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Bjorn To Run

Craig Lassig

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.

So his mother was right?

The candidate sheepishly concedes the point. "Yeah, she was."

 

 

Halloween is a very big deal in Anoka, the self-proclaimed Halloween Capital of the World. In 1920, as an attempt to derail seasonal pranks and hooliganism, Anoka held a city-sponsored celebration of the holiday; it's believed that this was the first U.S. city to do so. Today, it's practically a monthlong event boasting the Anoka Knights of Columbus haunted house, a Grand Day Parade, and an incongruous Halloween wine tasting.

Before the metropolitan area grew up and around it, Anoka was a small town unto itself, and in many ways it still feels like one. The Mississippi River forms the city's southern border, and the Rum River, which flows south into the Mississippi, bisects the town into eastern and western halves. There's a real main street, called--what else?--Main Street, lined with charming shops and small businesses.

It's the birthplace of a kid who was known as Gary Keillor when he graduated from Anoka High School in 1960. Keillor later changed his first name to Garrison and found fame on public radio telling stories about the mythic small Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, the "town that time forgot and decades cannot improve."

The decades have changed Anoka. Years ago, a drive into "the city," 25 miles to the south, might well have been an excursion. But today, the commuter traffic coming across Ferry Street and causing a bottleneck at the entrance to the small downtown dispels any lingering images of Mayberry. The town will have a stop on the planned Northstar Commuter Rail line between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Latte shops have sprung up amid the stores on Main Street, complete with teen Goths.

The city of Anoka is engulfed by sprawl, bounded by the bustling northern suburbs of Coon Rapids, Andover, Champlin, Ramsey, and Dayton. During the past 20 years, the population of Anoka itself--currently 18,000 people--increased by 14 percent. But Anoka County grew by more than 48 percent in the same time period, becoming home to nearly 300,000 people. The city's battles over land use and development are fundamentally no different than those waged in Minneapolis and St. Paul, except that Anoka is smaller, with a dwindling amount of available land.

"Anoka has been sort of slowly swallowed up by the suburbs," explains city council member Brian Wesp. "It's been able to keep its own identity, but it really is faced with a couple of things: How do you go with urbanization and still be attractive to people who want to live in a small town?"

Clearly no one runs for office in Anoka for the money. The mayor is paid $4,200 a year; the four council members make $3,570--not much for officials responsible for a city budget that in 2000 totaled $34.8 million. Council members are elected at-large, rather than from specific parts of the city; elections are nonpartisan.

Nor do Anoka elections usually feature much intrigue. This year there are three seats up for election--including the mayor's--but only two challengers running. Paul Pierce III is making his second bid for a council seat. Both face uphill battles: Pierce was the only challenger in 1998, when he ran for a council seat and lost; and, at 22, Skogquist is perceived by many as too young and green for the top job.

But there's another factor in the background of this year's race. Last year Beberg found himself in the middle of the kind of big-city newspaper stories that aren't so common out here. In the summer of 1999, Sen. Rod Grams, whose Minnesota office is in downtown Anoka, called Anoka County Sheriff Larry Podany, asking the sheriff to find the senator's missing son, Morgan. The younger Grams had borrowed a rental car from a friend a few days earlier but had not returned it. Mayor Beberg, also Podany's chief deputy and a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, stopped the 1999 Isuzu Rodeo later that same night. Months later, the Star Tribune reported that despite the presence of ten bags of marijuana in the vehicle and several empty beer cans, Morgan Grams (then on probation) wasn't detained or charged. Instead he got a ride home in the front seat of Beberg's unmarked car.  

A subsequent investigation of the incident found no evidence that Senator Grams had sought any special treatment but concluded that Beberg and other deputies had mishandled the stop. When the results were released last December, Beberg announced his retirement from the sheriff's office.

A year later it's unclear what impact, if any, the episode may have on next Tuesday's election. "This one incident should not take away all the good [Beberg] has done and the people he has helped," the Anoka County Union editorialized after Beberg's resignation. Yet Beberg has declined invitations to participate in a televised discussion or debate with Skogquist. "The mayor told me, 'The people know what I'm about,'" explains Sandra Shanley of the local ABC League of Women Voters, adding that Beberg did consent to a profile to be aired on local cable.

(For his part, Skogquist has vowed not to exploit the Grams incident. "I don't believe in dirty politics," he says piously. "I don't believe in slinging mud.")

Beberg declined to comment for this story, explaining that he is leery of the media following coverage of the Grams scandal. But, a few weeks ago, he criticized Skogquist to the Star Tribune. "It's not about his being 22, but about his lack of life experience," the mayor said. "Owning property, paying real-estate taxes, belonging to civic groups, taking leadership roles."

