« So Many Opinions, So Little Time

Fargo mayor Walaker learns politics can be a harsh business

by Mike McFeely

(NOTE: This is the column I wrote for the The Extra newspaper for May 8, 2014.)

Dennis Walaker has to be wondering what he did to deserve this. The Fargo mayor, folk hero of the record 2009 Red River flood and the man who's presided over Fargo as the city blossomed from the butt of endless jokes to something of a hip and happening place, is being challenged for his job by a colleague whose platform is basically this: Dennis is old and tired.

Politics is a cruel world. Especially taking into consideration the challenger is a senior citizen himself.

Thus far city commissioner Brad Wimmer hasn't brought much to the table other than code words like "fresh," "change," "new" and "energy" -- apparently he and his high-powered campaign team believe 73 years old (Walaker's age) is past one's prime -- but that likely will change between now and the June 10 election. Or maybe it won't.

After all, where can Wimmer hit Walaker to say he would've done things differently?

Walaker was the rock on which Fargoans (and Moorhead residents, frankly) leaned during the most stressful times of the 2009 flood. He was the one who said the city was not going to evacuate, that we'd stay and fight the rising waters. Since then, Walaker has unwaveringly fought for the needed Fargo-Moorhead diversion project. He's also been in charge during an unprecedented time of in-city flood protection including home buyouts and levee building.

Walaker's eight years have also seen the explosive revitalization of downtown Fargo, a massive upgrade in infrastructure like water mains and sanitary sewer, lower taxes and both population and economic growth. It isn't like Fargo has dried up and blown away with Walaker in charge. Wimmer himself told the Associated Press: " Fargo's a hot city right now. We're doing well."

So the motivation for running is ... what, exactly? "We just want to bring it up a notch and do a little better," Wimmer said.

Wimmer's campaign web site lists flood protection, strategic business growth and keeping Fargo fiscally and physically fit as hit top priorities. Much of the site seems to be geared toward throwing thinly-veiled shots at Walaker's age and fitness. There is a section highlighting that Wimmer will be riding a lead bicycle in this weekend's Fargo Marathon. He has regular meet-and-greets titled "Wake Up with Wimmer." His oddly-paired initiative of fiscal and physical well-being is called "Fargo Fit."

The messaging his clear: Walaker is ready for pasture. Wimmer seems to be saying, "Thanks for all the hard work and success, Mayor. Now get lost, your time is past."

It all seems so heartless.

It's up to Walaker to counter with a campaign that not only points to his accomplishments, but shows voters he's not exactly the washed-up old man he's being painted as. On a recent day, Walaker had four ceremonial, ribbon-cutting-type appearances around the city in addition to his regular duties as mayor. Prior to Wimmer's challenge, Walaker didn't need to let people know what he did in a typical day. Now he does.

It'll be a tall order for Walaker. His first "campaign" in 2006 was based on flood protection and Walaker spend almost nothing. He went unchallenged in 2010, didn't need to campaign and received more than 90 percent of the vote. Walaker, frankly, isn't much of a campaigner. He's never needed to be.

Wimmer, meantime, has assembled a team that includes some of the power players in Fargo -- former North Dakota State basketball coach Erv Inniger, state Sen. Tony Grindberg, former North Dakota National Guard commander Gen. Mike Haugen -- and is likely to outspend Walaker by 10 to 1 or more. It's been said Wimmer's slick campaign could cost upwards of $75,000.

Wimmer also appears willing to infuse some partisan flavor into the race for a non-partisan office. He is a well-connected Republican and Inniger, Grindberg and Haugen -- the three most visible luminaries on his campaign team -- are all Republicans. There is even talk of national Republican operatives on the ground in Fargo to help with the campaign.

Walaker, meanwhile, has endorsed candidates of both parties during his time as mayor. He's been more interested in helping candidates get elected who will benefit Fargo, rather than political affiliation.

For that unselfish commitment to his city, Walaker is being told he's too old and tired to do the job any longer. Harsh business, politics.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on 790 KFGO-AM. His show airs weekdays from 2-5 p.m.)