Dick Lang once offered to forfeit his salary as an Anoka County commissioner. More often, he offered his two cents.
An ex-Marine who likes to talk to flowers, Lang was the board's voice of reason. He could distill a tense debate between fellow commissioners with a quip or the observation of a man who truly seemed to know everybody in his district.
"I ruined my reputation long ago when people found out that I like to plant flowers," said the former St. Cloud State lineman and football captain. "I've always said what was on my mind, and I'm not going to stop now that I'm no longer on the board."
A five-term commissioner who was first elected to the board in 1980 and served the county on and off for three decades, Lang was the tailor's son who felt more comfortable making the rounds with the breakfast crowd at the Red Ox Cafe in Ham Lake than with politicians in Anoka or St. Paul. Lang, 70, decided not to run for reelection last year, but he's vowed to stay involved in county affairs.
"My name was Number 4," he said, explaining that he was often the swing vote on the seven-member county board.
"But now I can still take on meaningful tasks," he said. "I plan to drive veterans who need rides to the VA. I want to work with the food shelf. I want to work with the average people."
In Lang's world, there are no "average" people.
"We don't give the average worker in the county enough credit," he said. "They're the ones who make or break us. They clean the parks, sweep the courthouse floors, operate the snow plows and guard the prisons. Those are the people I'll miss.
"I never did associate with the big shots that much. You find out exactly what the hell is going on when you build a rapport with regular people. I hope our new board remembers that."
That board includes new commissioners Carol LeDoux, Matt Look and Andy Westerberg. Lang says he has great confidence in the new board, in spite of the obstacles it faces.
"Aw, 80 percent of the decisions we think we make are mandated by the state and federal government," Lang said. "We don't have that much leeway.
"I think the change will be good. When I came on the board, there were lots of changes happening in 1980 and things seemed bleak. But things work out."
For anyone leery of change, Lang says, "Us old guys are so caught up in thinking about yesterday that we forget about today."
"It's been a good ride," he said of his tenure on the board. "You know, four of the commissioners I've worked with over the years have passed away. That's how you know you've been doing this for a long time and maybe it's time to let someone else have a go at it."
Lang said he didn't expect anyone else to offer to work for $1 a day, as he said he would -- before deciding not to run again. Lang thinks the county would be better served by a board that exercises patience before making budget cuts.
"They talk about cutting the parks," he said. "The parks budget is already small. When times are bad, the parks are used by more people who don't have the money to go elsewhere.
"And I hope they think twice before cutting human services. Social services are already overwhelmed. The work staffs are small, and people are working harder than ever and coming through. Please, don't make it harder for them."
Lang said he won't second-guess any board decisions. He talked about the retirement of fellow Commissioner Dennis Berg and said, "We're two old soldiers, fading in the sunset, like General MacArthur once said.
"It's been a nice ride. I've got grandkids to visit and flowers to plant. I don't need to be on the County Board to find ways to ruin my reputation."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419