Two big players leaving Ramsey County stage

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2012 - 9:45 PM

Commissioners Tony Bennett and Jan Parker both were elected to the board in 1996, and both have made an impact.

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Ramsey County Commissioners Tony Bennett and Jan Parker will step down at the end of the year.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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In Ramsey County, it's still remembered as the great housecleaning of 1996: four incumbent commissioners swept out of office by challengers, the biggest turnover on the seven-member board in 25 years.

One of the new commissioners, Tony Bennett, was a veteran of political wars, a former legislator and U.S. marshal, with a résumé line -- Republican -- unusual for the board.

Another one, Jan Parker, was a political independent with a deep background in public administration who had eked out a victory in her first race.

Now Bennett, 72, and Parker, 61, who both represent northern suburbs, are leaving a board that grappled with a steep decline in state aid, secured a AAA bond rating, built a new law enforcement campus, renovated Union Depot in St. Paul and persuaded the Minnesota Vikings to consider a new stadium in Arden Hills.

"I just love what the county does," Parker told a packed room last week at the Roseville library, where a reception was held for her and Bennett.

"Someone asked me if I was going on to higher office, and I said, 'There is no higher office.'"

The Vikings stadium drive, spearheaded by Bennett and County Board Chairman Rafael Ortega, was a factor in Bennett's narrow primary election defeat in August. Parker didn't seek re-election, deciding to spend more time with her husband and new granddaughter.

The board's political makeup won't change much when their successors, Blake Huffman and Mary Jo McGuire, are sworn in Jan. 8. Huffman, a Wells Fargo vice president and Shoreview City Council member, is a Republican like Bennett. McGuire, a former state senator from Roseville, adds another DFL voice to a board that already claims five DFLers.

What will be missing, however, is Bennett's hard-charging passion for the big project and Parker's quiet tenacity on programs to keep people fed and healthy and housed.

Not to mention her pranks and his legendary (bad) driving exploits.

"You had a vision," wrote Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., about one such Bennett driving tour, in a letter read at last week's reception. "But the only problem was, your eyes weren't on the road."

Bennett pointed to his longtime county aide Joe Murphy and growled, "He's ridden with me a lot, and he's still here."

Bennett, a native of St. Paul's East Side, has spent 28 years in elective office.

The son of an Italian immigrant, he went to college for a couple of years before joining the St. Paul police in 1964. After losing a race for the state House in 1968, he ran again in 1970 and won. He served four years before losing in 1974.

Eight years later he returned to the Legislature, this time as a Shoreview resident. A Republican moderate known for working both sides of the aisle, he was instrumental in passing such measures as right-turn-on-red, the lottery and mandatory seat belt use.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him U.S. marshal for Minnesota. When he was replaced with a Democratic appointee four years later, he lost a race for Ramsey County sheriff to Bob Fletcher and then narrowly defeated incumbent Dick Wedell to join the Ramsey County Board.

By 1996, Parker had long experience in government but was still a political novice. After coming to the Twin Cities from Little Falls to go to the University of Minnesota, she directed seniors programs for Roseville and Ramsey County. Then she was tagged as Ramsey County Commissioner Don Salverda's aide.

"I was always looking for young comers, emerging leaders, and Jan filled in very well," Salverda said last week.

Parker went on to become Falcon Heights' city administrator in the late 1980s and deputy commissioner for the state Employee Resources Department. A respite as a consultant and teacher was interrupted when Salverda asked her to challenge Ramsey County Commissioner Brenda Thomas, who had defeated him four years before.

Nonpartisan approach

"I had really resolved not to get back into government, but he showed me you can be elected and not be partisan," Parker said. She won by 147 votes.

She's proud of her Active Living Ramsey Communities initiative, which promotes lanes and sidewalks for walking and biking along county roads. She helped renovate the county's Roseville library and build the New Brighton branch and advocated the controversial notion of merging Ramsey and Washington counties to save on duplication and cut costs.

Now she's planning to work again as a consultant and co-president of the North Suburban Senior Council in Roseville, a volunteer post.

Parker is "not only effective, but cost-effective as well," said fellow Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. "She's compassionate, a fiscal watchdog and a very thoughtful person."

Parker supported Bennett and Ortega's campaign to bring the Vikings to Arden Hills, calling it "a unique opportunity" to use a complicated site. The Vikings agreed in May 2011 to build a stadium with the county on the former munitions plant site, but the plan faded as state officials set their sights on downtown inneapolis.

Bennett calls that his biggest disappointment on the board, along with the failure to route the Central Corridor light-rail line around the periphery of downtown St. Paul rather than through it.

Although Bennett lost votes in the primary because of the Vikings project, Ortega said he was a victim of low turnout and ballot-splitting in a race that featured three Republicans and only one DFLer.

Both Parker and Bennett say they've run their last races, but don't rule out other public roles in the future. In the meantime, both plan long vacations with their spouses.

"My wife has this philosophy -- there's always something better around the corner," Bennett said. "I'll see what's around the corner."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035

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