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It’s been a decade since two new people were elected to the Washington County Board at the same time. In 2012, Ted Bearth defeated Bill Pulkrabek and Fran Miron defeated Dennis Hegberg.
This year, three Washington County commissioner seats are up for grabs on Nov. 8. Only one race features an incumbent – Stan Karwoski – running for re-election.
State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, are facing off in District 4 after redistricting radically altered the boundaries of their Legislative districts. The incumbent District 4 county commissioner, Wayne Johnson, left the race in June after Franke announced he was running for the seat.
In District 2, Woodbury City Council member Julie Ohs is once again challenging Karwoski, a former mayor of Oakdale. Karwoski was elected to the county board in a special election in 2016 and re-elected in 2018.
Two Woodbury women — Michelle Clasen and Andrea Date — are running for the District 5 seat currently held by Commissioner Lisa Weik. Weik, who represents most of Woodbury, was elected to the board in a special election in November 2008 and was re-elected in 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2020. The district’s population boom prompted a change in boundaries, which required an election in 2022 for the seat.
“Fourteen years is a long time,” Weik said. “I think it’s important to let other people have an opportunity to serve.”
In other positions, Washington County Attorney Kevin Magnuson, who took over as county attorney after the death of Pete Orput, is running unopposed. Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry also is running unopposed.
Karwoski is the former Oakdale mayor and city council member who won a special 2016 election to fill the District 2 seat after the death of Commissioner Ted Bearth. He won again in 2018, defeating Ohs by 11 points.
Karwoski, 65, said crime is a top concern for residents of the district, which includes Oakdale, Birchwood Village, Willernie, Pine Springs, Landfall and parts of Mahtomedi, Woodbury and White Bear Lake.
“Ever since the killing of George Floyd, there’s a sense of people wanting to feel safe,” he said. “We’ve made investments in the sheriff’s office and county attorney’s office. If people feel unsafe, we have to stay ahead of the curve and stay proactive to keep our community safe.”
Other top priorities: Clean water and a clean environment and mental health, he said. “It’s better to intervene early rather than wait until a tragedy happens.”
Karwoski serves on the regional Transportation Advisory Board and the county’s Workforce Development board. He also is a member and past chairman of Gold Line BRT, which is working to create bus rapid transit between downtown St. Paul and Woodbury.
Ohs, who has lived in Woodbury for 30 years, served on the Woodbury City Council for 12 years, starting in 2006. Previous to that she served on the city’s economic development commission, an appointed position. She is a founding member and the current chairwoman of the Woodbury Yellow Ribbon Network and serves on the Met Council Gold Line’s Community Business Advisory Commission.
Ohs, a full-time special education teacher at the Woodbury Leadership Academy, said her experience on the Woodbury City Council would serve her well as a county commissioner.
“I just think the county board has been run by older white men for too long, and we need to be more representative,” she said.
Ohs, 60, is a longtime volunteer who works with the homeless population. “That’s my passion,” she said. “It comes down to human dignity. We should all be able to eat and live and contribute. We all deserve a safe, affordable quality of life.”
Other top priorities for Ohs: supporting law enforcement; working on issues surrounding well-being, including substance abuse, food insecurity and mental health, and increasing the number of jobs in Washington County that pay a living wage.
Bigham, who was elected to the Minnesota Senate in a special election in 2018 and re-elected in 2020, served on the Washington County Board prior to her time in the Legislature. Before that, she served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011 and was a member of the Cottage Grove City Council.
She works as a paralegal in the Child Protection Division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
Bigham, 43, estimates that she has knocked on every door in about 90 percent of the district since she started campaigning for the seat in May. “It’s the most important part of the job, but it’s also the most fun,” she said. “You get to meet neighbors, and you get to hear what are their priorities.”
At the top of people’s minds are safe communities and upgrades and improvements to Park Grove Library in Cottage Grove, she said.
“The reason I’m running is county government is where my heart is,” she said. “Through my experience in the community, I’m able to deliver the results for this area.”
District 4 includes Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Grey Cloud Island Township, Denmark Township and a portion of Woodbury.
Elected to the Minnesota House in 2020, Franke, the owner of Park Café and Franke’s Corner Bar in St. Paul Park, previously served in the House from 2016-2018 and is a former St. Paul Park mayor.
Franke, 51, said residents of the district care about “the responsible use of tax dollars and safe and connected communities.”
Among his top priorities: Working to lower property taxes, caring for the county’s aging population and making the proper investments in mental health and addiction services. “In the long run, you’re going to save money,” he said. “It will help reduce costs to your public safety and health and human resources budgets.”
Franke said his experience as a business owner – “I’ve signed both sides of a paycheck” – would benefit the residents of the district.
“People are like, ‘Why do you still do this?’” he said. “It’s good to be that common-sense person who is on the ground bringing that different perspective to the discussion. How many other politicians do you know who spent the morning unclogging a urinal? I had to use a snake and a plunger. I’m not your typical politician.”
Michelle Clasen, 43, is a recruitment consultant in healthcare who previously worked in city leadership for more than 12 years, working with communities in Washington, Dakota and Ramsey counties.
She’s worked with Hugo, Falcon Heights, Hugo, Landfall and Inver Grove Heights, among others.
“It’s uncommon to have a staffer become an elected official, but this is a chance for me to serve my community, and I’m excited for the opportunity,” she said.
Clasen, who ran against Weik in 2020 and lost, said she has knocked on “thousands” of doors in Woodbury while campaigning this year. “I love talking to people, and I just know a lot about government services,” she said. “I think people need to get involved in the community.”
Clasen is a single mother of two children – a perspective that she says seems to be missing from the county board. “Single parents do experience things in a different way and have different challenges than a two-parent household,” she said. “I would be able to bring a perspective that would be really valuable.”
Among her top priorities: safe schools, the environment and mental health, especially early child intervention, she said.
“I care a lot about our workforce decline in the county,” she said. “We need to be working on childcare initiatives and making childcare affordable by making vouchers available.”
Andrea Date has served on the Woodbury City Council since 2016. Her current term expires in 2024.
Prior to being elected to the council, Date, 39, served on the city’s parks and natural resources commission for four years and volunteered on the city’s comprehensive plan task force.
“I think we need strong leadership on the county board to make sure Woodbury gets its fair share of resources,” she said. “Woodbury needs somebody who can advocate for Woodbury and has that experience.”
Her top priorities include advocating for federal and state funding to ensure the city is able to treat all wells for PFAS contamination “to the level of zero detect,” she said. “Residents are concerned about the quality of our water. The state settlement funding will treat most of the wells in Woodbury, but it left out the wells that test under the health-risk limit. … That just doesn’t work well for our system in Woodbury. We are a one-pressure system. You can’t treat some and not the others.”
Date said she is especially proud of the city’s work to have an integrated social worker within its public safety department. “They will not only treat a resident who may be having a mental-health crisis in the moment, but also help them get treatment for the long term,” she said. “I want to see that we have the resources we need to get that done throughout the entire county.”
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