It’s party time this December as going-away celebrations fill the agendas of local government officials.
That’s because a significant number of officials were ousted in the November election — and many say they were inundated by a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that spilled over from the presidential election.
“There was a different attitude throughout the county of anti-something — anti-taxes, anti-incumbent, whatever,” said Barbara Marschall, a Scott County commissioner for two decades who lost her seat. “It extended all the way from city hall to the White House.”
A Star Tribune analysis of metro-area counties showed locally elected positions — including City Council and township board members, mayors and county commissioners — saw significant turnover in November, echoing the unexpected election of Donald Trump and the ushering in of many new state legislators.
More than 40 local officials were defeated, some longtime public servants who lost to candidates with little political experience.
“The good we accomplished was overlooked because people became tired of the status quo,” said Thomas O’Connor, who lost his re-election bid as mayor of Victoria.
When an incumbent is unseated locally, one of two factors is usually at play, said Craig Waldron, who directs Hamline University’s public administration programs.
Sometimes one local issue, like construction of a new city hall or approval of a controversial street project, unites an opposing group and its members fight to remove the leaders responsible for that decision, Waldron said.
Other times — like this year — a nationwide sentiment spills over to local races, Waldron said.
“National politics become localized and it’s just a perspective where, ‘These people have been in there too long,’ ” Waldron said. “There may not have been an issue, people may not have done anything wrong, it’s just time to change over.”
Waldron said he hasn’t seen such a strong call for political change in Minnesota since Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1999, when it trickled down the ballot and affected local races.
‘Blow them all out’
The leadership changes are most pronounced in suburban and exurban communities throughout Dakota and Hennepin counties. In Hennepin County, 10 incumbents ran but were unseated by newcomers, while nine incumbents were rejected in Dakota County.
In Carver County, comparatively smaller with 100,000 people, six incumbents lost their re-election bids. Scott County voters ousted seven incumbents, including two county commissioners who were each in office nearly 20 years.
Every incumbent running in Mendota Heights, including the mayor and two council members, was replaced.
Many losing incumbents agreed that they were affected by the national election and witnessed the rancor that was prominent in the Clinton and Trump campaigns.
“There definitely was this sentiment of ‘blow them all out,’ ” said Rick Keeney, who lost his Prior Lake City Council seat after eight years. “It was definitely promoted by the challenging candidates as well.”
Keeney said citizens doubting governmental transparency at the national level applied the same suspicions to local politicians.
“The reality is there is as much transparency as people would like to consume,” Keeney said.
Kevin Burkart, who won Keeney’s seat, said Keeney was voted out because people didn’t believe they were being heard at City Hall.
Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson, who lost after 16 years as mayor, said he can’t remember any close elections previously. He claims credit for helping the city change from “Crumbling Heights” to a place that attracts families.
This year Peterson witnessed negative campaigning for the first time, he said, adding that it was “heartbreaking” when opponents insinuated that a community activity fund that he helped start had been corrupted. “This political season has been pretty nasty,” he said.
In West St. Paul, Mayor Dave Meisinger also said negativity permeated this year’s election, especially on social media, but doesn’t think it led to his defeat. Meisinger said he was surprised to lose his seat to City Council Member Jenny Halverson, because his campaign two years ago was similar to the one he ran this year.
He figures some West St. Paul residents may have voted for Halverson because they were “on the Hillary bandwagon” and Halverson is a woman.
Halverson countered that she faced an “uphill battle” as the only woman on the ballot and said residents picked her because of her leadership style.
New day for government
Several incumbents said that despite their loss, they wished their successor the best.
Meisinger said he called Halverson the day after the election and congratulated her. City Council votes in West St. Paul are often split, so Halverson is going to have to compromise, Meisinger said.
Sandra Krebsbach, a Mendota Heights City Council member for 16 years and mayor for eight, said the city will be fine without her.
“It is what it is,” Krebsbach said of her defeat. “I’m also going to do what I can to make sure Neil [Garlock] is successful as the mayor.”
O’Connor, Victoria’s outgoing mayor, said that he doesn’t think his opponent, Tom Funk, understands how much work it is to be mayor.
“I was really disappointed for about 10 minutes [after I lost],” O’Connor said. “Then I said, ‘You know, you’ve got your life back.’ ”
Staff writer MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.