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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pedersen Rocks the Mic: Evaluating the Lake County Commission Candidates

The four candidates for Lake County Commission addressed the public Tuesday night at the forum hosted by the local chapter of the American Association of University Women. (And of course they now address the world thanks to the wonders of YouTube!) How'd they do?

Scott Pedersen showed not just the advantages of incumbency and experience. Like many jobs, county commissioner is work that you don't really know how to do until you've done it. Pedersen has done the job in Miner County and now in Lake County. He has worked through the tax assessments and budgets and regulations at all levels that come up on the commission's agendae. Pedersen can rattle off figures on taxable property value, break down the distribution of each tax dollar among the taxing entities in the county, and cite various accomplishments of the commission not because he's studied extra hard, but simply because they've been drilled into his head through regular discussion as part of the job of commissioner. Pedersen grounds every answer in specific policy experience. Anyone else who wants to speak with such authority on county matters would have to spend a lot of time attending meetings, reviewing the minutes, and talking to county officials and citizens.

Eager reader (and new property tax payer! congrats!) Brett Kearin picks another important forum moment that shows why Pedersen is a good politician (and I use the word in a good sense):

When asked the question about what can be done for response time for rural Lake County residences - he took the time to turn around and ask if the residence had experienced any troubles personally. It did not feel that Pedersen was trying to make... any point by asking that question, but had general, honest concern about the question and wanted to do what he can to help the citizens that he serves [Brett Kearin, online comment, Madville Times, 2010.10.20].

Bingo. When Pedersen asked this question, he wasn't doing a Daugaard and trying to put a questioner on the spot. Pedersen heard a constituent expressing a concern, saw a chance to gain input that would help the commission do its job, and sought that input. We Web guys in particular love that kind of receptivity to citizen input. Pedersen has shown similar skill interacting with the public and managing community participation in big meetings like the discussion of the public access area at Lake Madison. Tuesday night, Pedersen showed that even in the midst of a campaign event, he's still doing the job he was elected to do.

Craig Johannsen also enjoys the advantages of experience and incumben—whoops! Wait a minute; Johannsen's not on the commission any more. He got beat in 2008. But as Rod Goeman has noted on these pages, Johannsen has indeed been running ads in the paper urging us to "Re-elect Craig Johannsen."

Is that fishy campaigning? "Re-elect" is generally the verbal purview of those in office. But technically (stretch that word out, say it funny, make some winky quote marks), Johannsen has been elected twice before. So electing him again would be re-electing him, even though he's not in office. I can find re-elect used in this same sense to describe Grover Cleveland's second swing at the Presidency when he defeated incumbent Benjamin Harrison*... and if it's on Wikipedia, it must be true, right?

Quibble as we may over Johannsen's word choice, Johannsen also brings a whole lot of board experience. In addition to ten years on the county commission, he's involved with a whole string of other committees, local governing bodies, and even the food pantry. He boosts his pitch by noting he's rented out his farm land and has even more time to devote to public affairs. He says if elected, he'll have an open-door policy: people can come to his house with county concerns, not to mention just calling or catching him on the street (hey, Craig! what about a blog?).

One more word choice note: Johannsen still speaks of the commission in the first-person plural: we. We hired a deputy... maybe Craig himself occasionally forgets he's not on the commission! Or maybe that we simply demonstrates Johannsen's sense that local government is us. The we that hires a deputy or increases taxes isn't just five guys in a room; it's we the people, all of Lake County.

Against these experienced commissioners, political newcomers Kelli Wollmann and Doug Erickson inevitably pale a bit in comparison. Both Wollmann and Erickson have valid experiences and perspectives they could bring to the county commission. Both are members of the board at Prairie Village, which operates as its own municipality. Wollmann was a stay-at-home mom for a long time before taking a special ed job with the school district this year. Erickson is a landscaper and handyman, and he emphasizes his thoroughly blue-collar background as a qualification for the job.

But purely on public performance, Wollmann and Erickson both came across as somewhat more tentative. That's understandable with Erickson: I've spoken with him before, and I know that public speaking is entirely new to him. Erickson has a pretty steep learning curve to become an effective commissioner... though that's true of lots of people who get elected to local government. Still, Erickson needs to sell himself a little better. He told Tuesday's crowd, "I'd much rather show you what I can do than stand up here and tell you what I can do." The problem with that is, in politics, you have to tell us what you're going to do. There is no way to show us what you'll do as commissioner until you are commissioner. And a big part of being a commissioner is articulating your vision for the county and explaining the rules you pass. Show us you can do that, and you can get elected.

Wollmann seemed a little more tentative than I expected, given her experience with public music performance. But performing music and talking politics in front of neighbors and reporters are two different cognitive tasks. She demonstrated a little extra insight into law enforcement based on her experience as the wife of a city policeman. She and Erickson both should look for similar personal experiences that they can translate into a discussion of specific county policies.

Now note, this evaluation isn't an endorsement (I'll roll out the Madville Times Voters' Guide 2010 next week). This evaluation is just my read of what we all watched Tuesday night. Your assessments are welcome, too!

*Perhaps we can find precedence for this usage on some old Grover Cleveland campaign buttons. Pat, can you help us out?


  1. Pedersen seems very reasonable and an extremely good facilitator. One of the best I've seen anywhere. Johannsen was board president of our last women's shelter, and rather than find a new director they closed, sold the house, and gave a bonus to her as a parting gift. Seemed strange to many. Wollman has common sense but lets emotions get in her way.

  2. Facilitator: good word, John! Your first pick seems clear... what about your second on the ballot?

  3. Erickson is a good welder, from what I've heard.

  4. John, care to share with the public where all the money went from the sale of the safehouse, and the money that was in the safehouse fund?


  5. Care to share? I am not aware of a safehouse fund. From good reporting by the MDL and Elisa Sands it's public knowledge that Terri McCracken was given a bonus for all of her good work. Her last year's salary was quite high, like 65K if I remember right. Common sense tells us that if we had a cause we truly believed we would want that cause to continue beyond us, not just for our own benefit. If you know more, than share. The community gave to it, and the community is now lacking.


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