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East Grand Forks mayor candidate wants to give back in role as city leader

East Grand Forks mayoral candidate Steve Gander, right, and his son, John, put up a campaign sign in a southend front yard recently. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Steve Gander is no stranger to the East Grand Forks City Hall.

A former City Council member and representative on city boards, Gander, 56, has spent hours within its walls discussing and voting on city matters.

It's been nearly 10 years since Gander, an optometrist, was last elected to public office, but he said the time is right for him to step back into the political arena and has set his sights on the title of mayor.

For him, stepping into the role is about giving back to a community where he and his wife of 26 years, Ros, have built their lives, including raising two sons.

"I don't see it as being particularly glamorous," he said of serving as mayor. "To me, it's rolling up our sleeves and doing the people's work."

Unlike other races he's ran in the past, this one is uncontested. The lack of an opponent hasn't stopped Gander from engaging in the usual campaign activities, such as handing out flyers and knocking on doors.

Leading the city is not a charge the lifelong East Grand Forks resident takes lightly, and it's one those close to him say he will give his all.

"He is very much a man of integrity and when he does something, he does it well and he sees it through," said the Rev. Sam Wellumson, pastor of Christ the King Free Lutheran Church. "I've always appreciated that about him."

Priorities

If elected mayor, Gander said his priorities would be maintaining and improving residents' quality of life in East Grand Forks.

To him, the community should be a welcoming place to both new residents and businesses. It should also provide the best services it can, such as police and fire protection, as well as keeping up streets and other city infrastructure.

"We want to prioritize those sorts of things ahead of all kinds of other expenditures," he said.

On his flyers, a trio of words define Gander's campaign: trust, teamwork and transparency.

The latter of the three words is a key priority for Gander, who wants city government to be accountable to the people it's serving.

It's also a term his friend of more than 20 years and partner in a rental property management business, Craig Johnson, would use to describe Gander himself.

"What you see is what you get," Johnson said. "He tries to be very transparent, and he does a pretty good job of that."

Gander's race for mayor has been a long-time coming, according to another friend, Mark Berntson. The pair go back more than 25 years, and Berntson, a family doctor at Sanford Health in East Grand Forks, can recall Gander saying he would run for mayor two decades ago.

"I think it was one of his things where he felt like he had a civic duty to do and at some point in his life he was going to be mayor," Berntson said.

Giving back

With no opposition in sight, Gander is set to be elected the first new mayor the city has seen in 20 years. Longtime Mayor Lynn Stauss opted to forgo another run for the office, citing health problems.

As mayor, Gander would be steps away from City Hall during the workweek. Opticare Forks Vision Clinic, where he practices as an optometrist, is just across DeMers Avenue from the city building.

Gander's pursuit of an optometry career started at the age of 16, when he attempted to get his driver's license. A failed visual exam meant glasses, but better sight meant an improved life for the young man. The experience sparked a nearly 30-year career for Gander.

"It's kind of a passion for me to help people see better," he said.

Attending optometry school in Chicago took him away from East Grand Forks for four years, and it was in Chicago Gander took in the big city sights and experiences. As his time at school came to a close, his thoughts were on his hometown.

"I'm here on purpose," Gander said. "I could have moved anywhere, but this is where I wanted to be, this is where I wanted to raise a family and grow old."

In the three decades since, he and Ros have raised two sons, John, 20, and Tom, 23, and have been active members of their community. In their spare time, the family spends its time outdoors hunting, backpacking and a host of other activities. Gander is an avid marathon runner. He has 24 races under his belt in 17 states and said he hopes to run one in every state during his lifetime.

Along for 14 of those races was Berntson, who has witnessed firsthand Gander's drive.

"If Steve sets out to do it, he achieves what he wants to do," Berntson said.

The call to give back also makes up a large part of Gander's personal life, with participation in civic groups, city boards and his church all priorities.

"He's definitely dedicated to service," Johnson said. "He feels that he's been born and raised in East Grand Forks and hat the community has given a lot to him and his family, and he certainly wants to give back."

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