Open Hennepin County Board seat draws 9 candidates

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2012 - 11:43 AM

Contenders of all stripes are battling in Tuesday's primary election for Hennepin County's Second District board slot.

There's something for nearly everyone in Tuesday's primary election for Hennepin County's Second District vacant county board seat, which will send the top two finishers into the fall election.

The field of five men and four women offers choices ranging from long government experience to no experience at all, small-i independents to staunch DFLers and RonPaulicans, veteran pols to novice candidates.

The list even includes a non-candidate: Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, who dropped out of the race for family reasons last month, but after the deadline to be taken off the ballot.

Four Hennepin County Board seats in all will be contested in November. Commissioner Jeff Johnson is running for his second term in the Seventh District, but he will get a bye this year because no one filed to run against him.

The Second District race is the only Hennepin County Board contest with an open seat, which was vacated in May when longtime Commissioner Mark Stenglein resigned from the board to become president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. Because the seat is vacant, the winner will take office right after the November election and serve two years before facing election for a regular four-year term in 2014.

The district, considered the county's most diverse, stretches from Plymouth through northeast Minneapolis to St. Anthony. Redistricting this year made it slightly more urban, as it lost portions of New Hope and Crystal but gained most of north Minneapolis. It's considered a DFL stronghold, even though Stenglein was an independent for most of his 15 years in office.

Besides the Second District race, only one other district contest -- the First -- drew more than two candidates and required a primary. In that race, Board Chair Mike Opat, a DFLer, is being challenged by Chris Rains, a Ron Paul conservative, and independent Joy Marsh Stephens. Both are first-time candidates.

Other County Board incumbents seeking re-election this year are Jan Callison and Randy Johnson. All county races are nonpartisan, meaning that party affiliations aren't listed on the ballot even though some candidates may get party endorsements.

Here's a closer look at the Second District candidates:

Leslie Davis of Minneapolis

Davis, 75, is a retired businessman and environmental activist who has run for several offices in the past 20 years, including governor three times. He has run as a Republican, a member of the Independence Party and head of his own Earth Protector Party.

Davis promises to lower taxes, increase county revenues by requiring industry to pay for the underground water they use, and expand green technology throughout the county.

Steve Dehler of St. Anthony

Dehler, 62, a correctional officer at the Hennepin County jail, is a former Republican legislator who is running as an independent. For 10 years he represented Stearns County in the Minnesota House, and also served several years as mayor and City Council member for St. Joseph.

At a recent Golden Valley debate, Dehler promised that he would bring "a common sense approach" to county government. He proposed a 30-year fiscal planning strategy for the county, and said that public safety should be the county's top priority.

Rolf Erickson of Plymouth

Erickson, 67, who does property tax assessment work for five Hennepin County cities (none in the Second District), is a first-time candidate. An election judge and former union member, he's running as a Ron Paul-style Republican.

Erickson said he wants to cut commissioner salaries by 10 percent, give public employees incentives for cost-saving ideas, reform property taxes and use zero-based budgeting.

Linda Higgins of Minneapolis

Higgins, 61, is the DFL-endorsed candidate and considered a leading contender. She has represented north Minneapolis in the state Senate since 1997 and had already decided not to run for re-election when Stenglein announced his resignation, prompting her to set her sights on the county board. Among her other endorsements, she is backed by Samuels and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

In the Golden Valley debate, Higgins touted her experience in government and called herself a "problem solver" and "bridge builder."

Tonia Johnson of Minneapolis

Johnson, 45, a self-described "independent Democrat," is making her first campaign. She is a small-business owner and member of the Minneapolis Charter Commission, and once worked as a policy aide to Stenglein.

Johnson's top priorities are efficient government, transportation investment and public safety. At the Golden Valley debate, she said she would cut salaries for county commissioners and administrators.

Kathleen Murdock of Plymouth

Murdock, 59, is a retired Hennepin County administrator and former Plymouth City Council member. In 2002, she captured 43 percent of the vote in a losing effort against Stenglein for the County Board.

Murdock wants to rein in property taxes and make government more cost-effective. At the Golden Valley debate, she said she was a fiscal conservative who has the background and experience necessary to be a serious and effective commissioner.

Paula Pentel of Golden Valley

Pentel, 55, is a Golden Valley City Council member who is running as an independent for the County Board. She is an instructor and adviser with the University of Minnesota's Urban Studies program.

Pentel wants to combine fiscal discipline with more cost-effective ways to deliver services. A native of north Minneapolis, she touts her blend of city roots and suburban experience. She said health and safety are her top priorities, and she wants to expand early childhood education programs.

Roger Smithrud of Minneapolis

Smithrud, 50, is a longtime Star Tribune worker and former Independence Party candidate who lost a bid for the county board against Stenglein in a primary election two years ago. He wants to improve quality of life in the county by promoting living wage jobs, public transportation, affordable health care and safe neighborhoods.

Blong Yang of Minneapolis

Yang, 36, an attorney who stepped down as a Minneapolis Civil Rights Department investigator to run for office, is making this his first race.

Yang, a DFLer, said at the Golden Valley debate that it was time to bring new leadership to the county and find more effective ways to get things done. His priorities are public safety, transportation and protecting essential services.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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