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Persell region's lone House Democrat

In a week of Republican surprises, Democrat Rep. John Persell finds himself in the minority -- literally.

The Bemidji DFLer won re-election to a second term Tuesday to his House 4A seat, the only Democrat House member to do so in the region, as the House also switched to Republican control.

"I don't know if it's all soaked in yet," Persell said Thursday afternoon en route to a House DFL Caucus meeting in St. Paul. "This is not what I anticipated, by any stretch of the imagination."

Persell garnered 7,744 votes or 52.9 percent to return to his House 4A seat, while Republican challenger and Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann polled 6,808 votes or 46.5 percent.

There were also 91 write-in votes, with Warriors for Justice candidate Nicole Beaulieu running a write-in campaign.

Gone in the region are DFL Reps. David Olin of Thief River Falls, Bernie Lieder of Crookston, Brita Sailer of Park Rapids and Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids. And with the loss of Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, Persell finds himself with a Republican senator and Republican House 4B colleague in the District 4 makeup.

"I was certainly aware that non-presidential election years can be fairly dynamic, but this is definitely dynamic," said Persell. "The issues haven't changed, that's for sure. The same things are going to confront us, and if everybody's got their heads screwed on right, we'll figure out how to deal with it in a bipartisan fashion. If not, we'll do it all over again in two years and see what the people think here."

Persell had a solid backing almost from the start on Tuesday night, mounting an early lead over Lehmann.

Lehmann, despite winning election two years ago as mayor in a hotly contested race which some viewed as a referendum on the Bemidji Regional Event Center, did not win one city ward Tuesday.

Persell won Ward 1 268-171, Ward 2 377-241, Ward 3 608-443, Ward 4 440-327 and Ward 5 652-395. Persell also captured Bemidji Township, Frohn Township and one of two Northern Township precincts. Lehmann took Northern No. 1 with 975 votes to 887.

But Persell captured Bena, Cass Lake, Pike Bay, Ball Club and Deer River.

Lehmann did not return a call Thursday for comment. His term as mayor ends at the end of the year, with Dave Larson elected to replace him.

"I'm ready to go to work," says Persell. "I just trust we'll be able to find some common ground. I know we can, I think everybody knows that, it's just a matter whether we have the political will to do it."

Republicans will be setting the agenda, he said, but Democrats will still offer input, as the DFL allowed Republicans the past four years.

"We certainly offered plenty of input for the minority in the two years I was there in the majority," he said. "I trust that will be the same now."

He can't put his finger on any one issue that allowed him to survive the Democrat ouster, but his effort to meet all voters in House 4A helped.

"I make a lot of effort to get out and talk with folks, everyday folks, and my message is common sense for the common good," Persell said. "We're all in this together. I believe I draw support from every part of District 4A, and all varieties of people."

He drew support from Republicans and independents as well, he said. "I'll certainly make the effort to let people know that I'll work with anybody who wants to work on the issues.

"I'm a hard-working guy, and I think I appeal to hard-working folks," he said.

His issues haven't changed -- promoting early childhood education, looking out for the eldery and seeking tax fairness. "Those are the issues that are going to move us and have the capacity if we work on them to move us forward."

It will still be "very difficult" to resolve the projected $6 billion state budget deficit, he said. It won't be solved without tax increases -- either with a state tax increase or by pushing it down to local property taxes.

Two years ago there was bipartisan agreement on a budget fix but Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood in the way, Persell said. "We'll be able to make some headway, we're all Minnesotans and by golly we ought to be able to work together."

The two major parties "need to put the politics aside and resolve the issues," he said. "We'll find out if we can. ... It's just a matter of trying to do some good here in two years. I signed up to really work on issues and it's not going to change for me."