County commissioner race

Candidates compete for long-uncontested commissioner seat 

It’s been more than a decade since former St. Louis Park Mayor Gail Dorfman beat now-Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell in a special election to become Hennepin County’s District 3 commissioner.

Dorfman, who lives in St. Louis Park and served as a city council member there before her term as mayor, hasn’t had trouble hanging on to her commissioner seat. She has coasted to reelection unopposed since taking office. 

But that changed this year, when she faced two challengers for the non-partisan position in the Aug. 10 primary. She won by a landslide with more than 78 percent of the vote. Lowry Hill resident and longtime attorney Barry Lazarus came in a distant second with 11 percent of the vote; his name will accompany Dorfman’s on the ballot Nov. 2. 

Despite the separation, Dorfman said she’s not letting her campaign go dormant.

“I think it’s very dangerous as a candidate if you take it for granted,” she said. “To take that and say, ‘huh, we’re fine.’”

She said she’s taking the opportunity to get out and engage people and tell them about her experience and accomplishments. 

Lazarus, meanwhile, is contending that he could offer a better vision and stronger leadership for the district, which includes Southwest and St. Louis Park. It’s his first run for political office; a decision he said was not made lightly. 

The Southwest Journal met with both candidates to talk about their motivation for running and their plans for the district.  

Why they’re running 

Dorfman (commissionerdorfman.org) said after a decade of involvement in big projects and community initiatives, she’s in too deep to back out now. 

Some of what’s still in progress: Development of the Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) line, completion of the Lyndale Avenue rebuild south of Minnehaha Creek, construction of a new Walker Library in Uptown and continued focus on a plan to end homelessness.  

“When I look where I am now in some of the projects that I’m working with the community on and trying to champion, we’re not done yet, so part of it is seeing it through,” she said. 

Lazarus (barrylazarus.com) said several issues prompted him to enter the race, most notably his opposition to 

property tax increases and a proposed freight rail line through St. Louis Park, and his support for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. 

He argued the county has been loose with its spending and needs to better prioritize its expenses. He also said Dorfman hasn’t focused on 3rd District issues and has spent too much time on broad initiatives, such as ending homelessness.

“She calls herself the compassionate candidate,” Lazarus said. “It’s important to measure being compassionate with being fiscally prudent. That’s where we differ.” 

Where they stand

If reelected, Dorfman said she plans to continue her focus on transportation and transit improvements, affordable housing development, ending homelessness and improving public health. 

Major infrastructure improvements such as the new Lyndale Avenue and the soon-to-come Southwest LRT line will boost economic development, she said. She wants to see “smart” growth that will not only grow jobs and housing, but also promote active and healthy living. 

The planned LRT route, or “Kenilworth route,” will start Downtown, travel along the Kenilworth Trail between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, then stretch through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka, ending in Eden Prairie. Not everyone agrees with the placement.

“There’s still some people who think we made a bad choice,” Dorfman said. “But I think most people understand that that’s the choice that was made and now we need to make it work.”

Dorfman said she’s also working with the city of St. Louis Park to mitigate the impact of a potential reroute of Kenilworth-area freight trains to St. Louis Park. The county is also studying the possibility of co-locating freight trains and light rail to avoid the re-route. 

“We made the assumption when we were looking at the [LRT] alignments that the freight rail would be out of Kenilworth,” Dorfman said. “The light rail decision was separate from the freight decision and it was based on there not being freight there.” 

As that process continues, Dorfman hopes to evaluate new transit opportunities, such as a streetcar along the Midtown Greenway.  

On the homelessness front, the city-county partnership aimed at ending that problem by 2016 is making progress despite the rough economy, Dorfman said. She said engagement with nonprofits, churches, businesses and volunteers has brought the region closer to its goal.  

“Which is not that no one ever becomes homeless, but when people do, it will be for a very short period of time and we’ll have a few small shelters that people can go to for a little bit before they get back on track,” Dorfman said. “Then we will have effectively ended homelessness.” 

Dorfman said she would not support public funding for a new Vikings stadium. She took the same stance on the new Twins ballpark and said the recession only strengthens her position.  

“This district was strongly opposed and I was strongly opposed to funding [Target Field] through the sales tax that we ended up passing,” she said. “So I feel exactly the same way about the Vikings stadium.”

Lazarus said reigning in ever-increasing property taxes and prioritizing expenses would be his top priorities.

“I think there’s just no excuse for having real estate taxes simply be the answer to the shortfalls and shortsightedness of spending,” he said. 

He said he wants to expand partnerships with other governmental agencies, get rid of redundant services and hone in on District 3 issues. 

One of those is the freight rail issue, a problem Lazarus said could have been avoided through better planning. 

“I think [Dorfman] threw St. Louis Park under the bus, or under the train, when she didn’t either understand or didn’t foresee the problem with the freight rail going through St. Louis Park,” he said.   

Lazarus is concerned that the proposed route will run too close to homes and a school and will disrupt emergency vehicles and other traffic. He wants further study of alternate routes through less dense areas. 

He also wants to see additional transit improvements in the district, such as the reopening of Nicollet Avenue and further exploration of streetcar lines. 

Lazarus is also pushing for a new Vikings stadium. He supported public funding for Target Field and thinks a collaboration of resources could be used to revamp the Metrodome or build a new multi-purpose facility. 

“I’m not telling you I want Hennepin County to build it,” he said. “But I think it’s more appropriate for the nine-county metropolitan area and the state and the NFL and the [team’s owners] to work together to build a stadium. I think the stadium has possibilities beyond the Vikings playing in it.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]