Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, finishing up the final months of an unprecedented fifth term at City Hall, told the Herald he will run again in June and seek his sixth four-year term.
Brown’s decision to stand for reelection settles the biggest question observers could have about Grand Forks’ June 9 city elections. But he’s not the only one running: four City Council seats will be on the ballot, too, including at least one open seat.
Brown, 69, disclosed his decision by phone from a trip to Florida, and said he had already stopped by City Hall for the petitions he’ll need to collect signatures. The threshold for appearing on the ballot is 300, a number the mayor is expected to easily exceed.
"It's important to continue the momentum that we have established, and that occurs by working together,” Brown said, ticking off developments in the city during his tenure – like the construction of the CanadInn, adjacent to the Alerus Center, and the more recent expansion of J.R. Simplot along Gateway Drive.
“People love this community,” Brown said.
If Brown is reelected, it would mean extending an already two-decades-long political career born in the aftermath of the Flood of 1997, during which Brown helmed the city amid extensive rebuilding efforts and a cascade of changes at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Under Brown, local government has played an active role in the life of the city – shaping housing policy to meet shifting market forces, backing downtown development and even directly funding arts initiatives – sometimes to the chagrin of political opponents who would rather the city played a more expressly functional, conservative role.
Those ideas figured heavily in Brown’s 2016 campaign, which pitted him against then-City Council member Terry Bjerke, who ran on a vision of sparser, limited city government that tended to the city’s basic needs and levied a lighter tax burden. His campaign promised to cast aside spending on “vibrancy,” a common buzzword at City Hall widely understood as a stand-in for the public art, local culture and the like that could help build and retain the city’s population. Though he did not win, Bjerke’s campaign netted roughly 40% of the vote.
Brown has no obvious political foil now, though, and his path to reelection appears unobstructed, at least until a challenger emerges. However, the city has been wracked by big economic questions in recent years, including how to increase the housing stock while lowering its price, how to match workforce growth in Fargo and Bismarck, and what to do about Grand Forks’ shrinking retail sector. The degree to which those issues will loom over the coming election is still unclear.
"I think we live in a free market economy,” Brown said of the city’s retail sector. “The worst thing you could do is to preserve something that's not working. Then you're two playing fields behind, because the rest of the world has moved on.”
But Brown also praised the work being done by Buxton, an analytics firm in Texas, which is set to receive $90,000 jointly from leading community institutions, including $50,000 from the city, to study market behavior in Grand Forks. The project will rely, at least in part, on cell phone locational data and consumer habits.
Brown also added that the city will continue to work with local residents to address their concerns.
"It's important that we continue to listen as a city government,” Brown added. “I think we need to use all the options available to listen to people, to see what does this community expect.”
Sandi Marshall to forgo reelection
There are four City Council seats that will appear on the June 9 ballot. Most notable among them belongs to Sandi Marshall, who represents Ward 5 – southeast Grand Forks, and mostly east of Washington Street – and said this week she does not plan to run for reelection.
Marshall retired as the CEO of Development Homes, Inc., at the end of 2019, and said she plans to spend more time with her family.
"I've been thinking about it for a long time, knowing that I was planning on retiring at the end of 2019 from my regular job,” she said. “In discussing it with my husband – we have three girls, and they all live out of state, so we probably will be doing a lot of traveling.”
Danny Weigel, who represents Ward 1 – portions of UND and neighborhoods to the west – is strongly hinting at a bid for reelection, pointing out that he still feels he has a lot to accomplish and that constituents might hear a decision from him “in the next couple weeks.”
“I'm not 100 percent sure,” he said. “I'm nearly there, though.”
Ken Vein, the City Council vice president who represents Ward 7 – the residential heart of Grand Forks – and said he will run again. He cites his experience with big-scale, water infrastructure projects, like the city’s water treatment plant and the Red River Valley Water Supply project, as well as his current role on the Garrison Diversion board.
Vein is also interested in boosting downtown development and focusing on local street issues.
“My job, I believe, is twofold,” Vein said. “One of them is to represent the needs of the city, and the other is to represent the needs of my ward."
Bret Weber, who represents Ward 3 – downtown and nearby neighborhoods – did not respond to a request for comment.