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Tony Bennett, Ramsey County commissioner, at the 430-acre site of the Twin Cities Army ammunition plant in Arden Hills.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Blake Huffman

Blake Huffman

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Frank Mabley

Frank Mabley

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Ramsey County Board to get new look

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • August 16, 2012 - 11:22 PM

Either a rocket scientist turned lawyer or a Wells Fargo vice president with a passion for nonprofit home development will take over the Ramsey County Board seat held by Republican Tony Bennett since 1997.

Given their backgrounds, Frank Mabley or Blake Huffman will bring a substantially different dimension to the board from that of Bennett, a longtime politician with a law enforcement background. Bennett, 72, is a police officer and U.S. marshal who also served in the Legislature and has been active in the GOP since the mid-1960s.

Bennett finished third Tuesday in a four-person primary from which only the top two candidates advanced to November's general election. The nonpartisan race initially was billed as an electoral grudge match between two cagey veterans: Bennett and former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher. But the two newcomers, who both live in Shoreview, beat the veterans to finish one-two, and one will replace Bennett at year's end.

Both Mabley, a DFLer, and Huffman, a Republican, pointedly didn't criticize Bennett's work. Although Huffman is more conservative and Mabley more liberal than the current commissioner, both would proceed with reserve.

They campaigned on a similar theme: opposition to Bennett's front-and-center push for a new Vikings stadium at the 430-acre former Arden Hills munitions plant. The team stayed in Minneapolis. Mabley and Huffman say they aren't trying to jolt the board to a new direction but would bring fresh viewpoints.

"Having different approaches to problem solving when you only have seven people sitting around trying to solve problems is a good thing," Mabley said.

Said Huffman, "The county does a lot of great work," and added that he didn't want to "burn the place down."

Mabley is a lawyer and physicist who worked for NASA in Houston during the heyday of lunar missions, arriving at the federal agency after the fire on Apollo 2 and leaving before the launch of Apollo 14. "I tell people they didn't get to the moon until I got there and they only went a couple of times after I left," he said.

Mabley, 67, practices family law in Roseville. His brother, Hennepin County District Judge Dan Mabley, recently presided at the criminal trial of Amy Senser in Minneapolis.

As a rookie, Mabley said he would expect to ask questions and occasionally find better ways to run the county. As for the Arden Hills site, he credits Bennett for beaming a spotlight on the need for redevelopment there, but Mabley believes a multi-use development would be best.

Huffman, a 47-year-old Shoreview City Council member, opposed the stadium more aggressively. He started an online petition drive last year to oppose a countywide sales-tax increase for the project.

Early on the morning after the primary, Huffman caught a flight to San Francisco for his job as vice president of strategy at Wells Fargo. He also runs -- and described as his "heart and passion" -- the nonprofit Shoreview Area Housing Initiative, which buys and renovates houses to rent to low-income single mothers.

Huffman would like to make Ramsey County more business-friendly -- an approach that he said has disappeared. For example, he cited the county's intention to build its own fiber optic network in competition with Comcast and CenturyLink as "two businesses that employ thousands and thousands of employees that we're going to compete against. Now who in the county says that sounds business-friendly?"

Overall, he said the county's priorities aren't "terribly askew," but "every dollar we don't spend chasing the Vikings, we don't have to raise property taxes."

In his view, the county should focus on health and human services, infrastructure and public safety.

As for Bennett, he has until December to try to move along development of the munitions site. "I have to work a little faster and a little harder," he said. "But you never know unless you try."

Once he's out of office, he expects to spend more time with his family at their cabin.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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