It was election night, and Brad Tabke had been nervous for days. Clad in a baseball cap and “Breaking Bad” T-shirt, the outgoing mayor of Shakopee stood perched over his iPad, refreshing vote counts.
By 9:30 p.m., Council Member Kathi Mocol, who ran for mayor with Tabke’s endorsement, had lost in a landslide to former Mayor Bill Mars.
Tabke, 36, had never held elected office when he ousted four-term Mayor John Schmitt in 2011. During the two terms that followed, his progressive instincts and taste for change occasionally ruffled the traditionally conservative, blue-collar community southwest of Minneapolis. Some saw the 2015 election as a referendum on Tabke’s tenure — and Mars’ victory as a call for a return to the city’s past.
Looking back on his four years in office, Tabke recalls a “brutal” learning curve, but is proud of what he accomplished. His rivals say those accomplishments came at the cost of stifling dissent and dividing the community — tensions the new mayor says he plans to ease.
Residents proud of the transformation under Tabke have been left wondering if his legacy will continue.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads,” said resident Kristin Budija. “Are we going to continue to move forward, are we going to go backward, or are we going to stay where we are?”
Before moving to Shakopee in 2003, Tabke and his wife, Katy, lived in suburban Chicago and cherished days spent in nearby Crystal Lake, a walkable community full of shops and restaurants. “That’s been kind of the model I’ve had in my head,” Brad Tabke said.
Residents noticed as that vision unfolded in Shakopee. Restaurants have popped up, a new movie theater is on the way and a community center expansion is in the works.
“It’s finally like we’re becoming part of the metro,” Budija said.
Critics say Tabke merely built on the work of his predecessors. He doesn’t disagree that pieces were in place before he took office — but once there, he acted fast. Within his first few weeks as mayor, Tabke proposed throwing Shakopee into the pool of cities vying for the new Vikings stadium.
Though he was pretty sure it wouldn’t work, he said, he considers the bid a success. Developable land had long sat empty in Shakopee, and the stadium push put it on the map, Tabke said. In the time since, businesses — notably Shutterfly and Amazon — have flocked to the city.
Tabke also tried to engage residents in city affairs, posting on social media and hosting a “diversity summit” to connect with minority communities.
It wasn’t always that way, said Kevin Wetherille, a Shakopee native and Tabke’s campaign manager. “Unless you went to City Council meetings regularly or were related to someone on the City Council, you didn’t really know what was going on,” he said.
Change wasn’t easy. An early push for a new arts and culture center fell apart. Adding “Shakopee Welcomes You!” banners to the city’s downtown took more than a year, Tabke said. “I expect government to work like a business,” he said, “and it took me a long time to realize that that’s just not the way it is.”
When change did come, it brought tough decisions. Last year, faced with growth and a city administrator they felt was no longer up to the task, Tabke and Mocol quietly asked for the resignation of Mark McNeill, who had held the position for 18 years.
For the many locals who knew McNeill, it was personal. Residents packed the council meeting where the decision came to a head, at times overcome with emotion as they defended McNeill. Mike Beard, a Scott County commissioner who spoke at the meeting, said in an interview that asking for McNeill’s resignation was “arrogant” and “highhanded.”
Later, Tabke said he wished he had communicated better about his reasons for the decision. Ousting McNeill split the council 3-2, a division that has remained.
In his campaign, Mars promised to foster cooperation, a message that resonated with leaders who remember when most council votes were unanimous.
“I’m really looking forward to building a level of trust among the individual council members, our staff members and our citizens,” said longtime Council Member Matt Lehman, a frequent dissenting voice and the biggest vote-getter in this month’s election.
But council divisions don’t bother Tabke much. Three votes are sufficient to move forward with anything, including a long-awaited community center upgrade.
It’s the last major push Tabke wants to make before his term ends Dec. 31.
After that, he plans to coach basketball and spend time with Katy and their two young daughters. He’s not sure whether he will run for office again.
“I’ll definitely miss it,” he said. “Katy is planning what we’re going to be doing in January, because she’s nervous for me.”