BY JOHN HOLLER
The race is officially on.
On Tuesday, May 22, the opportunity to file to run for Wright County commissioner began. The filings are done through the office of Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala and he said that the process this year is going to be very different from anything Wright County has experienced in an election cycle before.
"It’s unique in a couple of respects this time around," Hiivala said. "First, you have all five commissioners up for election at the same time, which very rarely happens. But, because of the shifting population that required significant redistricting, not only were all five commissioners subject to new elections, two districts were created that don’t currently have a sitting commissioner in that district. I don’t think Wright County has ever had that happen at the same time, so it’s unique in that respect."
The process began May 22 when the filing period for county commissioners opened up. The filing period will remain open until 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 5 – at which time any commissioner district with more than two candidates filing will be subject to a run-off at the primary election Aug. 14.
In the first 24 hours for filing to run as a county commissioner, seven candidates had already thrown their names into the political ring – Fred Naaktgeboren of Buffalo in District 1, current board chair Rose Thelen in District 2, Mark Daleiden of St. Michael in District 3, Michael Potter of Albertville and Mary Wetter of Buffalo in District 4 and Paul Shoberg of Delano and Leonard Wozniak of Cokato in District 5. The early declarations didn’t include sitting commissioners Dick Mattson (District 5) and Pat Sawatzke (District 2), both of whom confirmed they were going to file, but hadn’t done it early on in the process.
With two candidates already filing in District 5, Mattson said he would be facing a primary election to get to general election in November. However, that’s nothing new to Mattson, whose biggest issue may be the "new look" District 5, which covers about half the land area of Wright County.
"The first time I ran for county commissioner, there were seven people in the primary," Mattson said. "I was expecting that I’d have to run in the primary. It’s a much different district and has become so large, I can’t do the door-to-door knocking that I did the first time I ran. My district has changed, but I know a lot of people in the area. I’ve worked hard for 20 years and have been pretty straightforward in my views. I think by now, most people know what I stand for, whether they were in my current district or not. I think by now, most voters know where I stand on the issues that affect the county."
While Mattson is guaranteed to face a primary challenge, one of them won’t be sitting Commissioner Jack Russek, who announced last month that he wouldn’t be seeking another term. Neither will Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg, who is retiring at the end of the year barring an 11th change of heart. Mattson will an incumbent running for re-election in a significantly altered district. However, the other two sitting commissioners seeking re-election will find themselves squaring off against one another and potential other challengers.
Sawatzke and Thelen are both sitting commissioners. Thelen is finishing out her first term, serving as board chair in 2012, while Sawatzke has represented the Monticello area and the City of Otsego (the growth of the city over the last 10 years was the impetus for the drastic redistricting of the existing commissioner districts. Thelen, who currently represents the "lake district" of the county will now have to curry the favor of Monticello to retain her commissionership.
Thelen said that, while Monticello wasn’t previously in her district, she is familiar with many of the key players in the political arena of the city and township. She said she has served on numerous boards and task forces, attended meetings called by the mayor and city administrator, has been active with the economic development partnership and has worked collaboratively with the city and township, which now represents about 60 percent of the population of the district.
"I am no stranger to Monticello," Thelen said. "As Wright County District 1 commissioner, I have met and worked with many people from the Monticello area. Through these collaborations with Monticello, I have learned a lot about the community and, as elsewhere, I have demonstrated that I seek public input, listen and have the skills required to work with multiple local governments, civic groups and our citizens to turn ideas into action in order to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to the challenges we jointly face."
Thelen said that the board is going to change significantly regardless of who wins her district seat. At most, only two of the five current commissioners will be on the board when it meets for the first time in January (most likely Jan. 2 because Christmas Day and New Year’s Day both fall on Tuesdays this holiday season). As such, the membership of the board will be markedly different regardless of who wins in November and Thelen said she wants to be part of that.
"I am excited about this contest because it will provide an opportunity to elect a new board that is collaborative, responsive to the public, innovative and solution-oriented," Thelen said. "Those qualities are needed to respond to the individual and joint needs of the faster-growing cities and the rural townships."
Sawatzke said this election campaign would be different because it’s been a long time since two sitting commissioners were forced to run against one another while doing the day-to-day business of county government. It’s been 30 years since that happened – when Commissioners Arlyn Nelson and Lowell Zachman were both on the county board and running against one another.
"It’s certainly going to be different with us running against each other," Sawatzke said. "Politically, (Thelen) and I are very different, but it will make it more challenging because we’re running against each other, yet working together as commissioners every week. We both have a mutual respect that I’m sure will continue as we work together as commissioners representing Wright County, but it will be in a different dymanic."
Just as Thelen has to win over Monticello voters, Sawatzke will have to make in-roads in his newly-formed constituency in the northern portion of the county. He said he will look to maintain what his principles are and used that as his basis for running for another four-year term.
"My philosophy is to speak to the benefits I can bring to the citizens," Sawatzke said. "The voters end up making the decision. I intend to get my information out to the voters and let them decide whether they think I’m the candidate that they want to represent them as county commissioner."
The final field of candidates won’t be known until the close of business on June 5 (a half hour after actually), but Hiivala said his office is going to undertake a process that is new to Wright County politics.
"It’s going to be interesting," Hiivala said. "I don’t think Wright County has ever had an election period like the one we’re going to have coming up as far as commissioner races are concerned. It’s going to be something we’ve never had to deal with before, which makes it unique before it even has started."