While the presidential election this year grabbed headlines daily, there was no shortage of compelling election-related news coming out of the Brainerd lakes area in 2020.
In February, Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson thought the presidential nominating primary — the first occurring in the state in nearly 30 years — would be the greatest organizational challenge of the year. That changed as it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would force alterations to how the county would conduct elections in August and November.
By May, township boards across the county voted to keep town hall doors closed for in-person voting, opting instead to utilize mail balloting this year in response to COVID-19 concerns. A total of 11 precincts made the change for 2020, joining 18 others already conducting elections by mail. This included the three precincts of Unorganized Territory, which is the third-largest population center after Brainerd and Baxter in the county — a decision of the Crow Wing County Board.
At the time of those decisions, the number of COVID-19 cases in the county was below 50, but the actions taken to prepare for the November elections turned out to be prescient as that month saw a dramatic rise in numbers and hospitalizations. Crow Wing County processed the most absentee and mail ballots the county has ever recorded, while in-person locations sported the now-familiar Plexiglas, masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing in play. Ultimately, 2020 brought the highest number of voters to ever participate in an election, both nationally and in Crow Wing County, too.
When it came to the ballots themselves, at least three high-profile local races saw unusual twists and turns ultimately producing hard-fought write-in candidacies.
Two Crow Wing County Board seats were up for election this year, those held by Commissioner Paul Koering and Commissioner Doug Houge. Both ran unopposed four years earlier, but this year would be different. When the candidate filing period closed in May, Houge learned he was destined for a primary election with two opponents — Michael Starry of Ironton and Tom Nixon of Deerwood — seeking to replace the District 5 incumbent.
The primary whittled the field to Starry and Houge, but Nixon vowed to continue his campaign despite a third-place finish. He ultimately garnered 520 votes in the general election, just 18 fewer votes than the margin between the victorious Houge and challenger Starry.
While Koering at first faced no opponents, his decision to publicly throw his support behind Starry in Houge’s district, among other controversial comments and positions the former Republican state lawmaker recently made, inspired a write-in candidacy by Arlene Jones in District 1. Jones, a local foods advocate and founder of Sprout MN, went all in on the campaign with educational efforts on how to submit a write-in vote, campaign signs, mailers and even a billboard. But the uphill climb of a write-in candidacy left her well short of any serious challenge to Koering, who earned 5,244 votes to Jones’ 670.
- Koering survives write-in challenge to return to county board
- Houge poised to return as Crow Wing County commissioner
The third local race falling outside the norm this year was the one for Baxter City Council. After the August filing period closed for local candidates, one name was noticeably absent — Todd Holman, who’d been on the council for 13 years. Just one person, council member Mark Cross, filed to run for two open seats on the council. In the weeks that followed two write-in contenders emerged, providing three options to Baxter residents. Former DFL state legislator John Ward and Lon Schmidt, a part-time bus driver for the Brainerd School District and former radio host, both made public announcements of their candidacies for the council. After Election Day, Ward emerged victorious.
Across the county, a number of incumbents in city government will return to private life after losing to challengers. Five incumbent mayors fell to opponents: Breezy Point Mayor Tom Lillehei to Todd Roggenkamp, Emily Mayor Roger “Buddy” Lund to Tracy Jones, Fifty Lakes Mayor Linda Steffens to Steve Dahlke, Pequot Lakes Mayor James Tayloe to Tyler Gardner and Nisswa Mayor Fred Heidmann to John Ryan. The Nisswa mayoral race saw by far the largest margin of victory for a challenger, with Ryan besting Heidmann 1,174 to 183 — a 991-vote margin.
Other notable incumbents not returning in 2021 include Brainerd School Board member Sue Kern, who placed fourth in a three-seat race, and Brainerd City Council members Jan Lambert and Wayne Erickson, replaced by newcomers Mike O’Day and Tiffany Stenglein, respectively.
It wasn’t all about new faces, however. The 2020 election featured a comeback victory of note when James Hunter received the most votes in a field of four mayoral candidates in Crosby. Hunter resigned from the role in 2017 amid legal troubles before running and losing for the seat in 2018. Acquitted of all charges he faced, Hunter threw his hat in the ring again in 2020 and this time, he won.
Finding candidates willing to run for township boards is a long-standing challenge noted by local officials, and this year proved no different. The majority of township elections featured unopposed candidates, while some voters had no candidates to choose from at all for various seats. Town supervisor posts in Irondale and Platte Lake and two seats in Perry Lake Township were awarded to write-ins, along with town clerk positions in Platte Lake, Ross Lake and Timothy townships. In the city of Cuyuna, no one filed for two seats on the city council.