Dan Erhart reflected this week on his 30 years of service on the Anoka County Board, which comes to an end next month.
His mantra during his tenure on the board has been to get things done that benefit Anoka County, Erhart said.
Erhart, who was defeated in the Nov. 6 general election by Coon Rapids City Councilmember Scott Schulte, attended his last scheduled county board meeting Tuesday, as well as his final meeting of the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority.
A reception to honor and thank both Erhart and County Commissioner Andy Westerberg, who also lost in the general election after two years as a board member, took place Tuesday afternoon.
According to Erhart, he has requested that no testimonial event in his honor take place.
Erhart did not become involved in politics until he went to work with United Power Association (now Great River Energy) in 1968 in a government and public affairs position in which he lobbied at both the state and federal levels on rural electric cooperative issues.
Growing up in Pine City, both his parents were active in DFL politics and Erhart graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of science degree.
His professional career began in 1963 at Lawnmasters Company in Lake Minnetonka, a specialty irrigation company, then in 1966 he went to work for Honeywell Inc. in the company’s military division where he was involved in production and quality control in the manufacture of torpedoes.
But even when his interest in politics was sparked at his job with UPA, he had little interest in running for office, according to Erhart.
Instead, he became involved in the Eighth District Congressional race and DFL politics in the early 1970s when Congressman John Blatnik retired for health reasons and Jim Oberstar, who was a staffer for Blatnik in Washington, D.C., decided to seek the DFL endorsement for the seat.
Most of Anoka County was in the Eighth District at that time, Erhart said.
Oberstar lost his endorsement bid to Tony Perpich, but at the urging of his supporters, including Erhart, ran in the DFL primary against Perpich and won, then was elected in the general election.
“I got deeply involved in the race for Oberstar and encouraged him to run in the primary,” Erhart said.
According to Erhart, he and his wife Kathy campaigned hard for Oberstar in Anoka County and became friends with many people, who urged him to run for the Anoka County Board when it expanded from five to seven seats for the 1982 election.
Erhart ran in District 7, which was an open seat, representing parts of Anoka and Coon Rapids as it does today.
He felt he was ready for elective office because of his involvement in the political scene as a lobbyist for UPA, Erhart said.
“Usually people go into lobbying after serving in office,” he said.
“I learned the business first before I was elected to office.”
But it was a difficult decision to run, Erhart said. “It was a big commitment,” he said.
Erhart had plenty of competition for the seat with nine candidates in the primary. He and the late Art Bendiske of Anoka emerged as the top two to contest the general election which Erhart won.
“I can’t say enough good things about Art Bendiske,” Erhart said. “He was a wonderful man.”
Moreover, it was a very clean campaign, he said.
In fact, Erhart said he spent $12,000 on his campaign, which did not focus on a single issue, and $8,000 of that was his own money.
With his election to the county board, Erhart left his job with UPA and initially accepted a job as a stockbroker, but in 1983, he launched his own business, along with his wife. Pine Properties is a company that develops, markets, sells and finances residential property in Pine City.
Erhart never imagined that he would serve on the county board for 30 years, he said.
“I thought I would be on the board for two years,” Erhart said. “I had no idea that I would be here this long.”
According to Erhart, he has never run on any one specific issue and he “finds it troubling” when candidates do so.
His only interest has been to get things done in the best interests of Anoka County, Erhart said.
“I have never been in this with a personal agenda,” he said.
Nor has he ever had any desire to run for higher office, Erhart said.
“Everything I have attempted to do has been for the good of Anoka County,” he said.
During his tenure on the board, Erhart served as chairperson from 1987 to 2004 during which time major organizational changes took place to make county government more efficient and responsive, he said.
In addition, he was chairperson of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority and the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority spearheading the effort to make Minnesota’s first commuter rail line a reality and he’s proud of that, Erhart said.
“Big projects kind of interest me,” he said. “They have long-term importance in creating better quality of life in Anoka County.”
Those projects have also included the expansion of the Anoka County Airport, the National Sports Center and the Schwan’s Super Rink, working to preserve Anoka Technical College when it seemed possible it might be shut down, and the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth/Superior through Anoka County, of which Erhart has been a strong proponent.
In fact, Erhart said he is “so disappointed” that the current majority on the county board and regional rail authority voted to withdraw the county from the NLX Alliance, which is working on the project.
That will mean no expansion of Northstar Commuter Rail to St. Cloud, nor construction of a third main line between Coon Creek Junction in Coon Rapids and I-694 in Fridley, vital in creating a “good public transportation system in Anoka County,” according to Erhart.
