Experience abounds in local commissioner race

Four candidates are running for the District 2 county commissioner seat, including two of the five sitting county commissioners. Each candidate has a distinctly different approach to the position and all four are anticipating getting the needed votes in the Aug. 14 primary to move on to the general election in November. Here is a brief look at what they view as their strengths during their summer campaigns.

Joe DoyleMonticello Township

The shifting of the local government units in District 2 is viewed as an advantage for Doyle’s campaign, since he has a wealth of experience dealing in township politics. He has been a Monticello Township Board supervisor for three terms and is a member of the Wright County Township Officers Association Board.
“I’ve been involved in grass roots politics with the townships and it has been a valuable learning experience for me,” Doyle said. “We need to work for the will of the people and I think the county board has gotten away from that over the years. I think you see that in the number of people that are running – four in District 2 and 24 candidates overall.
It’s an exciting time to be running for county commissioner and it shows that there are a lot of people who want to see change in how county government runs.”
Doyle became a known commodity when he fought against what township residents viewed as a hostile takeover attempt by the City of Monticello. He has worked with both County Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Rose Thelen, as their political paths have crossed numerous times over the years. He said he respects both of them as rivals in the coming primary and believes it’s going to be each candidate’s objective to bring out the vote.
“I think it’s going to be a good challenge,” Doyle said. “I believe I personally can make a difference because I listen to what people have to say. There are a lot of issues that are of concern to residents of Wright County and much of the reason I’m running is because I had several people in the community ask me it was interested. I think I can bring a fresh perspective to the board and be a commissioner that understands that we are a government by the people and for the people.”
The biggest challenge Doyle faces between now and the primary election is that he needs to get his name out to voters in the cities in District 2. While he is a familiar name in Monticello and throughout the district, his biggest challenge will be making in-roads in areas where he isn’t as familiar.
“I’m a door-to-door type of guy, so that part of campaigning won’t be a problem,” Doyle said. “I have some name recognition from my experience in the township officers association. My challenge will be getting in the cities of Maple Lake and Clearwater and try to get my message to those voters.”

Barry KukowskiClearwater Township

A self-described “right-wing Christian conservative who likes to hunt and fish,” Kukowski served on the Clearwater City Council in 1990s, as well and the planning and zoning board and the Clearwater Joint Annexation Board. He had planned to run for the county board seat in that area during the last election cycle in 2008, but, as a 20-year member of the military, problems on the other side of the world changed those plans.
“I wanted to run four years ago, but the Army had different ideas, said Kukowski, a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard unity based out of Litchfield. “Our unit got called up and I spent 2007 and 2008 over in Iraq.”
Kukowski raised some eyebrows when he received the Republican party endorsement, despite county commissioner being a non-partisan elected position. He said he is proud of the endorsement, but his focus in his campaign has been a common problem among county residents – increasing property taxes during hard economic times.
“I’ve been campaigning door-to-door and people are saying the same thing over and over – they want lower taxes,” Kukowski said. “My biggest inspiration for running is that my taxes keep going up and my property value keeps going down. The budgets keep getting bigger in the county and the average resident can’t afford to keep paying more and getting less. That needs to change.”
Kukowski admits he doesn’t have the district-wide visibility of some of the other candidates, but said he is making up for that with non-stop campaigning and believes that the history of the primary election turnout plays in his favor if he works hard enough to get supporters to the polls.
“The concept I’m working on is that the primary, on average, gets only 10 percent of the voters out and voting,” Kukowski said. “I think it helps level the playing field. I’m encouraging people to get out and vote and mobilize them to let their voices be heard.”
Kukowski hopes that he can be part of that change. The county board in 2013 is guaranteed to have at least three new commissioners and he is hoping to increase that number by knocking out both Thelen and Sawatzke by winning the District 2 seat.
“I firmly believe there could be five new commissioners,” Kukowski said. “That would be a good thing. It would slow down the bureaucracy. A new board won’t have the preconceived notions that have where we’re at now. I want to be part of that change.”

Pat SawatzkeMonticello

Sawatzke is the longest-tenured commissioner on the county board, having served since 1991. This is his sixth election bid, but the first time in a district that isn’t almost entirely based around Monticello, Monticello Township and Otsego. He said the new look of the district and Otsego moving out of the district adds a new challenge.
“Voter turnout historically is pretty low in primaries compared to general elections, so that adds a new dynamic to it,” Sawatzke said. “It would be easy for some of my supporters to ignore the primary and say they’ll vote for you in November. My goal is to get my supporters out for the primary because, with four candidates, you need all the votes you can get.”
Sawatzke has earned a reputation for being fiscally conservative and making department heads justify any major budget expenditure requests. While known as a conservative, he had no interest in garnering the Republican endorsement, because he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate for a county commissioner.
“Minnesota statutes specifically make county commissioners non-partisan and I agree with that stance,” Sawatzke said. “I believe most citizens don’t want the gridlock and partisanship that we have in St. Paul and Washington.”
One of the main reasons Sawatzke is seeking another term is that the turnover on the county board is inevitable, but, given that two sitting commissioners aren’t running for re-election and two more are in District 2, the turnover of the board could be complete – something he believes wouldn’t be in the best interest of county residents.
“Turnover happens on the board and change is good,” Sawatze said. “But, we’re going to have three new commissioners and possibly four or five. What you will end up with is a county government that will be run by department heads for a period of time. The new commissioners won’t have the base of knowledge coming in and that could be a significant problem if you have so many new commissioners learning the job at once.”
Had redistricting and commissioner retirements not happened, Sawatzke said he wouldn’t have filed for another term. But, given the potential unprecedented change on the board that is coming this year, he felt obligated to run for another term.
“If I’m elected, I will not run for re-election again in four years,” Sawatzke said. “I had a lot of encouragement to run and, in light of the change we’re going to see, I felt it was important to run for another team and keep some continuity on the board.”

Rose Thelen – Clearwater Township

Thelen is finishing her first term as a county commissioner and currently serves as the board chair. Thelen has brought a philosophy of consensus-building and increased dialogue with cities, townships and residents with specific concerns to the board in her four years and hopes to expand on that in a second term.
“There is a lack of communication between government and the people,” Thelen said. “I’ve tried to bridge that gap. If people have concerns, I’ve tried to bring those people together with those who can help solve those problems to make informed decisions and not simply be dismissed by a government they feel doesn’t listen to them.”
Thelen knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block on a board with three members that have been on the board for 20 years. She said she was prepared to be a commissioner four years ago, but that the learning curve is steep and that she spent countless hours trying to get her politics under her. She is ready to hit a second term running and becoming a voice of cooperation and change on the new-look county board.
“I think it’s easier this time around,” Thelen said. “I have a much better lay of the land now. You don’t really know how the day-to-day process of getting acclimated to the job of county commissioner is. The phenomenal growth of the county has created many new issues that we never had to deal with and those issues are often complex and impact different parts of the county in different ways. I have a lifetime of work experience with indentifying issues and finding solutions. I hope to continue that as a commissioner.”
As the only woman currently on the county board, Thelen said she has made her way through the “old boy’s network” and has forced many in county government to re-think how they approach their business.
“I joined a county board that, at times, made decisions because they said that was how we’ve always done it,” Thelen said. “I don’t buy that. I bring a distinctively different point of view to the board, which I think is good. You can’t have five people who think in lockstep. You need to get new opinions, but you do need some institutional memory. There is going to be a lot of change regardless of who gets elected to the board. I’m running because I want to see change happen and I believe I’m extremely qualified to help make that change take place.”