Shakopee is at a crossroads.
Brad Tabke, the charismatic young mayor with a Twitter account and a knack for bringing high-profile businesses to town, isn’t seeking re-election. With Election Day a little more than two weeks away, it’s open season on the spot he’s held for four years.
Of the four mayoral candidates, one has already served as mayor, one is a Shakopee High School grad and Marine Corps veteran with little electoral experience, and two are current council members on opposite ends of the city’s political spectrum.
Local leaders and residents expect that whoever voters choose will signal a desire for more of the Tabke progressivism that’s ruled in recent years, or a sharp shift to the conservatism of Shakopee’s past.
“The new election, to me, is really a referendum of what’s been happening here in town,” said local business owner Billy Wermerskirchen.
When Tabke was elected in 2011, the then-32-year-old ousted a veteran mayor pursuing a fifth term. In the years since, Tabke has steered the city on the metro fringe toward significant growth, courting national companies such as Shutterfly and, more recently, Amazon. It’s put Shakopee on the map, but it’s also divided the community.
Foremost on many locals’ minds is a newly approved $32 million community center. While there’s widespread support for the project, some have expressed frustration that it moved forward without a resident vote.
“The biggest debates out there right now are which candidates are going to support the community center and which ones aren’t,” said Ed Schwaesdall, co-owner of Pablo’s Mexican Restaurant in downtown Shakopee.
Two council members, including mayoral candidate Mike Luce, abstained from approving the community center after complaints about the lack of a referendum.
“There seems to be a lot of civic discord on our council,” said candidate Bill Mars, who served as mayor from 2002-03. It’s something he thinks he can fix, he said, and one of the main reasons he’s running.
Candidate Dan Hennen, the military veteran, said if elected, he’d like to wait six months or a year to examine the community center plans and get more public input. “Now that’s a true community center,” he said.
At 33, Hennen is the youngest of the four candidates and hopes to get more young voters involved in the community. He’s the least experienced politically, having never run for elected office.
In Tabke’s eyes, only one candidate, Council Member Kathi Mocol, is truly qualified.
Mocol’s platform focuses on what she calls “smart urban planning” — taking a step back from the growth of the past few years and figuring out what to do next. “I don’t think that we’ll ever want to go back to the explosive growth we’ve had in the last four years,” she said.
Mars, though critical of the city’s current trajectory, wants even more growth in both housing and business. “It’s not new vs. old. It’s about the continuation of Shakopee,” he said. “We’ve always moved forward.”
Mocol describes herself as more conservative than Tabke, although he endorsed her early in the race and has called her “the perfect person to follow me.”
The political link between Mocol and Tabke has created some animosity in the race. Luce, a vocal Tabke critic, said he’s running solely to defeat Mocol. “My main reason for running is to try and keep the woman that’s running from winning,” he said. “I’m positive I can do a better job than she can.”
Luce has brought up Mocol’s personal finances, including a dispute with her business’ landlord and a foreclosure on her house. Mocol said the landlord dispute arose from a fee increase, and the foreclosure was the result of an administrative error that’s being resolved.
Luce, too, has had some legal troubles, including a 2002 conviction on a public nuisance charge after he drowned squirrels in his yard, he said.
Tabke said he believes Mocol can win, but he also knows the trajectory he’s set could be erased if she doesn’t.
“It’s a conversation that Shakopee needs to have,” he said.