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A mix of old and new: Bemidji residents elect incumbents and newcomers

Bemidji City Hall 2020 web art.jpg
Bemidji City Hall.
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BEMIDJI -- It has been a year of change for the city of Bemidji, and that continued this week as residents voted in new leaders.

On Tuesday, voters elected 48-year-old Jorge Prince, the chief financial officer of LaValley Industries, as the new mayor. Prince defeated 31-year-old Michael Meehlhause, the current Ward 1 council member and an academic advisor at TrekNorth High School.

With the votes tallied, Prince won the race 3,919-2,617, a margin of nearly 60-40%. This was Prince's second bid for mayor, as he also ran in 2014, where he was defeated by current Mayor Rita Albrecht.

This year, Albrecht chose not to seek another term as mayor, and instead made a bid for the Minnesota Senate, which was unsuccessful.

In a statement to the Pioneer on Wednesdays, Prince said he was honored and humbled to have won the election.

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"I heard the people of Bemidji loud and clear yesterday," Prince said. "Our citizens voted for change, they voted for greater opportunities for all, they voted for a more accessible and accountable city government and they demonstrated their desire to address our city's many issues with courage and resolve."

Prince also said he will be a voice for all of those who voted on election day.

"I will work hard to represent everyone in our city, putting partisan politics to the side and focusing on finding real solutions," Prince said. "I believe in the people of Bemidji, and I believe in our shared future. We have some of the brightest, most hard working and innovative people anywhere in the world."

In a concession statement on Facebook, Meehlhause said, "please know that I have given everything I have to this city for the last decade of my life. I'm proud of our accomplishments and always tried to make a better future for this community. Thank you for supporting me along the way."

The citizens of Bemidji also passed a special referendum Tuesday. Residents voted 3,542-2,951 to extend the term length of a mayor from two years to four.
Because Meehlhause was running for mayor, he opted not to seek another term in Ward 1. In the race to be his successor, 69-year-old Leech Lake Tribal College instructor Audrey Thayer defeated 33-year-old Voyageurs Expeditionary School teacher Joe Gould.

In the race, Thayer won 476-408, a margin of nearly 54-46%. During the process of Ward 1 votes being reported, though, an error caused some confusion in the early hours on Wednesday.

According to Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer JoDee Treat, her office uploaded results from election day ballots and absentee ballots to the Minnesota Secretary of State's website. Then, Treat's department attempted to upload the results from direct ballots, which is where residents come in to vote at the auditor's office before the election.

In the process of uploading those results, instead of adding them to the totals already there, the direct ballot numbers replaced them making Gould to appear in the lead. Later on Wednesday morning, the numbers were corrected, showing Thayer as the winner.

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"I have a lot of gratitude for those who voted for me in Ward 1," Thayer told the Pioneer. "I'm about community, and so I'm just very grateful. I'm looking forward to working hard for the city of Bemidji. I thank all of the people who helped me get elected. It took a lot of work. I'm going to be the first Indigenous American woman ever appointed on the Bemidji City Council. My ears are open to all cultures and all walks in the community."

In a statement to the Pioneer, Gould said, "I am proud and honored to receive nearly half the votes. It was a historically high turnout and that is great overall."

Thayer and Prince join Josh Peterson as newly elected city officials this year. In August, Peterson defeated Jaime Thibodeaux 224-145 in a special election for Ward 2 after Mike Beard resigned the seat for health reasons.

That race was the first of two special elections this year, the other taking place this week. On Tuesday, a special election took place for the city's at-large seat, as Jim Thompson resigned from the role in the summer because of health reasons.

The four candidates in the special election were:

  • Daniel Jourdain, a 35-year-old employment specialist with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
  • Dave Larson, a 76-year-old semi-retired freelance architect who served as Bemidji Mayor from 2010-2012 and a council member from 2014-2018.
  • Linda Lemmer, a 74-year-old who's retired from the state of Minnesota as a rehabilitation counselor.
  • Roger Schmidt, a 75-year-old retired educator and superintendent of the Red Lake School District.

On Tuesday, Larson finished first with 2,160 votes, followed by Jourdain with 1,784, Lemmer with 1,319 and Schmidt with 777. Because no candidate earned 50% of the vote, another special election will take place early next year between Jourdain and Larson.
In a Facebook statement, Jourdain said, "thank you Bemidji, Minnesota, for the unbelievable support you have provided. This special election is about the people and what they deserve. Bemidji needs strong leadership that empowers everyone to come together and build partnerships."

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Incumbent success

While there are several newcomers coming to the Council table, there will also be experience in the years ahead. In Ward 3, 70-year-old incumbent Ron Johnson, a promotion manager at Lakeland PBS earned a sixth term.

In the race, Johnson defeated Greg Kuhn, a 48-year-old asset manager at Peterson Sheet Metal, 967-608. In speaking to the Pioneer, Johnson praised his opponent.

"I'd like to thank my opponent for his interest in city government," Johnson said. "We both ran a good, respectable campaign, and I hope he continues to show interest and involvement in our community.

Johnson also said he's "very pleased with the results. I want to thank the people of Ward 3 for electing me to another term on the Council . . . I'm looking forward to working with a new mayor and council to continue building a better Bemidji."

Another incumbent, 73-year-old Nancy Erickson of Ward 5, also won on Tuesday. A retired accountant, Erickson was on the council from 2000-2008, and rejoined the governing body in 2012 and has served since.

Erickson won the race over 56-year-old Don Heinonen, a shop fleet manager. The vote tally was 797-637 in favor of Erickson, a margin of about 55-44%.

"I'd like to thank everyone for their support," Erickson told the Pioneer. "I look forward to serving another four years and I will do the best that I can on behalf of the public."

Heinonen, who also ran for the council in 2014, 2016 and 2018, spoke to the Pioneer and said, "I'm a little disappointed with the outcome of the election, but all-in-all, I'd like to thank the voters for being part of the process and for their continued support as I try to do some public service. It's always humbling to see the number or people who put their confidence in you."

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