CROSBY — Michael Starry may have never run for political office before, but political activism has been a focus of his for decades.

Most recently taking a leadership role in the effort to designate Crow Wing County as Second Amendment-dedicated, Starry said his liberty-minded stances have taken him to lobby in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. While primarily focused on gun rights, the 49-year-old former punk rocker said his disdain for governmental interference goes back to at least the 1980s, when the Parents Music Resource Center sought to warn consumers of music they found objectionable with parental advisory labels.

“That’s when I kind of got aware that, well, government dictates my life and I don’t like government dictating my life,” Starry said during an interview earlier this month at Crosby Memorial Park. “I don’t like you telling me I can’t listen to Frank Zappa because his music scares you. So I got active, then went into music. Everything I did musically was political.”

Starry said his motivation to run for the District 5 seat on the Crow Wing County Board arises from frustration with the status quo, which manifests in government running at a snail’s pace and politicians picking sides. Alongside opponent Tom Nixon, Starry is challenging incumbent Commissioner Doug Houge in the upcoming Aug. 11 primary election.

The Ironton husband and father of six said he doesn’t look like or act like a typical politician. Instead, what he brings to the table is a willingness to see things through without quitting, a respect for the Constitution as the ultimate authority and love for Crow Wing County and Cuyuna country that runs deep. A field service engineer for the food and pharmaceutical industries by trade, Starry said if elected, he only plans to stay for a short time before passing the baton to someone else, following his belief politicians shouldn’t view their role as a career.

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“I know one way of doing things and that’s straight ahead and work to the end goal and don’t quit. You know, it’s got to be limited government, it’s got to be small spending and it’s just got to be directed all the time,” Starry said. “I don’t have time to pick up a side. I just have time to get to the end goal, which is to make our community better and more affordable for the people who live in it.”

Limiting government spending

Starry said he would seek to fight against state mandates in favor of local control. He said all too often, people from the metro area are influencing what occurs in rural Minnesota, despite facing different challenges and living different lives. The mandates, he said, lead to redundancies in government and unnecessary spending.

“If I remember right, the last look at the budget was damn near two-thirds of the budget was state mandates. Not very much of it really is county-related. So again, you have to come back to, how do you fight the state?” he said. “ … Show me 100% why this is exactly what my county needs, because that’s another issue. I know that the governor wants to tell you that he believes in one Minnesota, but we're just not the same. We're just not.”

He said he’d look for ways to reduce taxes as much as possible — including by cutting commissioner salaries or potentially withdrawing county support of the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener program — while seeking to ensure his constituents understand why money is being spent somewhere if it’s necessary and cost-effective.

County board candidate Michael Starry. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
County board candidate Michael Starry. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

He said while Crow Wing County did well for a while in controlling budget increases, there was a point when county leaders seemed to believe their work was done. He said he now sees a shift toward a spending mindset that ushers in more personnel, more capital projects and less emphasis on being stewards for the taxpayers. He’d like to see the county go back to the basics — public safety, necessary infrastructure and investments in preventative efforts that can show a return.

“I wanted a 3,000-square-foot house. I settled for a 1,300-square-foot house because that suited my needs. And it suited my pocketbook. I could have probably made it work to get a much bigger house, but I’d have been stretched thin,” Starry said. “Rather than being stretched thin, I bought a modest home that suited my needs, and it left more money in my pocket for future improvements. The county needs to operate the same way we operate.”

He said getting the budget under control means nibbling at the edges by reducing spending in several small ways. This might mean holding off on replacing a bridge or road because it’s unattractive, as long as it’s structurally sound. Or it might mean saying no to department requests for more employees or a new facility.

“You’re going to have to nibble at edges sometimes. You will hit a point, maybe in theory, that you’ve just run out (of cuts),” Starry said. “ … But I don’t see that right now. I see a budget that’s still as high this year as it was last year and the year before. Overall spending from the county is still at roughly the same levels. So what can be nipped? Again, how much lower would it have been, our expenditures, if we hadn’t hired back the 16 or 18 employees? Was there an absolute need for those 16? I still don’t see that.”

