The election for mayor in Jordan this fall is a referendum on a tumultuous few years.
On the bright crisp Saturday morning of the annual town parade, Jordan feels idyllic. Blocks upon blocks of beauty queens, flashing trombones, kids racing to pick up candy hurled from antique cars and floats.
Mayor Pete Ewals strides down the center of the street, smiling and waving, surrounded by supporters wearing cheerful T-shirts reading "Re-Pete." Behind him comes challenger Mike Shaw, tossing handfuls of candy, and then challenger Dan Elke, who crisscrosses the street with hearty greetings for all.
There's hardly a hint of how much turmoil the town has seen. Or the sense in which the choice of mayor represents a verdict on the spectacle that politics has become in Jordan.
It takes a peek at a local website -- an open letter, for instance, from a former council member -- to get a feel for how bad it has become:
"... in the past six years I have been witness to in-fighting, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness beyond my capability to fathom. While it doesn't describe everyone involved, it does reach to absolutely every level of staff and council. I've watched as our city leaders all but spit on our commission members and business owners on more occasions than I have fingers."
Ewals was elected four years ago on a wave of civic controversy over one particular road-building project that seemed to epitomize the damage that rapid growth was doing to the fabric of the quaint old historic center of town.
"He flew in on the heels of change, when everyone in the world wanted a change," said Elke, a lifelong resident. "But they didn't know who they were voting for. That will come out in the next election."
Ewals sees things differently.
"We've grown enough that you have new blood in town kind of looking in from outside saying, 'We want things a little different,'" he said. "I was elected to do something -- to change things up a little bit."
If lifelong residents such as Elke, and card-carrying members of the establishment such as Shaw, are unhappy, Ewals says, it's because "I didn't play ball the way I was supposed to. I spent four years playing my own game. And they don't like it."
The low point?
For Elke, the low point in Ewals' term was the moment when the mayor could be found out on the streets playing vigilante at 1 a.m., so much so that a business owner obtained a restraining order against him.
The issue was a controversial crematorium that Ewals says shouldn't have been operating per court order but was anyway.
"If he thought something was being done against the law, he should have handled it through the police chief, not walked down there with a group at 1 in the morning and caused a scene on top of it. That really doesn't bode well. That has hurt him probably too much for him to recover."
Ewals says a group called him to come down and observe what was going on. He and they remained after police left. He never caused a scene, he said, but simply approached the owner to ask what was going on, and was later falsely accused of going over the top in his response. The matter was settled without any admission of fault on his part, but he agreed to stay away from the business.
If Elke positions himself as a man deeply rooted in Jordan's past, with ties to its revived historical society, Shaw, a retired teacher, is selling himself as the man with experience -- 27 years on the council in two separate stints.
Both men are criticizing the tone of Ewals' mayorality more than his position on any of the many points that have divided council and town.
"I don't disagree with Pete on all the issues," Shaw said. "But the big difference is, I want to listen to everyone. You can't cut them out and say, 'Hey, we're making the decision.' They have to be at the table."
It's an ironic line of attack, considering that it was a prime Ewals complaint as an outside challenger years ago: that the council didn't listen.
Ewals maintains, however, that he is the listener and Shaw is among those wanting to shut people out.
One point of contention is the fight over public comment time at council meetings.
"That's been a real hot issue. We went through the first couple of years with two public comment periods, where people were allowed to come up front and say, 'You're ruining this town,' and take potshots, and the mayor would say, 'Thank you for coming and contributing.' It got frustrating. You don't even need a public forum or comment period unless there's a public hearing [on a specific issue]. We were giving them two. It was bad."
"He got bent out of shape that I didn't gavel the person quiet. A person has the right to speak. He takes any negative view of what he does as a personal attack. But that's part of the job. As long as they aren't being threatening, or profane, it's OK. Plenty of people come to comment time and chew me out."
The point of two comment periods rather than one, he added, was to not make people return two weeks later to comment on something that happened during the meeting but by then was old news.
Another big point of contention is the town's sagging historic downtown. It's enormous for a town Jordan's size.
Ewals is passionate about that center as the basis for a Stillwater-like future, while the others are more skeptical or stress more the importance of newer, highway's-edge businesses.
"If there's an investor, fix it up, I'm all for it," Elke said, "but some of it is so far dilapidated that if it needs to go away, it wouldn't bother me either.
"I'm sure if [the town's ancestors] saw the condition it's in, they would knock it down. Revitalizing downtown is a plus and something I value struggling for, but it's been dwindling since the '80s."
Ewals says the reluctance of other civic leaders to take a stronger hand in reshaping and assisting downtown -- by getting rid of non-historic buildings that are eyesores to create more parking, for example -- lies behind many of the problems.
"We have a Main Street building that's falling apart and I hear comments that we need someone to tear it down for us and give us the property. It doesn't work that way. Cities need to do things the private sector will not take on. No parking has been created in 30 years."
He takes a lot of credit for Jordan getting a new library started on his watch after ages of conflict and no action, even though it won't be downtown -- a disappointment to some of his own allies.
Elke does concede that the complaints heard today are a lot like the complaints he's heard in Jordan throughout his life: "'No one's listening, we're going nowhere, we need more businesses,' it's 47 years now of much the same thing."
The two challengers have little to say about each another, although Shaw does describe Elke, not totally flatteringly, as a guy "who spends a lot of time on the Internet, blogging on there all the time."
Not totally fair, Elke said.
"I'm not an overactive blogger," he said, nor is he unremittingly negative. A website he maintains has lots of pretty images of the town. "I like to see the happy stuff, I do like the good spin. There's always two sides to every story."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285