Gail Dorfman is the accomplished leader, innovator and public servant who came to mind recently when St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano was speaking at a national conference (and thinking of a photograph of Dan Wilson on a City South Magazine cover). That’s when it first dawned on him: St. Louis Park’s best export is people. “And I thought maybe the time had come for us to look at the people who have been important to the city,” he says. “Gail had a hand in most of the things that have made St. Louis Park great: the visioning process, redevelopment of Excelsior and Grand, creation of neighborhood leaders’ programs,” he says, and the list goes on, with Dorfman at the heart of it all.
Regional planning and the Metropolitan Council
There are many issues held dear by Dorfman, executive director of St. Steven’s Human Services and member of the Metropolitan Council, former Hennepin County Board member and one-time vice chair, St. Louis Park mayor and city council person. However, it’s her answer to the question, “What started you on this journey of public service?” that may best sum up what makes Dorfman tick: “I am a strong believer in the power of government to serve people in need and build healthy communities,” she says.
Take Dorfman’s current service on the Metropolitan Council, a position to which she was appointed by Gov. Dayton in March 2015. She represents St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope and many neighborhoods of Minneapolis on a 17-member board serving the seven-county metropolitan area. “The council’s function is regional planning,” she says, with transit and affordable housing high on Dorfman’s priority list. The Met Council’s Livable Communities Act, created in 1995, has helped fund many projects close to Dorfman’s heart, including the Excelsior and Grand development project in St. Louis Park, one of its first grantees. Another focus of the Met Council is Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—walkable, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities with affordable housing and centered around high-quality public transportation like the light-rail. TOD projects supported by Dorfman and the Met Council are at Wooddale and Seventh in St. Louis Park, offering affordable and mixed-use living and working spaces, and many affordable housing opportunities planned along the proposed SWLRT project. If you’re seeing Dorfman’s name frequently associated with affordable housing, you’re starting to see a big part of who she is.
In a 2015 survey the Wilder foundation found the homeless population in Hennepin County to be about 3,600. It’s a population known to include people with mental health issues, veterans and many families headed by single mothers, including those affected by domestic abuse, says Dorfman. Emergency services housing for people who experience homelessness has been addressed by the service organization she heads, St. Steven’s, which started in the early 1980s and became a nonprofit in 2002. One of St. Steven’s biggest successes is in what Dorfman calls the Rapid Rehousing program: getting people out of shelters quickly and into housing with services. One important change Dorfman has seen over the years of serving people experiencing homelessness is in the past people were first offered services to address issues like addiction, mental health issues and job readiness; placement in housing came next. “Now we try to secure housing first. People make better use of other services when they have a safe and reliable place to call home,” she says.
Heading Home Hennepin
Peter McLaughlin (current District 4 Representative on the Hennepin County Board) worked with Dorfman for her entire period of service on the board, from 1999–2014. Describing Dorfman as “thoughtful, very committed and dedicated both to her work and the people she served,” he defines her signature achievement on the board a program called Heading Home Hennepin. The plan laid out six goals: prevention, outreach, housing opportunities, service delivery, systems improvements and self-support. Strategies focused on not only treating the symptoms of homelessness, but also preventing people from experiencing it. “Gail was driven by her head and her heart on the issue of homelessness,” says McLaughlin. “The difference with Heading Home Hennepin was that it was a way to actually structure and enact a plan to end homelessness. She brought it to the board, and it still functions today. It included goals, and partnerships. It all rose out of her commitment to the homeless.”
Two other initiatives Dorfman was responsible for in her service to Hennepin County were introducing the smoking ban and creating the Affordable Housing Incentive Fund (AHIF). The AHIF, she says, has supported the development of more than 8,000 affordable housing units in Hennepin County since its inception on 2,000. “She also did a lot of work to help people with mental illness,” says McLaughlin. “She has a great heart, and, unlike a lot of other people, she could translate that into action.”
“I loved my years serving on the Hennepin County board,” says Dorfman. “We worked in a very bipartisan fashion. It was all about relationships and building consensus.” While a majority on the board constituted four votes, Dorfman preferred bringing everyone into the fold on any decision. “I was told, ‘You need to be able to count to four,’” she says, “but I always thought it was better to count to seven.”
Establishing a vision in St. Louis Park
Dorfman’s earliest call to Minnesota politics was to serve in an at-large seat on the St. Louis Park city council from 1991–1995, followed by election as St. Louis Park mayor and working in that role from 1995–1999. “I was the only woman on the council for the first two years,” she says. “I felt like I had to do everything that much better in order to be taken seriously.” She ran, she says, on a platform of “establishing a vision,” noting “Vision St. Louis Park”—now in its third evolution—still drives city government. “It was no more ‘business-as-usual,’” she says. “We wanted to establish a vision with the whole community.” She remembers hiring a consultant from New York City who “facilitated all the community outreach and helped us run the process for engaging community input,” she explains. At a visioning meeting with members of the community and the consultant in attendance, “City Hall was jammed with people,” says Dorfman. “I worried that because I’d brought in an outsider he might be distrusted.” He wasn’t. Through a process she describes as creative chaos, committees distilled the ideas brought to the meeting and came up with 300 recommendations. “It wasn’t just a plan on the shelves but included how to implement new ideas,” she says.
“She was great,” says Jeff Jacobs, former St. Louis Park city council person and mayor who served with Dorfman as at-large representatives in the early ‘90s. Currently a lawyer and labor arbitrator, Jacobs calls Dorfman “a true public servant whose major role was to do that which is best for the public. She championed public process. She was one of my mentors. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Asked about young people answering the call to public service, Dorfman first cites the work of her staff at St. Steven’s, including social workers and other professionals “often right out of college, choosing this work freely and passionate about this kind of service,” she says. She’s encouraged to see more women in politics, as well. “I’ve tried throughout my career to encourage women to run for office,” she says, adding Betsy Hodges was once her intern, and colleague Cathy ten Broeke is now head of the office to end homelessness at the state level. Senator Tina Smith chaired her first two campaigns. Anne Mavity, current St. Louis Park city council person, ran one of Dorfman’s county commissioner campaigns and worked in her county board office.
Dorfman is proud of St. Louis Park’s commitment to innovation—first city in the state to do curbside recycling, for example. “The challenge,” she says, “is to hold on to that spirit.” Thanks to the kind of engaged and inclusive community Dorfman—and many others, she insists we add—has helped foster, it seems that spirit will be honored and active for years to come.