He acknowledged some spending may be necessary or required, but said it would be his job to go out and explain why to the people whose money the county is spending.

“If I can see the numbers, and I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but if I can look at the numbers and go, yep, here’s where that makes sense, the cost-benefit analysis is awesome, the return on investment over here looks good — I can sit down and explain that just about anybody,” Starry said. “But I think that's the biggest thing. People aren’t aware of that. They’re not aware of most things that happen in the county at all.

“And I think that’s part of what sets me aside, is I’m willing to tell anybody. You know what, you want to know what’s happening here? Because I want to know, I want you to know, so that you can advise me, because my job is to represent you.”

Best use of land

Starry said he would be a voice for all residents of District 5, not only the city of Crosby, which he said tends to be the focus. Traveling often for his career, Starry said he’s always singing the praises of the natural beauty of his home county, and would have no trouble showing his love for the area as a commissioner. This, he said, would be a cost-free way to encourage public enjoyment of county-owned lands as well as ensuring people are aware of resources available to them through county government. While he said he’d be philosophically opposed to it, Starry suggested he didn’t think many people would be opposed to a $3 annual fee to camp on county lands as another potential source of revenue.

“I think we need to do a better job of letting people know we’ve got these swaths of land. Y’all can hunt on it, you could camp on it if you wanted to, whatever the policies are that we would like to implement,” Starry said. “You may not generate revenue, but you generate community out of that, letting people know what you have. And then if it’s not lucrative, and it doesn't make sense, then why are we sitting on it, just get rid of it. Conservation is good. It’s nice to have a chunk of land. Find a way that then you can pay for that land.”

He praised the county board’s recent decision to reduce the cost of tax-forfeited properties by 25% in an effort to encourage more sales but said he was frustrated by limits put on other public lands by outside actors, such as conservation groups or state government. He said if the county isn’t permitted to manage the land how it wants, including trails or timber harvest, it shouldn’t be in county ownership.

Constitution rules all

When it comes to his overall philosophy, Starry said he can be persuaded by good arguments from a variety of perspectives and he’s willing to hear them, except when it comes to the tenets of the Constitution. For this reason, he was angry with how some commissioners, including his opponent Houge, handled the Second Amendment resolution when the board ultimately passed an alternative Starry felt had no teeth. He said waving an oath of office in the air — referencing actions by Commissioner Steve Barrows — was not enough to defend anyone’s rights.

“If it’s something that truly matters to your people and it’s truly constitutional and it’s what your people want, then you should probably stand and fight,” Starry said. “I don't care, the threat of, you know, big daddy (Gov. Tim) Walz coming to me and saying, ‘Well I’m gonna put you in jail for this.’ Cool, then put me in jail for it, because my people deserve that.

“ … Anybody can wave paper. If you think that’s going to defend your rights and that’s going to defend liberty with a few paper cuts, it’s not going to happen. The people of District 5 need somebody that is willing to stand and take a punch and throw a punch and figure it out and be willing to just not stop until there’s no other option, you know.”

Online, these differences of opinion reared their heads in a Facebook group of people seeking the resolution, of which Starry was once an administrator. Starry made a number of posts expressing anger and calling county officials he believed were working against the group’s goal “turncoats” and “pieces of excrement,” among other things. He did not push back on other comments on his posts calling for commissioners to be dragged into the streets or suggesting a coup.

He said he believed others’ comments of this nature were made in hyperbole and by people who were frustrated by the process — not by people who actually intended to be violent, which he would not condone. Starry noted he’d publicly left the Facebook group because it lost its focus. He said there’s no doubt people who view his social media accounts will know where he stands, but there’s a benefit to that and he doesn’t believe his temper would be a liability. He said he’s willing to hear people out and to change when shown he’s been wrong.

“There are moments where I’ll have some pretty big, virulent rants. Absolutely. I make no bones about that. You are always gonna know where I stand. I don't have time in my life to be kind and gentle about every single thing. That's not the world that we live in. I’m just going to get it out there because once it’s out, I’m done,” Starry said. “ … I don’t know how standing up for what you believe in, being willing to fight for what you believe in, and being willing to call out the truth, or a lie, is a liability.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.