He served in the miltary. He’s been a state senator. He’s a business owner. He just started his fifth term as the mayor of St. Cloud. And one of the most important lessons Mayor Dave Kleis has learned in life is to always look people in the eye when shaking their hand.
“It may seem like a simple thing, but it has a big impact,” Mayor Dave said. “People need to sometimes be reminded of the most civil things that you can do. Love everybody, respect everyone, and it’ll be just fine.”
Growing up in the small rural town of Litchfield, Minnesota, Mayor Dave never considered he’d wind up leading a public life.
The second youngest of nine, he attended St. Philip Church in Litchfield with his family. He also went to the Catholic grade school and graduated from the local high school. Seven days later, he arrived in Texas where he began his service in the U.S. Air Force. He later was stationed for a year and a half in Okinawa, Japan.
“Then I applied for special duty,” he recalled. “I applied to be either in the White House or Pentagon. I got the Pentagon.”
That’s where he said he “caught the political bug.”
“It’s hard to live in D.C. and not pick that up. Prior to that, I wasn’t interested in politics at all. I met Ronald Reagan twice, so that was a little bit of an inspiration,” he said.
After finishing his stint at the Pentagon, one of his military mentors encouraged him to go to college and come back as an officer. He attended St. Cloud State University, where he double majored in history and political science.
“I was the first in my family to attend college. My parents both only made it to an eighth-grade education. They were farmers. They had to live and work on the farm, which was very typical for that generation. So I am very grateful for my education,” he said.
While in college, he made his first attempt at running for mayor in 1989.
“While I was a senior at St. Cloud State, a bunch of us were together chatting. There was going to be an open seat for mayor. At one point in the conversation, somebody said, ‘One of us should run. So I decided I was going to run for mayor.
“Of course, I had a very high expectation of winning like everyone does who runs for office and was humbled by the results. I came in eighth out of seven candidates. There were actually eight people on the ballot. Two weeks before the election one gentleman pulled out but he still beat me. I had a little party at the Holiday Inn with friends and family. I had 120 people at my party, but only got 96 votes. It was humbling and I learned a lot,” he said.
During the election, his friend and former lieutenant governor of Minnesota Joanne Benson held a fundraiser for him.
“I’m sure she knew I wasn’t going to win, but she was very kind and she’s always been a mentor, still is, and a good friend. So a few years later she became lieutenant governor. When that happened, she encouraged me to run for the state Senate. I decided to do it and won.”
Kleis served in the Senate for 11 years. In 2005, he was again encouraged by friends to run for St. Cloud mayor, which he did and won. In 2021, he began his fifth term, the longest consecutive term any St. Cloud mayor has held.
Kleis has always loved St. Cloud. In 1991, he started a small business, the Central Minnesota Driving Academy, and bought a home in the same neighborhood, where he still lives today, and where he attends Mass at St. Anthony Church.
“I just love the neighborhood. I love the city. I love the history and especially the people,” he said.
He believes that in order to really engage with the community, dialogue and building relationships with people on an individual basis are key.
“That’s the only way you can truly serve a community. That takes a lot of time. It’s not a simple process, but that’s the best way to engage,” he said.
A few years ago, he started mealtime conversations that he calls “Dinner with Strangers.”
“I believe that people need to feel welcome, especially those who are new to the community. When people come to your house for the first time, you welcome them. You clean your house. You try to make them feel welcome. It’s the same in a community. People need to know that they’re part of a community. They need to know they’re important,” he said.
“I invite people over to my house for a meal, usually chili that I make. It’s really an open invitation. When I speak to groups, I talk about this and say, ‘Just call my office and get on the list. The only caveat is that I can’t know you.’ So once we get seven people, we have a meal together. We talk and it’s great. It’s a huge benefit to me. I get to talk to people I don’t know, and they get to talk to people or hear people and talk to people they don’t know. So it’s a great way of engaging.
“And you can have dinner with strangers by just inviting your neighbors. More than likely you’ve lived next to some people for a long time and have never actually sat down and broke bread with them,” he added.
Once relationships are formed, Kleis said you begin to see how everyone is interconnected.
“People have the same concerns,” he said. “If there’s part of the city that’s in peril in some way, whether it’s because of crime, or whether it’s because of roads, or whether it’s because of poverty, or whether it’s because of social justice or injustice, those aspects affect the whole city. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been here for two hours or two generations or beyond, you’re still part of the community.
“That’s why engaging people to help move and direct the community is so important. If you don’t, you’re moving your vision of the community, not the community’s vision. I think oftentimes politicians or elected officials fail to realize who they represent. They represent the people they serve.”
“That’s not something I can control at the ballot box. That’s a democratic process. But where I can make a difference is when it comes to boards and commissions. I meet people and I invite them to the community’s vision. I think oftentimes politicians or elected officials fail to realize who they represent. They represent the people they serve.”
Kleis feels that one of his great strengths is inviting people from all demographics to serve on boards and commissions to ensure representation that is truly a reflection of the people of St. Cloud.
“When I first came on, boards and commissions were made up almost entirely of retired white men. Now it is much closer to reflecting the community, including 18 percent people of color, about half men and women, and we have a number of young people on committees, including under 18, as well as those above.”
As the community is ever-increasing in diversity, Kleis says it is important that all people are empowered and are part of the decision-making process.
“That’s not something I can control at the ballot box. That’s a democratic process. But where I can make a difference is when it comes to boards and commissions. I meet people and I invite them to be part of something. You have to actively engage people. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say no who I’ve asked to be on a board or commission. Most people will say yes, but are never asked,” he said.
The best way to get people engaged in community and participation is to start with yourself, the mayor advises.
“Get involved. Take a risk. There were many times I could have easily said no, but said yes. I could have gone to law school. I could have said no to buying the house, living in the neighborhood, running for the mayor, running for state Senate. [Saying yes] changed my path. And some good things happened because of that,” he said.
“One thing that you can always do is to engage yourself, be active, say yes,” he said. “If there’s a club, if there’s an opportunity in your church, if there’s an opportunity in your neighborhood, if there’s an opportunity in your school to do something, say yes. Find something that you enjoy or may enjoy or may challenge you. If you really want to do it, then do it. You’d be surprised at your ability.”