Koering says public service record speaks for itself, declines to campaign

“If they don’t know how I’m going to serve them for four more years, then I deserve to lose,” Commissioner Paul Koering said. “They know me, they know how I’m going to vote. I don’t think I need to prove anything to them.”

Crow Wing County Board Chairman Paul Koering speaks during a county board meeting Tuesday, June 9. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Incumbent Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering believes his record of public service and lifelong residency in the county means voters know enough about him by now to make a decision this November.

In seeking reelection to the District 1 seat he’s filled for eight years, it appeared the Long Lake Township resident would sail to another unopposed victory for the second consecutive election. But in September, the emergence of write-in challenger Arlene Jones in the wake of a rocky couple of months for the former board chairman meant Koering’s return to the county boardroom wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

But Koering said despite Jones stepping up, he has no plans to campaign for himself. He did not participate in a candidate debate organized by the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area last month and did not agree to receive a questionnaire or provide answers for the Brainerd Dispatch’s 2020 Voter’s Guide published Sept. 30. He also declined to be interviewed for this story.

During a phone conversation in mid-September, Koering said he feels the voters of District 1 are familiar with him after he’s represented the area for 16 years between his time on the county board and in the Minnesota Legislature as a state senator. District 1 covers the southern portion of Crow Wing County, from Fort Ripley east to Roosevelt Township and north to Oak Lawn Township. The extreme northeast portion of the city of Brainerd also falls within the district.

“If they don’t know how I’m going to serve them for four more years, then I deserve to lose,” Koering said then. “They know me, they know how I’m going to vote. I don’t think I need to prove anything to them.”


A farm boy from St. Mathias

Koering, 55, spent most of his life in St. Mathias Township on a dairy farm and now lives on Lower South Long Lake. His first foray into public service was as a representative on the Minnesota Farm Bureau board of directors, which interested him in local politics.

Before entering county government, he served from 2003-11 as a state senator, making headlines in 2005 when his public acknowledgment of his sexual orientation made him the only openly gay Republican legislator. He lost to current Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka in a 2010 primary election and again when he ran as an independent write-in candidate in the general election. Although he said he did not expect to return to politics, he agreed to seek election in 2012 as a county commissioner after neighbors upset with the incumbent convinced him to run.

That victory propelled him to eight years serving as a county commissioner — eight years that have seen highs and lows, both for the county and for Koering.

RELATED: Koering runs for county board

For six of those years, Koering was part of a board that oversaw consecutive property tax levy decreases along with the restructuring of the county’s debt — a move that saw its conclusion this year when the county made its last payments toward building bonds for new county facilities in 2007. While Koering was the lone vote against establishing a half-cent local option sales tax to fund transportation needs in 2015, he’s since changed his stance and said he’s seen the benefits of those dollars in supporting needed improvements for degrading roads.

"This will probably be the last time I say this — usually I don't like to admit to making a mistake — but I will go back to when we did implement the sales tax to fix our roads," Koering said in 2018.

Paul Koering.JPG
Paul Koering


The last two years, however, saw the county experience significant budget challenges that led to 7% levy increases in 2019 and 2020, with another approximately 5% levy increase expected in the coming year. These increases quickly wiped out reductions totaling 5.26% in the eight years prior. The $5 million annual savings in debt payments — a chunk of change commissioners at one time believed would be a windfall for the county budget and taxpayers — has mostly been eviscerated by spending pressures brought on by a dramatic rise in out-of-home placements for children and an escalating drug problem among residents.

RELATED: Crow Wing County Board splits 3-2 on flat preliminary levy: No tax increases for 8th year
Then, the coronavirus pandemic upended the planet earlier this year, leaving a path of uncertainty and even more financial challenges in its wake.

As for the commissioner, who often refers to himself as “just a farm boy from St. Mathias,” Koering moved from the property he spent most of his life after the death of his father in 2014. Also that year, he quit operating the medical examiner transport service in the county, which he’s often cited as a source of personal trauma due to witnessing the aftermath of a number of untimely deaths.

Koering saw his public service experience expand when he was elected in 2016 to the Crow Wing Power Board of Directors, topping the next closest challenger by 39 votes to fill a vacancy as an at-large representative for the electrical cooperative. A year later, he divested himself from the two liquor stores he ran, Northeast Liquors and Baxter Liquor Mart. He quipped to the Dispatch then that the change happened just in time for him, as Sunday liquor sales, which Koering opposed, were beginning.