Skogquist argues that what he does have is a vision. "I don't think that it's about life experiences at all," he says. "I think it's about who's going to be a better leader. Young people have the ability to lead." Skogquist charges that the current leadership has effectively become a good old boys network. Beberg and the current council, he argues, have dealt with the pressures of growth by embracing any and all development proposals without weighing possible alternatives.

"Anoka needs a new voice. It needs a new idea. It needs a new identity," says Skogquist. "We have a number of older men on the council, and there's nothing wrong with that. Seasoned leadership is great. But their mindset is back 20 years, and that doesn't cut it anymore."

 

 

Limelight is nothing new to Skogquist. A high school passion for theater gave him an early taste for being center stage. His most notable performance occurred during his senior year. He played the lead role of Joseph in the biblically inspired show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In that play, Joseph of Canaan is sold into slavery by jealous siblings, only to later rise to power in a key role under the pharaoh. When his siblings later appear before him begging for help, they don't recognize the brother that they had forsaken. But in the end, of course, everyone lives happily ever after and there is much singing.

(On another occasion, Skogquist shared the stage with Beberg's daughter, a classmate, and attended a cast party at the mayor's house. The scene provided no ironic foreshadowing of the future mayor's race, however. "It was just a cast party," he recalls. "All the cast sat around and watched a movie afterwards and then I went home.")

Teachers recall Skogquist as easygoing, with a winning demeanor. "I've known him both as a performer and a student," says Kent Knutson, the director of theater for Anoka High School. "He's very charismatic. He comes off as very humble and very honest and like he really knows how to listen."

The roots of Skogquist's interest in politics can also be traced to high school. During his senior year, he took a class in "human geography" and, in November of 1995, began spending a lot of time at the Anoka County Historical Society, studying up on the Windego Park Open Air Auditorium, a 1,600-seat amphitheater built along the Rum River in 1914. The outdoor venue once hosted a variety of performances, including full-scale theatrical productions of The Pirates of Penzance and Showboat. In the 1940s the facility fell out of use and into disrepair. The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, back around the time when Paul Pierce, who owns and runs a motel and a historic sanatorium-turned-apartment building in Anoka, organized a cleanup of the amphitheater.

Skogquist was taken with the old facility. In the spring of 1996, he shared his research with his class. And then, because his teachers typically had some of their best students take their presentations to the Anoka City Council, Skogquist found himself before the body, making a real-life pitch for the restoration of the amphitheater. One council member suggested that Skogquist start a nonprofit to work on the project.

That's exactly what Skogquist did, forming the Windego Park Society that summer. Since then, Skogquist has organized others to help clean up and maintain the decaying concrete risers. A hand-painted sign at the site exhorts drivers whizzing by on Ferry Street to "Call Bjorn" to get involved. Skogquist envisions rehabbing the space so that it can once again host an array of live performances.  

He's had some success. In 1998 Skogquist helped convince the Minnesota Department of Transportation to divert a road-construction project that would have involved taking out some of the amphitheater's steps. Skogquist and City Manager Mark Nagel celebrated the agreement in the pages of the Anoka County Union. Since then, progress has been slow. Skogquist estimates that it will take roughly $500,000 to rehabilitate the theater, but his nonprofit has essentially no money. Skogquist says he can't proceed with fundraising until the city grants him a use agreement--basically a lease that would allow him to move forward. The city council has cited concerns about the feasibility of the project: The amphitheater sits a few feet off heavily traveled Ferry Street, and the nearest parking spot is two blocks away.

"I think the issues can be addressed if you're willing to be open to deal with them," Skogquist says. "I feel like I've been given the runaround at least the last couple of years." His literature blames "foot-dragging and red tape" for the delays.

While researching the amphitheater, Skogquist struck up a friendship with Pierce. As it happened, the fellow restoration advocate, age 48, turned out to be a local-politics junkie as well. He's been to nearly every city council meeting in Anoka since 1996, never mind that they're usually sleepy affairs. In 1998 Pierce ran for a council seat and lost by roughly 700 votes. Eventually, the older man became a political mentor to Skogquist; the two share opinions on most issues.

Indeed, Pierce, who is running against incumbent council members John Mann and Mark Freeburg, discouraged Skogquist from running for mayor, fearing it would jeopardize the work the younger man had done on the amphitheater project. (Skogquist insists that the amphitheater is not the motivation for his campaign, and he says that if he's elected, he'll abstain from voting on any amphitheater-related issues.) Skogquist, meanwhile, says he chose to run for mayor instead of a council seat so that he wouldn't drain votes from Pierce.

