It started in 2011, when I noticed a news article about the resignation of the veterans’ services director of Anoka County. In tears, she stated she could not deal with budget restraints imposed by the Anoka County Board.
That story hit me a little hard because my dad was the veterans services director of Dakota County for 30 years. I spent a lot of time in that office growing up, doing homework in a back office after school, and I knew many of the staff.
Since noticing that article, I’ve watched the very conservative and very partisan Anoka County Board as it has seemed, from my perspective, to be going off the deep end, led by chair Rhonda Sivarajah, who seems to be trying to climb the Republican political ladder. She was a lieutenant governor candidate in 2010 and is now running for Congress in the Sixth District against other well-known conservatives.
The Anoka County Board has refused state funding for health programs, dropped the wheelage tax, dropped out of alliances with other counties and pretty much stopped all support for light-rail expansion.
But perhaps what most amazes me is that the board of commissioners in Dakota County, the county I have lived in almost my entire life, is not making the same kinds of decisions that Anoka County is making. Because, on paper, it should.
Both Anoka and Dakota counties are swing counties in statewide elections. In both, the historic county seats — in the cities of Anoka and Hastings — grew up on the Mississippi River. Both counties have first-ring suburbs known for working-class roots and Democratic leanings — Columbia Heights and Fridley in Anoka; West St. Paul and South St. Paul for Dakota.
Purple Anoka County cities Coon Rapids and Blaine could be dead ringers for Dakota County’s Burnsville and Eagan. The large school districts of Anoka-Hennepin and Apple Valley-Eagan-Rosemount seem to be like long-lost brothers.
Even Lakeville is sort of like Lino Lakes and Circle Pines smooshed together, while both counties’ outer-ring suburbs and rural areas are known for their staunch Republican leanings.
However, there’s one big difference — who gets elected.
Dakota County has had its share of conservative county commissioners — from Patrice Battaglia to the presently serving Chris Gerlach. They just never had the majority.
Instead, the winners of commissioner races in Dakota County are usually former mayors and City Council members with a history of working in a centrist, nonpartisan manner, even though many have been affiliated with one party or the other. Hence, Dakota County is essentially maintaining a balance of services, such as transportation and veterans’ affairs, while keeping taxes as low as possible. The board also apparently understands that there is a purpose for some state grants and funding and in forming alliances with other counties.
However, things could change very quickly for Dakota County — as they did in Anoka. At least six of the seven districts in Dakota County have elected Tea Party or conservative commissioners at one time or could elect them in the future if some of the incumbent commissioners either retire or are defeated in future elections. Gerlach replaced Will Branning (a former Apple Valley mayor) as an example last year.
For now, Dakota County is where I believe it should be. And it is my hope that voters here in Dakota will heed the messages coming from the Anoka County Board — as a warning of what can happen if voters are not careful.
Will Labovitch is a political activist in South St. Paul.