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An unusually large number of legislators and prominent Minnesota politicos are opting to run in county commissioner races across the state.

Departing legislators jump into county races

Gerlach, Higgins among retirees seeking county board post

Retiring DFL Sen. Linda Higgins of Minneapolis is vying for a spot as Hennepin County Commissioner in District 2. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

When five-term DFL Sen. Linda Higgins decided to retire from the Minnesota Legislature last winter, she had no idea she would be facing her most competitive race yet the following fall.

The longtime north Minneapolis senator is vying for a spot as Hennepin County Commissioner in District 2 after current Commissioner Mark Stenglein opted to take a job as president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. The district stretches far across DFL country, covering St. Anthony, northeast Minneapolis, north Minneapolis and some suburban areas west of Minneapolis.

Higgins, who had already announced her retirement, jumped into the race within days of Stenglein’s announcement and won the DFL endorsement. But by the time candidate filings closed in June, 10 hopefuls had filed to run for the job, including perennial candidate Leslie Davis and Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels.  All 10 candidates will head to a nonpartisan primary election in August, and the top two vote-getters will be headed to the November general election ballot.

“Well, I think I’m probably one of the better-known candidates in the race, but the district is so much larger than the [Senate] district that I represented,” Higgins said. “It’s part of six Senate districts. My challenge is getting known in all those other areas.”

Higgins’ high-profile race isn’t the only county job attracting a large volume of candidates. An unusually large number of legislators and prominent Minnesota politicos are opting to run in county commissioner races across the state. The uptick in legislators turning to county slots can be partially attributed to forced retirements due to redistricting, but some Republicans say that more broadly, conservatives are hoping to make inroads in generally DFL-held county government jobs.

Among the big-name contenders this year: Sen. Mary Jo McGuire will go against GOP activist and former gubernatorial candidate Sue Jeffers and one other candidate for Ramsey County Commissioner, GOP Sen. Mike Jungbauer will go against former Republican Sen. Debbie Johnson and others for a spot on the Anoka County board, and GOP Sen. Chris Gerlach says he’s looking to move away from the Capitol partisanship into a local government job in Dakota County.

Ramsey County Board District 2:  DFL Sen. Mary Jo McGuire didn’t want to retire. She had been forced to do so during her first tenure at the Legislature a decade ago: When the 2002 redistricting maps were released, the then-Falcon Heights DFL House member was paired with her good friend and colleague, Rep. Alice Hausman. McGuire opted to retire in that case. Then McGuire returned to the Legislature in 2011 after winning a special election to replace Sen. Ellen Anderson, who had been named chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission. But redistricting did her in once again in 2012, when McGuire found herself paired with another incumbent Democrat, Sen. John Marty, and lost her spring endorsement battle with the Roseville senator.

McGuire has since launched a campaign for an open seat on the Ramsey County Board. She is in a three-way race for the board’s District 2 seat, which is being left open by the retirement of longtime Commissioner Jan Parker. McGuire is joined in the field by New Brighton Councilwoman Mary Burg and conservative firebrand and radio host Sue Jeffers.

McGuire says she’s been happy to learn that many people in the district remember her from her tenure in the House and Senate. The number one issue she hears about at the doors: increasing property taxes.  “When I represented this area in the House, property tax was always a big issue, and it is now with the county board seat,” she said. “This is a function of the state and the federal government mandating a lot of services and not paying for them. And then the county has to pay for them by raising property taxes.”

Jeffers made her name in conservative politics by taking on first-term GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2006. She lost that race, but Jeffers started a conservative talk radio show a year later and has kept a high profile in GOP activist circles ever since.

“I tell people now, ‘You don’t start running for office by running for governor, you’ve got to start lower on the food chain.’ We hand over these local offices to the Democrats because we either don’t put a solid candidate in there, or we just say, ‘the Democrat is still in there so why do we want to run against them?’,” Jeffers said. “This time you are seeing a lot of conservatives, or people who tend to lean right, say, ‘Hey, I’m going to run for county commissioner, or I’m going to run for park board, because we want to have a bench.’”

Jeffers has stepped down from her radio job to campaign and is getting some help from her conservative friends. Failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and his radio co-host, Bob Davis, are hosting a fundraiser for her this month. McGuire, for her part, has been door-knocking and lit-dropping in the district alongside her former House and Senate colleagues, including DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin.  Burg considers herself somewhere between Jeffers and McGuire politically, even though Jeffers helped initially elect her to the city council nine years ago.

