Choosing new leadership that matches leftward swings in the Minnesota Legislature and in Washington, D.C., the Hennepin County Board on Tuesday elected DFLer Mike Opat as its chair.

Opat replaces Randy Johnson, a Republican who had been the board's leader since 2004.

While the board is supposedly nonpartisan, politics do play a part in selection of the chair. When Johnson succeeded Opat as board chair in 2004, some commissioners said Johnson was better equipped to deal with a Republican governor and Legislature.

On Tuesday, the tables turned.

"Randy's been chair for four years, so why not?" said Commissioner Mark Stenglein, the board's new vice chair. "Opat is certainly qualified, and he's a Democrat ... We're faced now with a Democratic legislature, and D.C. is more Democratic, so politically it made sense."

Even Johnson voted for Opat, making the selection unanimous. Afterwards, Johnson said he was willing to be chair again, "but I did not seek it."

Opat, 47, has been on the board since 1993. The board elects a chair each year, and Opat led the board from 2001 through 2003. He probably has been best known for being a strong advocate for a new Twins ballpark and for work on management of Hennepin County Medical Center.

Opat said his chairmanship fits with a board history of switching leaders every three to four years. He said he sought the job because he felt the board "needed to be more energetic -- and that's no criticism of Commissioner Johnson's style. We need to try to change things, try new approaches, maybe look at things with new sets of eyes."

Budgeting will be a prime concern this year. Labor negotiations are coming up. And at the end of December, the state held back $10.6 million in funding that the county had been counting on as part of its 2008 budget. Commissioners need to figure out how to handle that loss and are braced for more cutbacks as the state struggles to handle an expected deficit of more than $5 billion.

Opat said the county should look at collaborating more with cities and school districts and focus on core duties only. "I sense a real openness to taking a good hard look at what we do and perhaps do it in a dramatically different way," he said.

Expansion of light rail lines and programs like those focused on curbing teen pregnancy are among his priorities. More than 1,200 teen births occur in the county annually, Opat said, and many of those parents and their babies end up needing county social services.

Johnson predicted that there probably will be sharper divisions on the board once commissioners begin the work of cost-cutting and negotiating with unions. While the dysfunction of the past appears to be long gone -- Johnson can recall commissioners throwing objects at each other and refusing to have their picture taken together -- he said he thinks "differences will emerge soon."

On Tuesday, the thorniest problem was whether newly sworn commissioners Jan Callison and Jeff Johnson would join in a long-standing joke and don bright beanies with propellers on them for cameras. They did, briefly. The other dilemma was having too many Johnsons in the room and figuring out how to address them without confusion.

Having two Johnsons on the board is a first in county history, Randy Johnson said. In addition, the county administrator is Richard Johnson.

"We could use nicknames?" Opat said. "Better not go there."

"Those beanies might help," Callison said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380