From minority of one to chairwoman of the board

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2012 - 11:18 AM

A Merchant Marine's daughter who rarely saw her father, the chairwoman of the Anoka County Board learned early in life the value of being a strong woman.

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Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah had a lonely start when she was elected to the Anoka County Board.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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It was frustrating enough for Rhonda Sivarajah to be outvoted 6-1 by her fellow Anoka County commissioners on key issues. But often, she made motions that nobody on the board would even second.

She was a relative newcomer to the board and to politics, by far the county's youngest commissioner and the board's most fiscally conservative member. But Sivarajah, admittedly "very nervous" in her early years as a commissioner, vowed "not to be a rubber stamp."

She has been anything but.

Sivarajah, 46, is now chairwoman of the county board. She has quietly become one of the most influential presences in the greater Twin Cities, and arguably the most powerful voice in her county.

Her crowning achievement thus far, at least to fellow fiscal conservatives, may have been overseeing Anoka County's 7.4 percent tax levy reduction in 2011 -- a rarity anywhere and the county's first decrease in at least three decades. While opponents criticized possible cuts in service, Sivarajah promised last September that "the drop in levy is not coming at the expense of our ability to serve the taxpayer."

She has broken with tradition by occasionally allowing county board meetings to be held on a rotating basis in city halls outside of Anoka. She helped orchestrate a system in which county employees could offer ideas. And, through her work with county agencies, she continues to advocate for battered women, troubled children and the homeless.

She also has her critics.

Commissioner Dan Erhart, a former County Board chairman, says there been "no transparency" and "no conversation" under Sivarajah's reign. Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who criticized Sivarajah for removing Erhart from Anoka County's rail authority management committee, said, "Her leadership is going to send Anoka County backward in time." And in an e-mail to all seven commissioners, former Veterans Services director Allison Lister described the county's leadership as "appalling." Lister is considering running for a seat on the County Board.

Sivarajah, a darling of the local conservative blogs, has admirers throughout the county and state. Commissioner Robyn West, a fellow conservative and friend, applauds Sivarajah's survival skills and unabashedly marvels at her courage, perseverance, patience and wisdom.

But Sivarajah also has learned to be tough.

Life without father

A Merchant Marine's daughter, she would go months as a child without seeing her father. Occasionally, Sivarajah spent a week on board ship with her dad. Or she saw him for a few hours in Duluth or Two Harbors.

"When I was younger, he used to be gone any time it wasn't winter," she recalled.

She was raised mostly by her mother, with a grandmother whom Sivarajah refers to as "the glue"; the lessons of strong women were not lost on a young girl who hoped to become a teacher or social worker, but never considered politics.

She was once, by her own admission, "shy, meek and mild." But sometimes "life takes a turn," she said.

It turned after the birth of Sivarajah's first child, Sonjay, who still wasn't speaking as a toddler. Doctors explained that boys develop slowly, but Sivarjah knew better. The wife of a now-retired police officer got tough. She became an advocate for Sonjay, who was found to be "profoundly deaf in both ears."

As chairwoman of the Minnesota Newborn Hearing Advisory Committee, Sivarajah would later become an advocate for all kids with hearing problems. (Her term as chairwoman ended last year.)

New to politics

But first, the Lino Lakes resident would become an advocate for others she feared weren't being heard loudly enough, in this case conservatives. The Anoka County Board could hardly be labeled conservative when Sivarajah was first elected to the board in 2002. That election was another of those life-turning moments.

"I knew nothing about campaigning," said Sivarajah, who spent 12 years working in human services. She ran because people kept telling her, "Someday you should run." And there was an open seat.

"I knew who was on the board," Sivarajah said.

Each of the other six commissioners had served for more than a decade when she arrived.

"When you're new and everyone else has been on the board for years, it can be very intimidating," she said.

Ideal position

But Margaret Langfeld, who would succeed Erhart as chair, told Sivarjah that for a mother with small children, a commissioner's job was an "ideal position." The meetings were at a fixed time. There was an order to this.

There also seemed to be a pecking order -- and Sivarajah often found herself alone politically. Then Langfeld retired and West was elected. Sivarajah had a "true friend and colleague and someone who could second things."

Fast forward to 2010. Marty Seifert, seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, chose Sivarajah to be his running mate. The campaign didn't get past the GOP endorsing convention, but Sivarajah's 15 minutes of statewide fame proved "the opportunity of a lifetime." She worked extensively, traveling throughout the state, cultivating political relationships and realizing new possibilities -- for the state and for Anoka County.

Sivarajah wants to attract business to the county. She also values the county's wetlands and rural areas. She embraces new technology. And she knows people are hurting financially. It's an interesting high-wire act for somebody fixated by purse strings.

Changing of the guard

The 2010 county elections brought sweeping changes to the board. Chairman Dennis Berg and five-term Commissioner Dick Lang retired. Conservatives Matt Look and Andy Westerberg were elected to their seats, tilting the board in a new political direction.

Sivarajah -- the commissioner whose motions just a few years before weren't seconded -- ended up running the show.

Her husband, Ran Sivarajah, said she was well prepared. He marvels at his wife's intelligence, eagerness and diligence.

"She'll be reading and researching things at 3 in the morning," he said of his wife, who, among other things, speaks Japanese. "She's always prepared."

As chairwoman, Sivarajah has the power to determine who runs the county's various committees. She had never been a fan of the Northstar commuter-rail line during the line's planning stages. But federal funds paid for half of the $317 million line's cost, with the stipulation that the line would run for decades. Now, Sivarajah says, "my job is to ensure that we build ridership in order to bring down subsidy."

She replaced Erhart as chairman of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority with Look. More than a year later, the move still raises eyebrows from skeptical commissioners in Hennepin, Sherburne and Stearns counties.

"I do think some of the institutional knowledge that someone like Dan Erhart has is missed for those of us who are left with Northstar," said Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing.

Summit meetings

With six County Board seats up for grabs this fall, Sivarajah's future as the county's leader is hardly a foregone conclusion.

She's among those who will be running. No known candidate in Sivarajah's district has come forward to date, but she says she is taking nothing for granted, vowing to knock on door after door.

Meanwhile, through lean and prosperous times, Sivarajah -- a mother of two teenagers -- has remained true to her Cambridge, Minn., roots.

She says she still meets with her mom and aunts on weekends for afternoon coffee and treats -- the Sunday Summit, she calls it. She met with them earlier this month.

It's where "we solve all the problems of the world," she said. "At least, that's what we set out to do."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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