A conversation with former Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens
Before her time as mayor, Mary Giuliani Stephens was elected in 2006 to the Woodbury City Council. At the time, she didn't plan to run for a higher office. When she won the council seat, she wasn't even aware it was a paid position.
But it was a position, she said, that readily prepared her to serve as mayor four years later.
Her background as an attorney and a partner in a law firm working in commercial litigation prepared her to deal with issues like stormwater overflow that came with the 2005 flood — something former Woodbury Mayor Bill Hargis felt she could help with.
"The former mayor kind of ... I wouldn't say threw me in, but kind of volunteered me to help with some of that," she said, chuckling.
Stephens, 63, has lived in Woodbury for 34 years, the same amount of time she's been married to her husband, Greg. They live in the same house they built in the Evergreen neighborhood 34 years ago.
When Stephens was elected mayor in 2010, she garnered 54 percent of the vote in a field of six candidates. She attributed winning so handily to name recognition and having been "ingrained" in the community for 21 years at that point, whether it was serving in various roles in her two kids' activities or her term on the council.
She would need the community support as she stepped into a position that had been held by Hargis since 1993. Hargis led the city in a boon of growth, doubling the city's population and promoting the development of numerous businesses. Stephens would be the city's fifth mayor and the first who was a woman, a fact she said didn't register immediately.
"Obviously I knew I was a woman when I ran, but it was (former chair of the Woodbury Community Foundation and realtor) Dixie Ewing that said, 'You're the first female mayor.' And I said, 'Oh my gosh, I am,'" Stephens said.
She ran again in 2014 and won, that time unopposed.
Building a legacy
Like much of the country, Woodbury was still in the grip of the recession when Stephens took office as mayor in 2010. She said her priority became to position the city for success when the recession inevitably ended.
The lull in development that followed the city’s expansive growth in the 1990s and early 2000s gave the council a chance to review ordinances and policies vital to the city’s next period of growth.
This kind of long-term planning is something Stephens sees as a “hallmark” of the city and key to continued success.
Stephens considers an overhaul of the city’s business outreach program part of her legacy. She wanted to get out and talk to businesses, learn what issues they had with the city when it came to building and growing, and find solutions. In the process, she learned what attracted business owners to the city and what not to change in terms of development.
“I think we took the time to listen, engage the right people and then respond accordingly, and continue to do our long-range planning knowing that we were gonna get out of this,” she said of the recession. “So I think those things combined to make us ready and positioned that when we did come out we had the numbers that you’ve seen in the past six, seven years.”
In her campaigns, Stephens said her main goals were “economic growth” and “efficient government.” When asked if she achieved that, she said “absolutely.”
“I think we, as a city, achieved that,” she said.
Under her watch was the renovation of the HealthEast Sports Center, then the Bielenberg Sports Center in 2013.
It also fell to Stephens to oversee redevelopment of the former State Farm Insurance property, now CityPlace. Offices, medical buildings, hotels, restaurants and retail now populate much of the 100 acres. A 253-unit luxury apartment building is planned for construction in 2019, rounding off the city’s plan for the multi-use development.
The biggest lesson she learned during her time as mayor wasn’t necessarily a new one, but it reinforced something Stephens knew to be true.
“You’re elected in a role to make decisions, and you can’t please everybody,” she said, adding that she thinks she’s become a better listener over the past eight years as a result of bringing people of different viewpoints to the table.
“And then you have to be willing to stand by your policy and say, look, the process is important and we heard from everybody, but the decision isn’t going to please 100 percent of the people,” she said.
Running for governor
During Stephens' seven-month campaign for governor, she saw the respect she had garnered as mayor of a large suburb as a selling point.
"It was an opportunity, I think, for me because I was well-respected in the suburban communities and that vote was huge in (the 2018) election," she said. "So I think it would have been positive if I would have gotten the endorsement from that standpoint, but I respect the process."
Stephens also jumped in when she saw a gubernatorial field full of men — "all bright, capable men," she said, "but I went, it's really time for the Republican Party to shake things up. I thought it was time for new leadership in the party. I thought it was an opportunity that maybe we could broaden our base a little."
Stephens said she wasn't worried about stepping out of the non-partisan world of city politics and coming out as a conservative Republican while she was still mayor.
"I wasn't concerned about it," she said. "I mean, what I made clear was that we were going to keep separate what I was doing as mayor ... from what I was doing running (for governor). And I was committed that I was going to work 100 percent at my mayoral job."
The added commitment of campaigning statewide meant Stephens had to give up some of her volunteer duties, and "the social life just left."
"My family was all on board with it, they worked really hard for me, but it was ... When they tell you it's 24/7, it's 24/7," she said.
Through it all, she said, her priority was to keep her mayoral duties top of mind.
Leaving after two terms
Shortly after leaving the race for governor following the Republican Party’s endorsement of Jeff Johnson, Stephens announced she would not run for a third term as mayor.
“There were a lot of pieces that went into it for me,” she said of her decision to leave office. “But in the end when I put all the pieces together, you know, it really just was the right time for me to move on. I mean, I’m gonna miss it. I’ve loved it.”
That same day in June, Stephens’ friend Anne Burt announced her candidacy for mayor, the first person to do so in 2018. Burt would go on to win a convincing 48 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates, a victory reminiscent of Stephens’ election in 2010.
Stephens knew she wouldn’t be able to pick her successor, but she said she was intentional about meeting with people in the community she considered leaders in the hopes of fostering new mayoral candidates.
“I kind of feel like I did what I wanted to do in 12 years, and sometimes it’s trying to move on and have a new challenge yourself, but sometimes it’s time to move on and have other leadership come up in a community like this,” she said. “But it was definitely the right decision.”
Before the end of her term on Dec. 31, Stephens kept busy tying up loose ends and, following Burt's election victory, ensuring a smooth transition.
"I basically had her shadow me," she said. "I brought her to local meetings — I want her to get connected with our partners, so I'm introducing her to those groups and organizations she may not know, elected officials she may not know, bringing her to regional meetings, and so she's been very busy with me as well."
For now, Stephens is looking forward to spending time with her father, her children and grandchildren. But that doesn't mean her work is done.
"I love being busy, I love serving, so we'll see," she said of her next career move.
Stephens was recently named one of three finalists for chair of the Metropolitan Council, though Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik was ultimately appointed to the position by Governor-elect Tim Walz.
"In terms of offices, nothing's till 2020, so I'm not making any decisions on that," she said. "I'll leave the doors open, see what happens."