Not so long ago, government and politics were a much smaller part of our lives. Government was transparent, more responsive, and much easier to access and understand. It worked for people, promoted self-sufficiency and protected freedoms. It built things we couldn’t build by ourselves, and respected people’s values equally, whether they lived in the city, suburbs or rural areas. In return, people believed in politics and our political system.
Today, political ideologies prevail and too many bad ideas become laws. Benevolent bureaucrats want more activity under government control and demand more taxes and larger fees to fuel the colossal progression.
We need to rebuild the trust that exists when government is focused on doing the right things that promote self-sufficiency, allow more opportunities and is committed to supporting people unable to care for or protect themselves. When we do this, we all believe in our system.
I can’t wait to hear your story and here’s a little about mine…
For the past nine years, I’ve had the honor to work as the Assistant to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. Prior to joining Jeff, I held several other public service positions including as program manager in the State Energy Office at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, as a researcher in the Minnesota House of Representatives and an administrator in the last remaining township in Hennepin County.
For almost 20 years before that, I owned and operated a small construction company that I started in high school.
I grew up in Medina with an older sister and two younger brothers. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. My dad was a proud lineman who worked for NSP (Xcel Energy) and my mom stayed home with us. We had a small hobby farm with a massive garden, two cows, ducks, rabbits, a horse for a while, and far too many chickens!
My formative years were shaped by my parent’s dedication to their faith, family and the commitment to give their children a better start at being adults. My dad taught me that nothing of value comes without hard work and the discipline to stay the course, regardless of the struggle. I learned that speaking the truth, keeping your word meant everything, and that integrity was a lifelong endeavor. He also somehow knew, and taught me that everyone had a story. He instinctively wanted to hear every one and was overjoyed to reciprocate!
From my mom, I learned about true unconditional love. I learned about self-sacrifice, and self-sufficiency. I leaned that strong relationships are built on trust, empathy and respect and that serving others was not just important, but part of who we are.
Growing up in western Hennepin County, I had the best of both worlds. I was surrounded by strong, self-sufficient people who farmed, worked construction, hunted, did business on a handshake and built communities together. And at the same time, I was enamored by the contrast of where I grew up with the culture, diversity and bustling nature of the urban area a few miles away. To this day, I remain rooted in the rural portion of Hennepin County where I live, while commuting to work in downtown Minneapolis.
I attended Orono Schools and as a junior, started a small landscaping business. I knew that I wanted to attend college and at the time, it seemed like the best way to pay for it. There was little discussion around my plans after high school, nor were there any college tours. But I blindly applied for admission and decided that studying marine biology in Palm Beach Florida was the place for me. It seemed like such a good idea at the time! After one semester, I came back home and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Over the next 5 years, I amassed numerous credits, changed majors, met a girl I would ultimately marry and continued to run my small business.
I learned early that working hard made things possible both at the University and in my business. My small landscaping operation expanded to include urban and rural forestry. We planted seedlings in Alabama, harvested small pine in central Minnesota and produced tens of thousands of round fence posts. I fought wildland fires for the DNR, provided vegetation management for utility companies and landscaped for whoever would hire us. And we were just getting started.
My small company continued to grow and evolve. I built strong relationships with utilities, the forest industry and started discovering ways to enter the municipal construction field. I found that if I combined a bunch of unrelated work in highway contracts, I was able to provide value to large highway/heavy contractors. Making friends and working hard with these experienced contractors provided the necessary experience to take a big step and bigger risk, to becoming a general contractor on my own.
We had our first child (Forrest) in 1989, followed by another (Sally) two years later. We bought a log cabin in the woods in Hassan Township (now Rogers), and the children attended Buffalo Public School, played hockey, tennis, lacrosse, golf and ran track. My cabin is on a bit of an island in the middle of a really big wetland complex. Surrounding yourself with nature, living in it alone ensures that no one can feed your ego. The silence demands introspection and provides a quiet place to recharge.
After a few years and due mostly to my background in park construction, I was appointed to the Hassan Park Board. This was a great introduction to the complexity of government and the hoops that anyone who needs to interact with government must jump through and the time it takes!
I learned the idea and purpose of government. It should be limited, do those things that we cannot do on our own, and do them well. It should be responsive and transparent, and it needs to be accessible when people need it. It takes on a life of its own if its leaders lose focus or only hear the loudest or most influential voices. When this happens, the majority of citizens become merely ATM’s for popular or partisan needs envisioned by entrenched politicians. Within a couple of years, I decided that I could serve my community in a larger capacity. I ran for a seat on the board of supervisors and won.