Ramsey County Board District 1: Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett is running against some very familiar faces this fall. Three challengers are stepping up for the Ramsey County Board District 1 slot, forcing a primary for the seat Bennett has held since 1997. One of the most prominent candidates, former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, ran against Bennett for county sheriff in 1994. Fletcher ultimately won the race and stayed in the job for 16 years before being ousted by Matt Bostrom in the last election cycle. Fletcher, of Vadnais Heights, now leads the property crimes unit in the St. Paul Police Department.

Shoreview attorney Frank Mabley is also seeking the post. Mabley and Bennett sought the same House seat in 1982. Bennett was the victor in that case, eventually serving two terms, while Mabley has long worked at his own law practice in Roseville. The third candidate, Blake Huffman, comes from the ranks of the Shoreview City Council, where he has served since 1996. He also works as a Wells Fargo mortgage executive.

For Fletcher, the race is all about “fiscal restraint.” When talking to voters, he points to Bennett’s 2008 vote to raise commissioner salaries by 25 percent. “I think the perception is that fiscal matters are still the number one issue,” he said. “The other thing they are looking for is someone who is not tied to special interest groups. They are really looking for someone who can represent the average person versus the millionaires.” Fletcher said he expects to spend $50,000 on the campaign, and at least $15,000 ahead of the August 14 primary.

Anoka County Commissioner District 2: First-term Anoka County Commissioner Andy Westerberg is facing three challengers, and all claim to be coming from his right. Three prominent conservatives are challenging him for the spot, including former Republican state Sen. Debbie Johnson, retiring Sen. Mike Jungbauer and Ham Lake City Council member Julie Braastad.

Westerberg served four terms in the state House before winning election to the board in 2010. Johnson served 10 years in the state Senate before losing her endorsement to current GOP Sen. Michelle Benson in 2010. She challenged Westerberg for the county job that same year, but lost by nearly 2,000 votes.

GOP state Sen. Jungbauer also finds himself displaced by Benson this year. After the redistricting maps were released, Benson and Jungbauer landed in the same district, and it was Benson who prevailed in a five-ballot endorsing contest in March.

Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach is running for the Dakota County Commissioner District 7 seat. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Dakota County Commissioner District 7: Like Higgins, Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach wasn’t forced to retire by redistricting. The three-term senator, who previously served three terms in the state House as well, retired suddenly this year after it was revealed that his direct mail company, Capitol Direct, had sent out a series of pro-right-to-work fliers commissioned by the Freedom Club of Minnesota to some of his fellow Republican senators’ districts.

Gerlach announced his retirement just days after the news broke, and now he says he’s seeking an elected position away from the partisanship at the state Capitol. Gerlach, whose Senate district covered Apple Valley, Rosemount and part of Burnsville, will now seek the Dakota County District 7 seat to replace retiring Commissioner Will Branning.

“While I am ready to retire from the high level of intensity and partisan politics of St. Paul, I am not ready to end my service and relationship with the people of Apple Valley and Rosemount,” Gerlach said in a news release announcing his bid.

Vicki Swanson is challenging Gerlach from the left, citing environmental issues as her biggest concern.  Swanson’s father was former DFL state Rep. Jim Swanson, who represented Richfield from 1969 until 1984.

McLeod County Commissioner District 1: State Rep. Ron Shimanski lost his Republican endorsement this spring to freshman GOP Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen after the two were paired the new House District 18B. But there were no hard feelings: Both Gruenhagen and Shimanski are well-liked in Senate District 18, and activists were already encouraging Shimanski to run for McLeod County Commissioner at the House endorsing convention.

So he filed. Shimanski is in the running for the District 1 seat, covering Bergen, Hale and Winsted townships as well as Lester Prairie, Silver Lake and Winsted. Incumbent Ray Bayerl has announced he won’t seek re-election, and Winsted Township resident Nathan Schmal, Owen Tonak of Winsted and Gene Feltmann of Bergen Township are also vying to take his place.

“One of my endorsers said I should run for the county commissioner job,” Shimanski said. “I’m fairly relaxed about this campaign. A House race is pretty intense.” Shimanski, of Hale Township, owns and operates Shimanski Orchard. He served three terms in the House on the Agriculture and Transportation committees, and in 2012 served as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m getting a good feeling that I’ll go on to the general election,” he said. “I’d say I’ve got the inside track on notoriety, having represented the area for three terms.”

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