Hayes said there's another key ingredient in ensuring Mankato can beat other similar-size cities in that growing competition for the best workers: a sense that everyone who lives here has access to social and economic opportunities. That includes a good job, housing that doesn't consume a disproportionate share of their income, reliable transportation and even places to worship.
"One of the ways we are able to deal with that shortage is to make a place where people feel socially a part of the fabric," he said, adding that his ability to build relationships between groups could be invaluable in creating that sense of an inclusive community.
Each of the mayoral contenders also talks about the shortage of housing for the working class and an increasing scarcity of affordable day care slots as additional roadblocks to future economic growth.
Along with the city's ongoing incentives for construction of more apartment complexes reserved for lower-income workers, Hayes calls for more assistance for remodeling and rehabilitating single-family homes in older parts of Mankato. He points to his own Washington Park neighborhood, saying those century-old structures could provide a supply of homes for working-class families with children.
"We have a lot of older housing stock that we could develop to benefit our community," he said.
On boosting the amount of day care, Massad wondered if more could be done to encourage small home-based child-care businesses. She recalled efforts years ago by a local children's advocate to teach young mothers the basics in how to be certified as a day care provider, which created affordable quality day care slots and new small businesses.
"One page at a time ..."
They've seen Mankato's municipal budget binders, and they concede to being a bit overwhelmed even as they promise to ask the necessary questions of city staff and do the homework required to handle the fiscal duties of mayor.
"I'm looking at the budget book and going 'Oh my goodness," Massad said. "But you know what you do with that, you take it one page at a time. ... I would go page by page and take my experience with my four businesses and apply it to that."
Hayes said his work as executive director of the Diversity Council includes working with the nonprofit's governing board to set an annual budget.
"One of the things that aligns with the position of mayor is you work in concert with other folks," he said, adding that as mayor he would also seek more feedback from residents. "'Here's what we're looking at for a budget, what do you think?' So have that public input."
City councils are required to pass annual budgets and set property tax levies, but some municipalities also have reached into other areas of public policy. Hayes and Massad are both willing to join 14 other cities in Minnesota in raising the age to buy tobacco and other nicotine products. Hayes supports Tobacco 21, which would set the age at 21. Massad said she would likely back a higher age, although she's uncertain if it needs to be as high as 21.
The candidates differ on a proposal to make the Old Town portion of Riverfront Drive more pedestrian-friendly by reducing the street's width, which would allow for corner bump-outs to shorten crosswalks and provide room for wider sidewalks, street-side dining, plantings, benches and artwork. The plan would reduce Riverfront from a four-lane to a three-lane for several blocks, which could increase travel times during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Hayes said he supports making business districts more walkable, mentioning the similar changes to Front Street, and said it's particularly important in Old Town as Minnesota State University has added satellite offices along Riverfront that will bring more young people to the area.
"I would be all for it," Hayes said.
Massad is skeptical about the reduction in lanes for through-traffic from four to two (with a center lane reserved for left turns), citing the number of vehicles using Riverfront at peak traffic times.
"Right now I have a big question on going to the two-lane, but I have to study it more," she said.
If successful in winning one term as mayor or more, Hayes hopes to be remembered as a leader who would listen to all residents. And that all felt they were heard.
"I want folks at the end of my term to be able to say, 'He absolutely was invested in all of us. ... I want all of us to be better. I want us to be, in a sense, the model community on how we move forward together, how we come together to form something even greater than ourselves as a community."
Massad said she would like to be remembered as a "mom figure," nurturing the city and helping it reach its full potential.
"I would love to have people look back and say, 'Mankato was vital and it grew and it was the envy of other communities ... . One person can't do it. It has to be done by a lot of people. But she was the leader.'"