Dan Erhart's political legacy will likely be the Northstar commuter-rail line. But it was the way he took risks without regard for political fallout that distinguished the longtime Anoka County Board member from many of his peers.
"He was rare among elected officials because he was willing to take chances without worrying about the consequences," said Leigh Lenzmeier, a Stearns County commissioner who spent a decade working with Erhart on rail issues.
"Other politicians are constantly trying to balance things because they get caught up in how things look. If Dan believed something would benefit Anoka County, he pushed for things. You always know where he stands."
After three decades on the board, Erhart lost his bid for re-election this month to Coon Rapids City Council Member Scott Schulte. Now 71, Erhart says he's retiring from politics, "but if something comes along that I love ... "
Erhart is an old-school-style politician, but his desire to try new ventures never seems to get old. The oldest member of the county board, he also is the most progressive.
He was the engine that drove Northstar. When the federal funding needed to launch the $317 million line was made official, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty lauded him, brought him to the podium and handed him the microphone.
Erhart, who rarely minces words, has never tried to hide his frustration with the fiscally conservative views of fellow board member Rhonda Sivarajah or his lack of respect for two-year board member Matt Look, who replaced him as chairman of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority. Yet Erhart's relationship with Pawlenty, a conservative Republican, on Northstar was typical of his ability to cross ideological lines when it came to getting things done.
He counts former U.S. Sens. Dave Durenberger and Norm Coleman, both Republicans, among his political friends and can mention them in the same sentence as former Vice President Walter Mondale, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton, all Democrats, when discussing political allies.
"I like him, even if I don't always agree with him, because Dan's always been a force," said Felix Schmiesing, a veteran Sherburne County commissioner. "When Dan thinks he's moving in the direction he feels is right, he just keeps going.
"He's not always easy to work with because he's so focused. He's a little bit like a train. He's always on track and he just keeps moving forward. You have to admire him."
Battles with conservatives
Not everyone has. Conservative blogs have been after Erhart for eight years, he said days after losing the Nov. 6 election.
Erhart also was miffed when a televised report said he hadn't disclosed a partnership in a South Dakota land deal and raised questions of a possible conflict of interest. But Erhart had made no secret of the partnership to board colleagues numerous times over the past decade or more, said former Anoka County Board Chairman Dennis Berg. Lawyers interviewed by the Star Tribune said Erhart had broken no laws and was not obligated to disclose owning land in another state.
Erhart brought the matter to the Washington County attorney, who, after investigating, said he had done nothing wrong. The TV station reported that news as well.
In Erhart's eyes, the damage had been done. Schulte ran an online version of the story on his web page, then added the TV station's follow-up and eventually took the article off the page. As of late last week, it was still on one of Look's web pages.
"It cost me," said Erhart, who acknowledged early in his campaign that Schulte was a worthy opponent. "People running against my campaign were less than honorable -- and I'm not talking about my opponent.
"I worry that Anoka County is going backwards and has become a laughingstock because of the direction the county has taken."
He worries about Northstar's fate, too. Erhart says Northstar will never achieve ridership potential until the line reaches St. Cloud, and fears a lack of enthusiasm for Northstar among Anoka County board leaders.
Some projects fell through
The National Sports Center in Blaine was built while Erhart was becoming a force on the county board. But not all of his pet projects have worked out. He championed the county's partnership with the Minnesota Vikings to build a pro football stadium in Blaine, but the partners parted ways after legislators passed on the deal in 2006.
Erhart also was a key player in a possible passenger-train project from Minneapolis to Duluth, only to watch Anoka County pull out of the alliance pursuing the 150-mile line.
Yet he continued to push ahead -- just as he did less than a decade ago, when he was replaced as county board chair by political allies who wanted a less-demanding leader.
Erhart got his opportunity three decades ago when the county moved from five commissioners to seven. There was an open seat in his district. He had recently worked to get Jim Oberstar elected to Congress. People knew him. He became a commissioner in 1983.
"I liked working for the good of the people," he said. "I'd been in politics since 1967, but this gave me a chance to participate in the process personally, and for the good of the people."
Progressives will miss him. In a state where Democrats hold the governor's office and both U.S. Senate seats and this month regained majorities in the Legislature, Anoka is the one metro-area county that just became more politically conservative.
"I think the loss to the county will become more apparent as time goes on," said Steve Novak, a former county manager. "I can't think of another example of a local official who has done more over the past three decades than Dan Erhart.
"Dan did an enormous amount of work promoting Anoka County far and wide across the metro area and across the state. Dan played a substantial role in fighting fiscal disparity and developing projects that were right for the taxpayer. Dan could reach across party lines and get people to cooperate.
"That's politics at its best."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419