This fall, three seats on the seven-member Ramsey County Board of Commissioners are on the ballot. Overseeing a budget north of $700 million, the board has a hand in everything from libraries to law enforcement, including dispensing funding for services around health, housing and other bedrock needs. Here is a look at each of the races on the ballot this fall and the candidates’ top priorities for the board:
Last fall, Commissioner Nicole Frethem won a special election to fill a vacated District 1 seat, which represents Arden Hills, Gem Lake, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Township, and parts of Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and Blaine. Frethem is being challenged by Dennis Dunnigan.
Frethem is endorsed by the DFL, AFSCME Council 5, Women Winning, Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, St. Paul Building and Construction Trades, and Northeast Metro Climate Action, as well as St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and multiple City Council members and Minnesota House and Senate representatives from the district. She said her top priority, should she get a full term, would be to continue managing the COVID-19 crises, especially “without a coordinated federal response.”
Coupled with this is the task of setting up all residents for a “sustainable economic recovery,” said Frethem. “Black, brown and Indigenous people in the county suffer more, with more job loss and economic impact than white residents,” she said, noting those disparities now “exist on top” of disparities that were already present in the county before the pandemic.
For her, recovery means Ramsey County uses funds to help keep families and businesses afloat as the pandemic persists. But it also means the county will cut back on spending, said Frethem, adding it took hustle to scrub property tax levy increases from the 2021 budget. She also lists regulations to mitigate flooding, and other water management issues as a priority, and more direct communication between county officials and residents so county decisions aren’t surprises.
Dunnigan, who currently lives in White Bear Township, works as a collateral risk analyst for Bremer Bank. In 2008 and 2012, while living in White Bear Lake, Dunnigan was the Republican-endorsed candidate for the District 7 seat. “And was soundly defeated,” he said with a laugh.
He was “drafted” then, he said, by fellow conservatives in the county who wanted some dissent on the board. For the District 1 race, Dunnigan said he was drafted again. “It’s seven to nothing right now on the Ramsey County Board,” he said, referring to the number of Democrats on the board. “There should be at least one Republican on the Ramsey County board.”
Dunnigan said he hears a lot from board members about county services and the people they serve, but not much about the taxpayers who foot the bill for those services. “So, my bent would be to represent them,” he said, adding he’d also prioritize stopping the county from overreaching when making agreements with elected city officials in the county.
First elected to the board in 2012, Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire is running to retain her District 2 seat representing Lauderdale, Little Canada, New Brighton, Roseville, parts of New Brighton and a chunk of St. Anthony. Along with McGuire, challenger Dan McGrath made it out of the Aug. 11 primary and onto the November ballot.
During her tenure on the board, McGuire said she has worked to deliver District 2 constituents services like “roads they can drive on” and a “strong public health system.” McGuire’s endorsements include nods from AFSCME Council 5, Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee, St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, among others.
She said her top priority is household and family stability, which requires resources for food, housing and job security. “Those issues are magnified by COVID,” said McGuire, adding that intensifying needs have to be balanced against other things the county could do with its resources. One revenue source McGuire is happy to see go are the library and corrections fees the board eliminated because of the disproportionate impact they have on lower-income people and those in marginalized communities. “The fees are just not fair,” she said.
McGuire said she hopes to push for greater transportation accessibility so it’s safer and easier for pedestrians and people using wheelchairs, walkers and bikes to get around. And McGuire said she would work to build partnerships to increase mental health services.
McGrath, who lives in Roseville, said he has a “good understanding of the constituency” of District 2 because he is not a career politician. He’s worked as a chauffeur, a small business owner, a house painter, jobs in restaurants and convenient stores. “Grunt work,” he said. “I know everyday struggles people go through, I know what they want from their government.”
Right now, McGrath says residents want better COVID-19 mitigation strategies, specifically those that don’t result in businesses struggling and shuttering. The county should “take the fear down” and encourage people to take every precaution but actively go out and spend money in their community. If elected, he’d work to strike this “reasonable balance.” McGrath also said he’d focus on infrastructure, naming road improvements like fixing potholes and smoothing bumpy streets, and supporting law enforcement personnel who do a good job and building a system that holds bad actors in the sheriff’s department more accountable.
Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt has represented District 7 — which includes Maplewood, North Saint Paul, White Bear Lake and the Hillcrest area of Saint Paul — since 1996. Challenging Reinhardt for the seat this fall is Kevin Berglund.
Reinhardt is endorsed by AFSCME Council 5, Women Winning, Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, as well as the mayors of Maplewood and White Bear Lake. Since the pandemic, Reinhardt said she has been focused on the economic fallout, namely efforts to get families financial assistance and food to children who rely on school systems for meals.
Reinhardt says she is proud of other ways the county has “pivoted” in order to keep delivering essential services, like keeping libraries open.
If re-elected, Reinhardt said she’d also focus on homelessness — an encampment sprung up in Maplewood earlier this year — and working with various communities to preserve and develop affordable, mixed-income housing.
Berglund, who works for a food rescue, lives in Maplewood. If elected, he said he would donate $20,000 of his $92,423 commissioner salary to food shelves, and another $20,000 of his salary to homeless shelters.
“Because [Reinhardt] has spent so many years collecting her big paycheck, she has little fitness anymore to really represent anybody,” said Berglund, adding that his election provides voters an opportunity to “have some sort of a voice” on the board.
It isn’t just Reinhardt whom Berglund takes issues with; he said the board as a whole rushes to unanimous decisions. “With me there, there will be at least a conversation,” he said, adding that, if on the board, more votes would come back 6-1. “They say they like conversations, but of course they don’t like discussion.”
Other priorities Berglund names include creating a more transparent and easy-to-use data portal for residents and making sure communities have more influence when bus lines are established.