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Candidates -- and one non candidate -- locked in key county races

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • August 15, 2012 - 8:55 AM

Tony Bennett is out, after 16 years on the Ramsey County Board. Linda Higgins isn't in yet on the Hennepin County Board, but the state senator from Minneapolis got a strong endorsement from voters Tuesday night as she seeks that new job.

Bennett was a key supporter of the failed proposal for a Minnesota Vikings stadium in Arden Hills, and it apparently cost him in one of the most highly contested primaries in the metro area.

In a four-way race that wasn't decided until the final precincts had been tallied, Shoreview City Council Member Blake C. Huffman and lawyer Frank T. Mabley of Vadnais Heights moved on to the November election, leaving Bennett a close third and former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher in fourth.

In Hennepin County, nine candidates were on the ballot vying for the board seat vacated by longtime Commissioner Mark Stenglein. Higgins, who was endorsed by the DFL Party, received more than twice as many votes as the second-place finisher, Blong Yang, a first-time candidate, an attorney and a Minneapolis Civil Rights Department investigator. Higgins and Yang move on to November's election.

Higgins, who took a congratulatory phone call from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and got a home visit from Rep. Keith Ellison, did not try to conceal her excitement. She dropped a chicken as she grabbed a phone call, then retreated to her back yard, momentarily escaping the jubilation that she said spread from well wishers throughout her house.

"I had friends telling me to expect it, but, honestly, I didn't know what to expect," she said. "The party endorsement brings support, resources and organization. You lean on people, they responded and now, I just want to hug everybody."

In the other Hennepin County primary, in the First District, board Chairman Mike Opat earned more votes than his two opponents combined. He will face Chris Rains, a Ron Paul conservative, in November.

"A nice total," Opat said of his victory margin.

"I don't really know anything about Rains," he went on. "But I enjoy challenges. I've got lots more to accomplish."

Ramsey County race

In Ramsey County, Bennett, said "it's not the end of the world" and partially blamed his loss on the low turnout.

"I'm not much for primaries," he said. "Most people didn't even realize there was an election on Aug. 14. 'No,' they'd tell me, 'It's in September.' No, it was changed. The anti-stadium people now had a chance to unite. Still, I walked down the street and people said, 'You don't have a worry in the world.' That tells me those people may have been out golfing instead of voting. They didn't know there was a primary."

Huffman called his advancement to the general election and victory over Bennett "a really humbling experience."

"I've grown up with Tony Bennett," he said. "To be the one to beat him in a primary ... I'm not a politician. It's just really exciting to know that I got my message out."

Mabley, the other candidate who will advance, said: "I'm grateful the voters turned out to support me. I know the turnout in primary elections, this one included, is always limited. I appreciate the fact that the voters gave me an opportunity for November."

He agreed that the stadium issue was a key.

In another Ramsey County race -- for the seat belonging to Commissioner Jan Parker, who decided not to seek re-election -- State Sen. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights and Sue Jeffers of New Brighton will advance.

In Anoka County, incumbents Andy Westerberg and Matt Look advanced in two races, each drawing the most votes. In the general election for the District 2 seat, Westerberg will face Ham Lake City Council Member Julie Braastad, who finished second, ahead of state Sen. Mike Jungbauer and former state Sen. Debbie Johnson.

Look's advancement to November was expected, but his opponent was not. Allison Lister outlasted former Ramsey Mayor Tom Gamec and Oak Grove Council Member Dan Denno to earn the second spot on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Lister, who spent more than two decades in the Air Force, resigned earlier this year as director of Anoka County's veterans services. She sent a parting e-mail to the County Board, chastising commissioners for a "complete lack of communication" and asking, "Where is the leadership in this county?"

"I knocked on doors and people listened to me," Lister said. "I think county employees, the veterans who have been so supportive and the county's citizens in general, are looking for an advocate, an alternative. They chose me. I'm astonished, and proud."

Braastad said the message she heard while knocking on doors was that "people want government to tighten their belts." Westerberg, also a fiscal conservative, said voters have told him they're "happy with what they're seeing."

Light turnout

In Hennepin County, an estimated 10 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls Tuesday, said Rachel Smith, the county's election manager.

Some voters went to the wrong voting place, unaware of changes through redistricting, said Cindy Reichert, Anoka County's elections manager.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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