The warning from the political right, after all the turbulence over transportation earlier this year in Minnesota, was clear: Legislators and county board members who voted to increase the gas tax and the sales tax for transit projects will face the wrath of voters this fall.
In Dakota County, however, the only board member forced to fight off a cluster of challengers in this month's primary is a guy who ... voted against the quarter-cent sales tax for transit.
And at least one of those challenging Joe Harris is emphasizing his support for transit.
"No one likes taxes," said Doug Riles, of Hastings, who retires in December from the U.S. Postal Service. "But a quarter cent, unless it's a major purchase, is not that big a deal. The main issue I hear is, 'Are we going to get this rail? We're paying a quarter cent: What are we getting?' It seems to me the tracks are there."
For nearly 30 years, Harris has represented a district that today runs all across the rural southern townships of the county but also includes the county seat of Hastings, which aspires to be a prime beneficiary of commuter rail, in the form of the proposed Red Rock line.
"I have always been a strong supporter of transit," Harris said. "I've been vice president of the Red Rock corridor since the beginning. I supported Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit, and 35W Bus Rapid Transit. I would have supported the quarter-cent sales tax but for the fact that instead of giving half the proceeds to roads and half to transit, they cut out roads.
"My district lives by roads. Southern Dakota County is not going to see transit for the most part. It will benefit from it, but it won't see it. I still have over 50 miles of gravel roads in my district -- and those are county roads, not township roads. I was hoping for money to improve road conditions, and that's where they lost my vote."
He was one of two commissioners to oppose the tax. But because three others favored it, Dakota became one of five -- of the seven -- metro counties to impose it.
As for the Red Rock, he said, the tracks are certainly there but new federal rules make it much harder to qualify for money. "We need to build [the potential for future] ridership, hopefully with express buses. I hope that Northstar," the first commuter rail line to be built, on the St. Cloud/Minneapolis corridor, "will be a major success, as light rail has been. That will bode well for us."
Not all of the candidates are questioning Harris on transit. Craig Altendorfer, a correctional deputy for the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, agrees with the vote against the quarter cent. "Transit needs to support itself, rather than having a subsidy," he said.
For Altendorfer, of Farmington, the main concern about the incumbent is his years of service. "It's time for someone new. I don't think it was ever meant to be a career position."
Here we go again, Harris sighs.
Said Harris, "I've heard the 'time for change' theme for, what, five elections now? We continue to produce in Dakota County the lowest taxes of all 87 counties. We're very fiscally conservative, and yet we continually win local, state and national awards for the programs we offer the citizens. When people tell me it's 'time for change' I just kind of go, 'Whatever.' "
The fourth candidate in the race, Dean Birnstengel, of Hastings, could not be reached for comment.
"I don't have an answer," Harris said, as to why he alone is attracting all the opponents, none of whom appears to have any history of elective office. It's his fourth primary, so this isn't a first, but he normally wins the general election by a wide margin. "Far as I'm concerned, they've come right out of the blue."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023