Someday, Skogquist says, he would like to return to theater. "I'll get back there," he vows, perhaps by becoming an administrator for an arts-related concern or project. He's traveled, and toyed with the idea of being a teacher. But for now, he's trying different things. "You get out of high school and you want to kind of reinvent yourself a little bit," he says.

Sure, but most twentysomethings don't do that by seeking elected office.

 

Undertaking the historic preservation project certainly gave Skogquist his first taste of local politics. And in Anoka, that means development issues. The open space-vs.-development argument is being waged on a couple of different fronts in the town, and Skogquist finds himself on the side of open space: most specific, a spot just south of downtown on the banks of the Rum River where several blocks of housing used to stand.

The homes are gone, torn down over the years since being flooded in 1965 by the Rum River, which overflows its banks every few decades. Since then, the City of Anoka has spent $3 million buying up the land, which is now several acres of grass and trees that people use as a riverside park.

Late last year, the city granted development rights to Rottlund Homes, doing business as David Bernard Builders, to build what's come to be called the RiversPointe development here. Current plans call for 53 townhouses in the first phase of the project, and 20 more in the second phase. Occupants of the $150,000-$200,000 homes will be close enough to walk to downtown stores and offices. "It is just going to be awesome," Beberg told the Anoka County Union in April. The city is helping to finance the project.

But as Skogquist surveys the parklike site, he says that he thinks the city fathers have got it all wrong. "It's on the river, it should be open space. Open space for people to enjoy," he says. Skogquist also questions the wisdom of building anew on a flood plain. For Beberg and the council, Skogquist charges, new construction is the solution to everything. "They've got townhomes on the brain right now."

At this point, the city had expected the project to be under way, but there have been stumbling blocks. For starters, the state has raised questions about the plan. The proposed development is close enough to the Mississippi River to be included in what the state designated a Critical Area back in 1976, with the goal of protecting and preserving the river corridor. Proposed projects in such areas must comply with a host of regulations.  

"Destruction of the natural resources and existing vegetation on the site, and the loss of open space and scenic quality that caused the river to be protected in the first place is especially noncompliant with the...requirements," DNR hydrologist Sandy Fecht noted in an August letter to Anoka officials. The state agency, she concluded, was "very concerned."

City Manager Mark Nagel is sure the city can overcome the objections of the DNR and others. "We continue to believe that we've met all the obligations," he says, noting that the city has sent the DNR additional information. As for the flood risk, no buildings will be placed within 100 feet of the river, and the land will be built up to lessen the risk, according to city plans. (Following a meeting with Anoka officials late last week, Steve Johnson, of the DNR's Water Management Section, said that most of the DNR's concerns had been addressed and that the two sides were close to an agreement.)

Skogquist says he just wants the city leaders to slow down and listen to people's hesitations. Over the summer, after he'd announced his mayoral candidacy, Skogquist asked the city to complete an environmental assessment before proceeding with RiversPointe. Even if the project passes environmental muster, he fears the city can't recoup its investment in the property for years, if ever.

In Skogquist's opinion, the city can't afford the deal. He notes that in recent years the city has exceeded its budget by some $2.7 million. Additionally, he's critical of the decision to spend $526,000 to remodel the municipal liquor store. Nagel counters that the liquor-store overhaul was overdue and had to be done to address a number of issues, including bringing the store into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since the rehab, he adds, profits at the store are up $50,000--money that will be spent on parks. The city has exceeded its budget, Nagel concedes, but he says those costs arose from unexpected expenses of cleaning up after a windstorm in 1997 and for reconstruction of the city pool.

In August the Anoka City Council denied Skogquist's request for an environmental assessment of RiversPointe, with Beberg reiterating his desire to see the development go forward. "All in all, I strongly support the project," he told the Anoka County Union. As for the financial questions, the city has a plan to recoup the cost of improving the land and a significant chunk of the money it will have spent buying the property. A city handout contends that RiversPointe will increase the value of the property from $4 million to $15 million, which means Anoka can ultimately collect more tax revenue, although not for years.

Schoolteacher Mary Handrick lives a block from the proposed flood-plain development and shares Skogquist's concerns. "I was involved with some of the meetings for that, and I felt that the neighbors were not listened to," she says. The council members, she opines, are "not basing their decisions on citizen input. They've already made up their minds."

