Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown is having a busy spring.
He’s locked in a three-way re-election fight (four-way, if you count the write-in candidate) right as a pandemic sweeps through the city. Grand Forks has only just passed through flood season. And now he’s atop a city government handling a local economy wracked by the aftereffects of antiviral public policy.
“As far as campaigning goes, my full attention – I think 98 percent of my attention – has been on the health of the community, economically and physically,” he said. “(But) we’re facing all of those things as a community, realizing we’re in this together, we’ve got to get through this together. Together we can emerge stronger.”
That is the cruelty of campaign season: it comes for politicians no matter what else they have on their to-do list. And for Brown, the challenge of his campaign is to convince Grand Forks residents that they need more of what they’ve seen for the last 20 years. He gestures broadly at the community success of the last two decades, which he calls a “billion-dollar boom” — counting investment and growth around the community, like at Altru Health System, the city’s west-side manufacturing sector, downtown and beyond.
“If you look at my Facebook page, we’ve got a map that lists like every business we’ve got,” Brown said. “And then the businesses we’re going to have. And people wouldn’t invest in this community if they didn’t have faith in the future of this community.”
But if Brown wants credit for the city’s growth, doesn’t he have to take credit for the rest of its economy, too? He’s faced criticism that economic fundamentals, like local wages, are lagging. And a look at the total civilian labor force (tracked federally for the entire Grand Forks region) shows that it’s still where it was in the mid-1990s.
Brown points to the Flood of 1997, changes at the nearby Air Force base, the 2008 recession and cuts at UND as strong headwinds his administration has had to work against. And he thinks a comparison to stronger workforce growth in other cities – with other situations – is unfair.
“I don’t think it’s a stagnant workforce. I don’t think we’re Fargo or Bismarck. I think we’re Grand Forks,” he said. “And in spite of that, we’re retaining youth age 25-39 at 15 percent, and 30-34 year olds at 22 percent, which is twice the national average. I think to compare ourselves is unfortunate, because we’re not competing with Bismarck or Fargo. We’re competing to be the best Grand Forks we can be.”
Brown lists plenty of priorities on his website, from “senior initiatives” to “downtown engagement and revitalization.” And in interviews, he’s expressed interest in fostering a downtown tech-business campus, development at the Herald building and more focus on public art. But unlike at least one rival, Brown has not released a more lengthy policy paper, and his campaign has not waded very far into the minutiae of government.
This is Brown’s model of leadership. It’s not his style to issue a detailed policy plan, and when he recounts his successes, he doesn’t tell them in terms of special assessments or in tax incentives. Instead, he talks about building relationships with UND, with county government, or about dreaming big in a State of the City Speech.
This can have odd consequences, like the mayor taking credit for interest in building a downtown hotel and events center – a matter of private investment. But Brown insists that it’s his vision that got the city there.
“I take credit for creating the environment that these things could grow in,” he said. “And it’s so funny, I’ve been compared to water: you don’t know it’s gone until you don’t have it. .. My leadership style is to empower, and that creates much more than if I were to micromanage and say, ‘I want this, I want that.’ No, I’m throwing the ball. You guys take it.”