In the boardroom, Koering doesn’t shy away from incorporating his personal political views into discussions and describes his approach to governing as standing by fiscally conservative principles as a steward for taxpayers’ dollars, no matter which way the winds are blowing. More than any other currently seated commissioner, Koering has found himself the lone opposition vote — 11 times in the past five years. A number of these votes involved land use, with Koering often stating he supports property rights and a more lenient approach to conditional uses and variances in favor of the property owner’s wishes. He cited the rights of property owners as the reason he opposed an ordinance this year to regulate and require licensure of short-term vacation rentals, which garnered the support of a majority of commissioners.

He frequently eschews letters of support for various organizations or grant applications, noting he doesn’t think it’s fair for the county board to provide a boost to one group when there may be others who wish to provide that service. More recently, he said he believes approving too many support letters makes other actions less meaningful — such as the support he’d hoped to see for a Second Amendment-dedicated resolution this spring.

Commissioners Bill Brekken (left), Paul Koering and Rosemary Franzen listen during the Wednesday, Dec. 11, county board meeting during which commissioners approved a 6.95% property tax levy increase for 2020. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch


Time of turbulence

Koering positioned himself as the board champion of the citizen-led movement in opposition to proposed gun control legislation in the state Legislature that would have expanded background checks and allowed police officers to temporarily remove a person’s firearms if a judge determined they were a threat to themselves or others. Passage of the resolution would have indicated county leaders might challenge or refuse to enforce these kinds of laws, including the potential expenditure of public funds in the process.

While Koering said he saw it as an opportunity to send a message to the Legislature on behalf of Crow Wing County residents passionate about the issue, ultimately, a changed resolution stripped of language some viewed as posing potential legal trouble for the county received majority support.

This conflict gave rise to a county board run by Michael Starry, a leader of the push for a Second Amendment resolution who is now challenging Commissioner Doug Houge in District 5. And it exposed a rift in the county board, exacerbated by Koering’s open support for Starry in a district in which Koering does not live or represent. In an interview with the Dispatch, he said he wouldn’t support Houge because he felt Houge was part of a voting bloc that gave too much power to administration rather than the elected officials.

RELATED: District 5 race causes tension within county board as Koering throws support behind Houge opponent
Days after the Dispatch story quoted Koering as saying not only would he campaign against Houge, but he may campaign against two other sitting commissioners two years from now, a majority of the board voted to strip Koering of his chairmanship duties without explicit explanation.

Turning to social media to voice his frustrations over the ouster and bolster his support of Starry, Koering soon after found himself in hot water with Sheriff Scott Goddard, who criticized the commissioner for comments he posted about the sheriff’s office budget proposal along with name-calling of fellow commissioners. At the August meeting, Koering said he got a lot of positive comments from the post and hoped people would reach out to the sheriff.

“Yeah, I probably did use some harsh language there that I probably shouldn’t have, but you know what, I don’t always do the right thing. But I’m trying my best to serve the people of Commissioner District 1,” Koering said.

After the meeting, Koering said by phone he has a right to say anything he wants, and he chose to share his thoughts via Facebook because he believes commissioners Bill Brekken, Steve Barrows and Houge were trying to silence him by removing him as chairman. He said everyone thinks people have to be nice all the time, but he’d rather be honest.

“I guess I’ve been called lots of names,” Koering said. “I just let it roll off.”


RELATED: Sheriff confronts Koering over social media comments on budget
Write-in opponent Jones has cited the recent tumult as a driving force behind her District 1 run seeking to unseat Koering, whose name is the only one appearing on the ballot this November.

While Koering did not wish to make the case for himself in 2020, he told the Dispatch in 2016 his experience as a businessman and strong principled stances made him the right choice for commissioner.

“I think that all of my experience together, I think makes me the right guy for the job, because I think I can take almost everybody’s interest in mind when I’m voting on their behalf,” Koering said. “And it goes back to living here your whole life, I know these people. I grew up with them. I think they trust me, they know that I have their best interest in mind, not Paul Koering’s. But theirs.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .


Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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