A clash over leadership of a major transit corridor in south Washington County emerged last week when a former state legislator challenged an incumbent commissioner for a County Board seat.
Karla Bigham, who served two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, announced her candidacy in the county's District 4. That seat is held by Autumn Lehrke, who said she intends to campaign for a second term on the five-person board.
Both candidates live in Cottage Grove and they're close in age — Bigham is 34, Lehrke is 32 — but their similarities end there. Bigham was critical of Lehrke's recent abstention from a key vote to build the first transit station on the Red Rock Corridor and said the vote compelled her to run.
"Absolutely. How is she supposed to represent us if she's not going to vote on this very important issue?" Bigham said.
Lehrke responded that she expected to vote on future Red Rock decisions. "Now we move forward," she said. "To say that I can't represent my district is totally false."
At issue was Lehrke's purchase of the Red Rock Saloon in Newport, near the new transit station. Autumn and Derrick Lehrke — he's a Cottage Grove City Council member — plan to renovate the blue-collar bar into a microbrewery once a property appraisal is completed. A block of houses and small businesses separates the bar from the transit site, but a larger tract of land that includes the bar is under study for potential new retail businesses and housing.
Autumn Lehrke abstained from the Nov. 5 vote to award a $970,000 contract for construction of the transit station, citing a potential conflict of interest, although on Oct. 22 she voted in favor of a $1.3 million contract for grading, utilities, paving, landscaping and irrigation on the five-acre site.
She said last week she intended to abstain from future votes only if a possible tax-increment finance district is considered that might affect her new business. She chairs the Red Rock Corridor Commission and, on Tuesday, was elected to chair the County Board in what has been a traditional rotation of members.
"For too long, our transportation priorities have gone unsolved or turned into a political football," Bigham said in her announcement last week. "The Red Rock Corridor is a major economic development opportunity for the region but has languished because of regional politics and a lack of leadership."
Bigham said Lehrke has not built ridership interest in a Red Rock transit line and said it's foolish for Lehrke to oppose the quarter-cent sales tax that funds transit at a time when Washington County stands to benefit from the revenue.
"It feels like we're isolating ourselves. That style of leadership will isolate us, and that's not what I'm about," Bigham said. "I'm about building coalitions and partnerships and delivering services."
Lehrke, however, said that "I'm doing exactly what the people asked me to do," and said she's saved taxpayers more than $500 million by promoting Rapid Bus Transit over rail as a proposed mode of transportation on the corridor. "You don't increase ridership by waiting 30 years for commuter rail," she said.
The quarter-cent sales tax, she said, "isn't an issue anymore" because she supports a County Board agenda requesting that the state take over transit funding. Lehrke said the Red Rock project is advancing because of her leadership.
"I've delivered more for transit in one term than my predecessor did in a decade," Lehrke said, speaking of Myra Peterson, the incumbent she defeated in 2010.
Bigham also took exception with Lehrke's recent statement that Newport, a city of about 3,500 residents, has no commerce to keep transit riders there. "I just think that's unfortunate," Bigham said.
A few weeks ago, Lehrke described herself and her husband as "young entrepreneurs" who will bring new business ideas to a blighted area. Other commercial properties adjacent to the Red Rock Saloon also are for sale, she said.
"South Washington County has numerous challenges that deserve public attention and require a passionate advocate," Bigham said in her campaign announcement. "Our roads, like 70th Street, have continued to receive temporary fixes and continued delays. We need someone who is going to deliver results for Washington County taxpayers."
District 4 covers the entire south end of the county, including Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Denmark Township and Grey Cloud Island Township. Bigham cited greater government transparency, economic development and transportation, including the development of Red Rock Corridor, as her campaign priorities.
In addition to her legislative experience, Bigham served on the Cottage Grove City Council. She is a lifelong resident of the area, a graduate of Park High School in Cottage Grove, and holds a bachelor's degree from Winona State University and a master of public affairs from the University of Minnesota. She works for Northern Tier Retail, LLC.
The County Board seat that Lehrke holds is one of two that will go to voters in November. The other, representing Oakdale and several smaller cities, is held by Ted Bearth, elected in 2012. More candidates could emerge before the June deadline for campaign filings.