Column: Election provides interesting answers to the area’s questions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 9, 2002

After every election, we stop to measure the winners and the losers. For instance, this year, TEAM and the school won, and Mal-Prinzing-‘n’-Friends lost. The courthouse supporters won, and the FCCF lost. Destination: Albert Lea won. Everybody named Porter and Anderson lost.

For a couple of years, we’ve been hearing about the courthouse, the sales tax, the school budget, the lakes, the downtown. We know what the visible, public people think, but until all the people get the chance to vote, we don’t know how the majority of the people feel. That’s why it’s so fun to analyze elections: It gives us a chance to draw conclusions about what people will support. We finally have some measurable data about how popular or unpopular these ideas are.

Here are a few observations about this year’s local elections:

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– The referendum’s strong support was a bit surprising, but it was a welcome surprise. After last year, it was no sure bet this thing would pass, in my mind.

The school had made highly publicized cuts since last year, and the effort to get support this year was huge. But would voters be swayed, or would they be offended by what some (not me) have called manipulative tactics? I guess we know now. Clearly, enough people were convinced of the importance of the referendum, and suspicion and negativity were beaten back.

Why did the community change its mind? Was it all the talk about Ford? Was it the busing problems? Was it the shortened term of the levy, from 10 years to five? Was it the higher voter turnout this year, opposed to last year, when we heard many supporters stayed home? Probably all of the above and more.

– People didn’t get their chance to vote on the courthouse, but they could choose a county commissioner who was in favor of the plan or against it. This election was probably our best way yet of measuring how people really feel about the courthouse plan.

The result: Looks like city people are fine with it, and rural people mostly hate it. Urban commissioner Dave Mullenbach, the leader of the county board’s courthouse coalition, easily beat courthouse detractor Truman Thrond, keeping the board in control of courthouse-plan proponents. In Dan Belshan’s Second District, the courthouse may not have been as central to voters’ decision; in general, Belshan has always been popular with his constituents and his opponent spent most of the race not running. But the mandate given Belshan also shows that his district isn’t too pleased with the courthouse plans, which Belshan has opposed vehemently.

– In the city, the wins by Jean Eaton, Jeff Fjelstad and Randy Erdman can be looked at a couple different ways. One is that people generally want change, any change, and they voted that way. Another is that people, more specifically, do want to see a more aggressive city council with a fresh perspective on the city’s situation.

In the Eaton vs. Mark Anderson mayor race, you could say Eaton’s win means most people aren’t afraid of the sales tax after all, or that they really do want to see more of a tourism focus in Albert Lea. It’s possible that this was just a name-recognition battle, but people certainly had plenty of chances to learn what each candidate was about, and shouldn’t have had to rely totally on reputation.

– The election for sheriff was fascinating. When Phil Bartusek started out, he looked like the favorite (at least to a city boy like me). But the more people learned about Mark Harig, the more they seemed to like him. The primary suggested this was going to be a squeaker. In the end, it wasn’t really all that close.

Why? I think people, again, were embracing change. Harig’s workmanlike attitude appealed to people. Clearly, voters wanted the candidate who they thought was most willing to get in there and get his hands dirty. They wanted the more hands-on sheriff, a change from what they’ve been getting. And they apparently liked Harig’s emphasis on drugs more than they liked Bartusek’s emphasis on intra-agency partnerships.

– Now, the Mal Prinzing scorecard. The guy with the big signs and the plane pushed hard against Grace Schwab and the school referendum, and came away 1-for-2. His half-informed arguments against the school district didn’t convince enough people, but he got his wish when Schwab lost by a handful of votes.

In such a close election &045; Dan Sparks beat Schwab by 33 votes &045; did those ridiculous yellow signs make the difference? Who knows. My guess is the smear campaign got Schwab as many sympathy votes as it lost her. But who knows?

As you can see, an election doesn’t answer all the questions. Sometimes it creates more of them.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.