In fact, the NLX action has made Anoka County “a laughing stock” and he fears that economic development opportunities will go south and southwest rather than to Anoka County, Erhart said.
For Erhart, one of his major achievements in his years in office is “getting Northstar done,” he said.
Good public transportation is vital to the future of Anoka County, making it a great place to live, raise a family and retire as well as spurring economic development, Erhart said.
Northstar is also important because it ties into Minneapolis, which is the economic center of Minnesota as well as being one of the biggest in the Upper Midwest, he said.
“Rail is better than buses because it is not affected by the weather and there is a strong preference for rail by commuters,” Erhart said.
According to Erhart, Northstar would have been enhanced had the line gone to St. Cloud in the first place at cost of $265 million instead of being delayed a few years and costing $320 million to end at Big Lake.
“Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad had a greater need for a commuter rail line then,” Erhart said.
That would have meant more trains would have been running on weekends and in the middle of the day, not just during peak hours as now, and would have produced greater ridership, he said.
But he did not believe that Northstar would be immediately successful in terms of ridership, Erhart said.
“You have to look long-term, 30, 40 or 50 years beyond, not the short-term,” he said.
According to Erhart, the Main Street reconstruction project completed this year would not have happened without the efforts of Anoka County Public Services Director Jon Olson, then county highway engineer, and himself meeting with Elwyn Tinklenberg when he was state transportation commissioner and persuading him to turn what was State Highway 242 back to the county where it has become Main Street.
With the change in jurisdiction, Main Street became eligible for state turnback dollars; without that, the road would not have been reconstructed, Erhart said.
“That needed to happen,” he said.
With retired County Commissioner Dennis Berg, Erhart said he also worked to secure funding for the third lane on Highway 10 between Egret and Hanson boulevards.
“He wanted the road expanded from Hanson to Seventh Avenue, but that did not happen,” he said.
Erhart describes himself as a “progressive,” not a “liberal.”
“I am very conservative in my personal life and with the county’s dollars,” Erhart said.
While he was chairperson, the county’s per capita tax bite was fifth, sixth or seventh lowest in the state, he said.
But he voted against the county board’s $8.1 million tax levy decrease last year because he felt it was “flawed” and damaging to the county’s future, especially in maintaining the fiscal disparities law, which will be threatened by action in the 2013 Minnesota Legislature, Erhart said.
The board majority’s actions have hurt the county’s long-term future and have shown no vision to make Anoka County one of best places to live, he said.
At one time, he was considering not running for re-election this year, but did so because his supporters urged him to do so and he hoped the election would change the current majority on the board, according to Erhart.
“I did not run a negative campaign,” Erhart said.
“I have never run a negative campaign in 30 years.”
Erhart is leaving the board with no bitterness, he said.
“I have had a great time, it has been a fun job and I have enjoyed serving the people of Anoka County immensely,” Erhart said.
As to whether he will run again – the District 7 seat will be on the ballot again in two years – Erhart said he would use the term “never say never.”
Erhart, 71, has no specific plans for the future but he has been talking some people on a number of different levels and he did not rule out going back to lobbying, he said.
But it would have to be an issue in which he believes and “good for Anoka County,” Erhart said.
He wants to revive his business, which has been dormant for several years because of Erhart’s county board commitments, he said.
“The land development business is picking up a little bit,” Erhart said.
However, health in the form of back issues – he had surgery a few years ago – and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, which has caused numbness despite surgery on both, will restrict his physical activity, which he enjoyed as part of running his business, Erhart said.
When his tenure on the board ends officially at the close of the business day, Jan. 7, 2013, Erhart said he will have a chance to enjoy the things he likes to do without stopping to check his watch to make sure he makes his next meeting.
For example, that might be a pheasant hunting guide in South Dakota, he said.
But he remains a member of a Minnesota Racing Commission, to which he was appointed to a six-year term by Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this year.
“I find it interesting,” Erhart said.
And he will continue his membership in the Anoka Rotary Club and Coon Rapids Rotary Club.
Nor does he plan to move from Coon Rapids, which he calls a “great city,” where he and Kathy, who retired from Mercy Hospital after 30 years, have lived for more than 40 years.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Anoka County,” Erhart said.
“It is a great community and I have been honored to serve the county through public office. It is something I will treasure the rest of my life.”
Peter Bodley is at firstname.lastname@example.org