Beberg's supporters on the council insist that they have listened to their constituents on the RiversPointe issue. "Today's project is the culmination of 35 years of listening and acting," says John Weaver, first elected to the council in 1983. "We did listen and we listened very carefully." John Mann, a 24-year council veteran seeking his seventh term, charges that Skogquist and Pierce are "Johnny-come-latelies" on RiversPointe. "They tried to throw up as many roadblocks as they could pretty late in the ballgame," he says. "It's no secret that [the planning] has been going on for a lot longer than Skogquist has been on earth."

While Weaver supports Beberg, he praises Skogquist's spirit. "He's a nifty kid, he's a wonderful young man," he says, adding that he thought Skogquist was "a standout" in his performance as Joseph.

Mann isn't so charitable. "Some people think it's cute or funny to have a 22-year-old running for mayor," he says. "And I say if you want someone who's 22 years old with no political experience running a $35 million-a-year business, then that's who you should vote for."

 

 

Another day brings another afternoon on the campaign trail. It's sunny and warm and Skogquist is cruising the streets of Anoka in his "campaign-mobile," a 1986 Buick Century Limited, which needs a new muffler and maybe a new starter too. Today, when he knocks on doors, many people recognize him because of a story that ran in that morning's Star Tribune. When he encounters someone who hasn't seen the story, Skogquist makes a point of bringing it up: "It's front page, Metro."

As he pilots the Buick down quiet residential streets, Skogquist muses on the sudden burst of attention to his campaign. "My whole family's been really good about this," he says. "They're doing a very good job of putting up with me." His cell phone rings. "That was somebody that I used to date," he explains after hanging up. "She wanted me to know that she thought it was very telling that my Web site was called ouranoka and his was called PeteBeberg.com." She'd read the morning paper.  

Many people seem delighted to meet the candidate in the flesh, and several folks enthusiastically tell Skogquist they support him. "It's time for a change," several say, declining to give their names. It is, after all, a small town.

While he's unfamiliar with the current race in Anoka, political science professor Tom Scott says that small communities have fewer contentious elections than big cities. Uncontested races are common, he says, and often elected officials are of the same mind on city issues. "They will have their disagreements, but there will be a high degree of unanimity among the city council," says Scott, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "It's kind of hard to come on pretty strong in opposition to somebody if they're your friends and neighbors."

In September Skogquist held his first and only fundraising dinner at the local American Legion Hall. Eighty-five people paid $25 a head to attend, but Skogquist still wonders whether he overpriced himself. The more than $1,300 he cleared on that event, however, provided the biggest chunk of his campaign fund and paid for his lawn signs. The only other large deposit in his war chest came from an anonymous contribution. An unsigned, typed letter showed up in his campaign post-office box with a brief note--"Good luck in your endeavors, young man. I hope you go far"--and five crisp $100 bills.

But since no one is doing any polling in the race, it's unclear whether any of this will really help Skogquist in the voting booth. Beberg has enjoyed four unchallenged terms, and his political allies even more. Eric Hyland, currently a lobbyist with Messerli & Kramer, is the past DFL chair for state Senate district 49, which includes Anoka. He allows that he's not exactly an objective observer, since he's known Beberg since Hyland was in junior high school. Given the community's insular nature, he says, "I would be very surprised if the voters of Anoka are going to dump somebody like Pete for a 22-year-old kid."

Still, folks are starting to think things just might work out differently this year. "I'll tell you this, I believe in term limits," says council member Brian Wesp. "I'm on my second term, and I'm not going to run again. In city government, change is usually good after a certain period of time. And I think we're at that time."

Perhaps most revealing, Beberg is on the defensive. In comments to the Star Tribune last month, for instance, Beberg charged that Skogquist hasn't lived in Anoka in recent years. Skogquist allows that from January through July of this year he was living in Colorado, working for his aunt's medical-billing company and attending a community college. "I think if you go away to school for awhile and come back, that doesn't make you not part of the community," he counters.

At the beginning of the October 16 Anoka City Council meeting, Beberg read a passage from the city charter, which bars candidates for office from using the public comment period included on every council agenda to promote their campaigns. Skogquist was out of the room when Beberg took it upon himself to read the law out loud. After he returned, Skogquist went to the microphone to ask a question.

A tense exchange followed. Beberg insisted on rereading the policy to Skogquist, who calmly attempted to explain that he knew about it and understood, and simply wished to pose a question about RiversPointe. In the end, he asked, got his answer, said "thank you," and sat down.

Skogquist says he bears Beberg no animus, and has a let-the-best-man-win attitude. And on that score, he figures that his community work speaks for itself. "In politics, we don't need to be so emotional all the time," he says. "You can't take it personally, and a lot of people would do that."Besides, there is more campaign literature to be delivered, more doors to knock on, more lawn signs to be planted, and much more work to be done before the November 7 election.


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