Bjorn To Run

In ten years, only one man has had the blind faith to try to unseat Anoka Mayor Pete Beberg. Meet Bjorn Skogquist, new kid in town.

It's a windy, sunless fall day in Anoka. Election season. Campaign lawn signs sprout from leaf-covered front lawns. One of Anoka's two candidates for mayor circles a dining-room table cluttered with city council meeting agendas, petitions, index cards, and a small paper cutter, gathering up a handful of political literature for an afternoon of door-knocking.

The campaign's most dedicated volunteer offers the candidate some advice: "Put your coat on, it's cold outside."

The candidate responds, calmly but firmly. "Mom, get off my back."

Bjorn Skogquist is blond-haired, blue-eyed, and 22 years old. He's trying to unseat fiftysomething incumbent Mayor Pete Beberg, who has held the job for ten years and is seeking a sixth two-year term. In his past four campaigns, Beberg has run unopposed. Skogquist, meanwhile, was all of 12 years old when Beberg was first elected.

Skogquist lives just outside downtown Anoka with his mother, stepfather, and younger sister and brother in a house that's currently doing double duty as his campaign headquarters. He works the 3:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m. shift at the post office in nearby Andover sorting mail. He's done a little work designing Web sites, including his own campaign site (www.ouranoka.net), and he hopes to wrap up an associate of arts degree at Anoka-Ramsey Community College this spring. So what exactly gives him the idea that he would make a good mayor for this town of roughly 18,000 people?

Skogquist says many folks in Anoka have become frustrated with Beberg and the current city council, because they feel that their opinions on issues are not being heard. The discontent pales in comparison to the heated political battles waged in Minneapolis, but in small towns, Skogquist says, people are often reluctant to voice their unhappiness. "People don't come out and say they're frustrated up here," he says. "They just kind of wait and wait and wait for someone [else] to do it."

Over the summer, at the urging of several people--including his 17-year-old brother--Skogquist decided he was that someone. "People have been saying, 'You should run for mayor,' or 'You have a way with words,'" he says. "Most people won't get out and speak at a council meeting." Skogquist, on the other hand, is chronically optimistic. If he just keeps talking, he believes, eventually someone will listen.

The houses on either side of the candidate's have big blue-and-white Skogquist campaign signs planted in the front yards. So does the house across the street. And a house down at the corner has a sign, too. "The neighbors are good--it's the rest of the city I'm worried about," Skogquist quips. On the next street over, his signs roost in two adjacent houses at the end of the block. "I got lucky," he muses. "I've got family in these last two here."

While on the campaign trail, Skogquist assiduously avoids walking on anybody's lawn. He sticks to driveways and sidewalks, even though it takes more time. Back when he had a paper route, he learned that some folks are particular about their yards, and you can't predict who those people are. "It doesn't do any good for me to walk on their lawn and tick them off," he notes, "so I just mind my p's and q's."

At first many of the voters he talks to seem to regard his campaign as something of a novelty. At one home, an elderly white-haired woman slowly opens the door. When Skogquist explains who he is and what he's doing, she looks him up and down incredulously. "Running for mayor?" she asks. "You look like a high school student." Skogquist explains that he graduated in 1996, and recounts what he's done since.

Chief among his accomplishments is the founding of a nonprofit that's working to restore a historic amphitheater on the banks of the Rum River near downtown. (His efforts earned him 21 unsolicited write-in votes for mayor in 1998--a year when Mayor Beberg, as usual, ran unopposed.) The woman smiles broadly. It isn't clear if she's amused or delighted by Skogquist, who hands her a piece of campaign literature and asks her to call if she has any questions.

A few blocks over, Skogquist gets the same response from an older gentleman. "You live up on that street?" he asks. "You're running for mayor? You're not out of school yet, are you?" Skogquist patiently repeats his pitch, but this time the man doesn't seem particularly interested in the answer.

"I think some of the people see me as being a breath of fresh air, they see me as genuine," Skogquist says later. "I'm in there to make a difference. I'm in there to fight the status quo." Lots of candidates say this, but it's clear that for the guileless Skogquist, these are not clichés, but articles of faith.

He turns onto the town's commercial strip and starts pointing out local businesses. Brimming with pride for his town, he sings the praises of their owners. "It's a neat time to be here," he says--again deadly earnest.

He knows that given his youth and Beberg's long tenure, conventional wisdom argues that his is a steep, uphill battle. But right now, the candidate is reassessing his door-knocking attire: battered white and blue tennis shoes, a green V-neck pullover, black jeans. A cell phone hangs from his brown belt and a leather backpack from one shoulder. As a gust of wind slices into his face, Skogquist shivers. "I gotta start dressing up for this," he says.

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