For Mayor Mike Brown, emotions run gamut in days since election loss
Mike Brown reflects, and prepares to begin life outside of City Hall, after the longest mayoral tenure in Grand Forks' history.
Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown — now soon-to-be former mayor, after a defeat in Tuesday’s election — was speaking less than 48 hours after a young, fresh-faced hockey player-turned-businessman ended Brown’s 20-year political career. He said it hurt.
“You put your heart and soul in something, and it's like, we're going to go with this guy — who has no experience, but he's a Republican,” Brown said, referencing mayor-elect Brandon Bochenski’s support from the local party. “It was hurtful. I think I'm allowed to be hurt. But you know, (I’ll) get over and (I’ll) bounce back."
It’s an ironic thing to say for a mayor who, 20 years ago, came to power himself without any prior political experience, unseating an incumbent who had steered the city through the Flood of 1997. Brown admits that he, too, sees the similarities. But he’s mostly stung by what he sees as a Republican backlash to his endorsement of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2018.
"And I was told by people, that this was their intent, to discredit me,” said Brown, who wouldn’t have done 2018 any differently. “If that's how they play — I don't play that way."
Brown, though, is also keenly aware of a community still watching him.
And after an initial conversation earlier this week with the Herald, he called back a reporter to emphasize that, despite his emotions, he’s behind Bochenski as the new mayor. He’s worried about striking the wrong tone, and doesn’t want his legacy to be linked to any perceived displeasure with his successor.
“We've got to move forward. People need faith in their new leader if the community is going to come back stronger than ever," Brown said. "That's part of my responsibility to the community, to support the new commander, the new leader — as well as dealing with my own feelings — by putting the community first."
And, a day later, Brown sent the reporter a text message.
“Your interview will read like Kubler-Ross stages of grief,” he joked, referring to the famous progression of emotions after loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “Life goes on. And hopefully, so do we.”
It’s probably safe to say that Brown is dealing with a lot this week, as he abruptly changes from pondering the community’s future to planning his retirement. In a lengthy interview with the Herald, he remembered the earliest days of his tenure, considered his successes and failures and legacy, and spoke briefly about what comes next. Gardening will be a priority, and spending time with his family, too.
Brown’s personal story has been told so many times — across six mayoral elections — that it hardly bears repeating. But once more, with feeling: Brown, a retired Baylor-educated doctor and a former Air Force missile launch officer, ran for office for the first time in 2000, riding a wave of post-flood anger after plans for flood protection swept up his own home. He ousted Mayor Pat Owens – known by some as “America’s mayor” after her leadership and national presence during the flood – in a three-way race, beating the incumbent who had steered Grand Forks through the darkest years of the flood crisis. Brown then became the longest-serving mayor in city history.
Owens, who now lives in Florida, said she understands the emotions of an election loss.
“It hurts to lose, because you feel like you've done something wrong,” Owens said this week. “But I think people just, at times when there's disasters and things, they get tired of hearing you and they want to have somebody new — new ideas, things like that. I don't think this represents that (Brown) did a bad job."
The consensus from those who are closest to Brown and have known him the longest is that Brown has much to be proud of. He helped build the city’s biggest post-flood institutions, and built a culture at City Hall that drew out staff’s expertise. Hal Gershman, the former City Council president, said much of Brown’s success was in his light, charismatic touch behind the scenes — like putting Air Force generals at ease during dinners in Washington.
And in Brown’s own mind, his mayorship has made the city more vibrant — a buzzword thrown around all the time at City Hall that refers to the health of the city’s civic, artistic and economic life.
But Brown leaves office with the city’s retail sector in the midst of a long decline, punctuated by a drastic economic downturn from COVID-19. When pressed on the city’s sagging workforce numbers (which are stagnant compared to Fargo and Bismarck over the last two decades) Brown argues that he helped avoid the worst.
“The fact that our workforce is flat is not criticism,” he said, ticking off cuts at the local Air Force base and UND and the lingering effects of the 2008 recession. “It's a tribute to us that we're doing as well with what we have."
Bochenski won Tuesday's election with 5,663 votes, with Brown finishing with 3,630 votes. Robin David was third, with 1,989 votes. Bochenski will quickly assume his new duties, with his first City Council meeting as mayor coming next month.
Bochenski’s campaign made much of Grand Forks’ economic condition, promising lower taxes, efficient city government and plans to help Grand Forks residents buy homes. Part of Brown’s frustration with his successor’s campaign is what he calls “rhetoric” and “sound bites.” The promise to lower property taxes he found galling in particular, because he sees the city already working hard to keep rates low.
A unique part of Brown’s style — and one he reiterated through the campaign — was his role as a dreamer, a visionary who would lead the city by peering decades into the future and imagining what it could be. It contrasted starkly with Bochenski’s point-by-point plans for a more free-market Grand Forks, and with fellow candidate David’s plan to convene constituents from every part of the community. But as he’s often been fond of saying, it’s the mayor’s job to look far ahead, and to imagine what Grand Forks could be.
Now Brown is caught building a future he’d hoped to avoid. And for now, it’s just a day at a time.
“I'm proud to live here. I think it's a great community. I don't have any plans to move,” he said. And then, after a beat — apparently unable to resist a final, winking argument for his legacy — he laughs: “And our taxes are good!”