My company continued to grow. We built park buildings, tennis courts, trails, city monuments and restored wetlands across the Twin Cities. Business is tough, especially municipal construction. Prevailing wages, low bid, retainage, minority participation goals, performance and payment bonds, unemployment insurance, codes, administrative nightmares…all necessary before you set foot on a jobsite!
Our projects were diverse, in that we performed many different scopes of work. And most of my employees had been with me for a long time. Their strong skill sets were far beyond that of one particular trade, making us flexible and efficient. This was the key to my company’s productivity. As my small company continued to grow, it gained the attention of the labor unions and they targeted my company to make it a union contracting company.
Make no mistake, labor unions did a great deal to improve working conditions and they have a place at certain negotiating tables. But small companies like mine struggle and too often fail under the weight and pressure they can impose. Regulators, government and labor unions need to recognize their ability to cause harm, and respect risk-taking entrepreneurs by doing all they can to provide a steady, stable environment to do their business.
At the time it didn’t really feel like I had a choice but to sign on with the unions; maybe I did. I supposed this might be the next step in growing my company. I signed the agreements, and quickly learned that I was far too undercapitalized to withstand a massive transition from having a cross-trained, flexible labor force to one that had distinct boundaries, dozens of additional work rules, and job titles ~~on who could do what~~. Within a year, the company I had started while in high school to pay for college, was no longer solvent.
Hard work is not always enough to ensure success, although it does help define who you are, and more importantly, how you respond to the struggles of life. I enjoyed building projects, but I loved building relationships, solving problems and thinking differently. It was time for me to do what I loved and I was just starting to figure that out.
By this time, I had been elected chair of the town board and Hassan Township was close to being fully annexed by the city it surrounded. Annexation issues are complex and emote strong feelings that are often vocalized, especially by those being annexed. To complicate matters further, recruiting staff to serve in positions that may not exist in a week or year was dreadfully difficult and put the board in a difficult situation of managing the daily operations of the town. Lacking more traditional options, when asked, I resigned my elected position and the board appointed me as the town administrator.
My service as an elected official and administrator of the last urban township in Hennepin County was major asset as I transitioned to work in the research department at the Minnesota House of Representatives. I covered health policy, public health, health licensing and housing committees, built great relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle, and along with staff and agency employees worked hard to produce sound public policy. I believe that most people, including many elected officials, agree on the vast majority of policy goals. What they oftentimes disagree on, is the amount, timing and direction of those public investments. Convincing someone that you have a better approach or idea is hard, but to not try ensures that the best options are too often left behind.
My time at the legislature was cut short when I was offered a job in the State Energy Office at the Dept. of Commerce. I was brought in as a program manager in charge of distributing federal stimulus funds for commercial/industrial energy efficiency programs. In essence, my position managed a program that provided federal grants for the installation of energy efficiency improvements in large buildings. Rather than simply funding the most credit-worthy applicants, I helped create an interest free revolving loan fund to fund the same improvements, with companies paying back the funds using the energy savings from the installed improvements. This initiative leveraged one-time money and revolved in a number of times, thus increasing the program’s overall energy savings without needing additional tax dollars to do so.
I thoroughly enjoyed the people and the work we were doing in the energy office, but in 2010, I made the move to Hennepin County to be the principle aide to Jeff Johnson in his county commissioner office. It’s here that the duality of my life matured. I still live in a log cabin in the woods in rural Hennepin County with the people and values that I grew up with. And every day, I grab a suit and bring those ideals and ethics to the county to broaden the discussion beyond the myopic metro-centric focus.
Counties are the massive delivery system for almost every federal and state mandate. They are complex and frequently confuse the purpose of a public service with its provision. As government grows, it becomes less flexible, focuses inward, stops thinking, and its ability to see the people it’s supposed to serve gets blurry.
Things are much different today, and we need to think differently. What worked in the past, no longer does. We need to take a few risks, identify and measure the outcomes, and focus our limited resources on people, not more programs. We need to work hard, build strong relationships, recognize that not every problem needs a government solution, respect people, find better ways to deliver services and limit public funding for things that provide real, measurable solutions.
I believe that integrity, respect and relationships are the key to community building. I believe these things draw people together. I also believe that ideas matter and we are in friendly competition over ideas every day. I believe I have the skills that can help build a strong community of respect, and one that serves all the people in Hennepin County, and I welcome the opportunity to work alongside you to get it done.
Thanks for reading this abbreviated life story. I’m looking forward to hearing yours.