New year, new blood on Crow Wing County Board
If Steve Barrows had lost his race for Crow Wing County commissioner, he said he would not run again for public office.
But the Baxter City Council member has the voters of District 3 to thank in the Tuesday, Nov. 6, general election for his win—his first bid—of the nonpartisan county seat.
"If I don't prevail tonight, then I would not run again. This would be my final attempt at elected office," Barrows said shortly after the polls closed but before the winners were announced.
"As a county commissioner, I would be 74 years old when this term is up. ... My life would be winding down, and I have a bucket list of things, in terms of travel, that I would want to do, so I would've focused on that."
Barrows speaks in a measured, thoughtful tone. His delivery is steady and reflective, so it's no wonder he has always said he plans to take his new job as county commissioner seriously.
As a candidate, his crop of white hair and resoundingly deep voice became a familiar sight and sound at county board and budget meetings, and he vowed to continue educating himself.
"Door-knocking was something I enjoyed. That's where you get to engage the voters of the district, and I felt like every day that was my job to go out there and engage them to let them know who I am, what I stand for," Barrows said at the county elections office Tuesday.
Barrows received 2,185 votes while his opponent in the race—42-year-old Keith Johnson of Brainerd—received 1,828 votes from the seven precincts that make up the district: two precincts in Baxter and five in Brainerd.
"I was glad that Mr. Johnson jumped in the race. I feel every race should have some competition ... and I do want to thank him for stepping up and running," Barrows said Tuesday. "And I want to thank Commissioner (Rachel Reabe) Nystrom for her years of service on the county board."
Nystrom chose not seek a fourth term as the District 3 representative, citing her recent purchase of a retirement home in District 2, which Commissioner Paul Thiede represents until the new year. Thiede was not re-elected and his successor Bill Brekken will also serve with Barrows.
"You're elected in one portion of the county, but the responsibility of a commissioner is to all of the residents of Crow Wing County, and I would like them to know if any resident has an issue they'd like to bring forward, I am available at any time to meet with any of them," Barrows said.
Driving increases in the county's 2019 preliminary budget are methamphetamine use and county employee health insurance costs. Final board approval of the budget is slated for December.
"My position is that given the out-of-home placement (of children) expenses that were identified during this year's budget talks, we need to take a real hard look and have a conversation with community services, the sheriff's office and the county attorney," Barrows said Thursday.
"Each one of those entities has a role to play in solving that out-of-home placement problem, and so we have to have a conversation with them about how the budget process has impacted their ability to adequately address the (drug) problem."
According to the Minnesota Secretary of State's unofficial vote tallies, Barrows received 54.3 percent of the total votes cast while Johnson received 45.43 percent in District 3; votes for write-in candidates made up the rest or 0.27 percent.
"The first time I ran for office, I did not campaign at all. ... I just got too busy with work and didn't have time to do anything," said Johnson, who made an unsuccessful bid for a Brainerd City Council seat in 2016.
"Steve ran a very honest and good campaign, and he seems like a very nice gentleman," Johnson said after the polls closed on Election Day.
Johnson primarily focused on the methadone clinic, now owned by Valhalla Place, on the south end of South Sixth Street during his campaign for county commissioner.
"I will guarantee there's nobody in this area that would've got rid of that ... like I would've, and the deaths that clinic has created and the problems it's created," Johnson said.
The clinic previously owned by Pinnacle Recovery Services settled a lawsuit in 2016 over an accidental overdose death from methadone, and previously agreed to an $8.5 million wrongful death settlement when a woman treated there caused an automobile crash resulting in the deaths of two people.
Political signs encouraging residents to vote for Barrows were apparent on lawns while signs for Johnson were not as visible, but Johnson said he worked two jobs while Barrows, currently serving on the Baxter City Council, was retired.
Barrows worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Services for almost three decades before becoming a senior accounting supervisor for the sex offender program.
"I'm sure he had a little bit more time on his hands, and if I were to have gotten into the county commissioner seat, boy that would have definitely freed up some time on my end of it, and I would've focused very intensely on the county," Johnson said.
Commissioners serve a four-year term and are paid $30,900 a year.
Commissioners Paul Koering of District 1 and Doug Houge of District 5 were not up for election this year. Their terms end in 2021. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen represents District 4 and was unopposed for a fourth term in Tuesday's election.
"I would've hit the streets a little bit harder, a little bit earlier," Johnson said of campaign regrets. "But at the end of the day, I definitely want to thank from the bottom of my heart everybody that voted for me and believed in me. It's quite an honor."
Unofficial vote totals by precinct
• Baxter P2E—Barrows, 433; Johnson, 363.
• Baxter P2W—Barrows, 429; Johnson, 268.
• Brainerd W-1 P-1—Barrows, 208; Johnson, 225.
• Brainerd W-1 P-2—Barrows, 464; Johnson, 344.
• Brainerd W-3 P-1—Barrows, 204; Johnson, 200.
• Brainerd W-4 P-1—Barrows, 283; Johnson, 208.
• Brainerd W-4 P-2—Barrows, 164; Johnson, 220.