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Mayoral Candidates face off

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-8de69274-3094-33fb-b2e0-169746b3ce6c">The Northfield mayoral debate between City Councilwoman Rhonda Powell and Mayor Dana Graham, which was held Wednesday night in the Great Hall, was–to editorialize–a tense one.

The candidates spoke about their policies and their visions for Northfield, but personal issues tinged the conversation.

The event started with a short appearance from the two candidates for City Council: Greg Colby and Brad Ness. Then, both mayoral candidates delivered opening statements.

Incumbent Mayor Graham made the first opening statement. He started by speaking about the mayoral election between Pownell and himself that took place four years ago.

“At that time, actually, there were two constitutional amendments on the ballot statewide,” he said. “One was for gay marriage and one was for voter IDs. We had opposite views of that at that time. I was actually pro-gay marriage and against any voter suppression laws.”

This statement is a little misleading. Neither mayoral candidate had voted publically on the issue because Pownell abstained from both votes, according to public record. At the time of the vote, Mayor Graham was not in a publically elected voting position, so his votes on these ballot issues are not public.

Graham went on to emphasize what he has accomplished in his term as mayor: starting a youth initiative, reaching out to the Latinx community and founding Leader Board.

The debate continued with Pownell’s opening statement in which she stated her strong belief that Northfield needs better leadership. She went on to discuss her interests for the city: serving all the people of Northfield, listening to others, taking care of downtown and reaching out to college students.

One of the main themes of Pownell’s campaign has been the tension that she says exists at City Council meetings. In the debate, the moderators asked both candidates about this perceived tension and the alleged silencing of voices, specifically female voices, in the council meetings.

Graham responded to this question first, saying: “Well, I guess I don’t think they’ve been marginalized. When I preside over meetings, I give everyone the same opportunity to speak–the same amount of time. I follow the rules. There have been too many times on City Council when people have tried to silence difference of opinion. ”

Graham asserted the City Council’s productivity, stating: “We are not dysfunctional.” Later, he explained that “there are four women on City Council, and I vote with them the majority of the time, so they’re certainly not being silenced.”

    Pownell disagreed with Graham, saying: “During my door knocking, three-fourths of the people are concerned by lack of civility on City Council. I have experienced it myself. One thing you need to do is show respect to people regardless of their opinions. You do that by building strong working relationships behind the scenes during the week and at City Council meetings. It means giving the same opportunity to people to speak and not cutting them off. There are times when there are only three minutes left in council and only one person has been given the opportunity to speak.”

Pownell said that council members have seen harassing lines of questioning, filibustering and extending meetings to avoid passing measures. “It makes it difficult for us to get things done,” she said.

Both candidates said that they support creating more affordable housing in Northfield but offered different plans for doing so. Graham mentioned an increase in affordable housing as one of his main avenues for creating growth in the community. “We need to grow to make sure Northfield remains affordable,” he said. “We need to increase our tax bases.”

To explain this idea, Graham said that because of the town’s colleges and churches, “67 percent of us pay 100 percent  of the taxes.” He was quick to assure the audience that he believes these institutions bring a lot to the community, but he said he hopes to create more housing and, thus, increase the tax base of the town by creating a larger taxable community.

Pownell mentioned her belief that: “We cannot just let the market take care of it.” She stressed the importance of competent and consistent staff working on city-government housing initiatives. “We need to make sure we have well qualified staff who remain in that role by making the dynamics at city council more civil and fair and safe place for people to work,” Pownell said.

Pownell explained that her plan for economic growth in Northfield is based around “smart growth. That’s a win-win for everyone.” She describes her plan as an “economic gardening type model” that would “build on existing communities and ways to create synergy.” She emphasizes that smart growth tries to differentiate between good and bad growth instead of simply focusing on growth.

She also talked about her belief that “we don’t want to be everywhere USA. We want to be Northfield. People value the downtown. They value the sense of place we have here. We need to make sure those values are supported.”

Another moment of contention arose when Graham stated: “She votes against growth because its not right for Northfield. Well, I don’t know what’s right for Northfield , but I know we need to grow.”

To which Pownell responded: “We have heard a lot of statements that are not true, unfortunately, tonight. There have been no votes in the council against growth, and in fact, the mayor made an unprecedented move in appointing himself to the EDA.”

The EDA, or Economic Development Authority, “seeks to improve the economic condition of Northfield,”according to the Northfield official city website. In this capacity, the group can also give out loans and grants and work.

“Mayors generally don’t do that [appoint themselves to EDA]. They appoint people on their council to serve on the boards and commissions. And unfortunately, the mayor didn’t respect or honor other people on the council enough to support one of his six colleagues to serve in that capacity. We need the council and the EDA to work hand in hand.”

Despite some outwardly hostile moments the candidates agreed on several issues. Both candidates said they support working on green initiatives. In addition, they both mentioned that they support a transit hub near the Northfield depot, a rail line and more transportation opportunities to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both candidates discussed their interest in including diverse viewpoints and in listening to everyone Northfield, including students and minority communities.

Pownell spoke specifically about her interest in undocumented rights, saying: “Undocumented people in our community don’t have access to driver’s licenses. That’s one area I’d really like us to move forward.”

Despite Graham’s claim of being endorsed by Steve Poskanzer, there are no official endorsements from President Steven Poskanzer for either candidate. President Poskanzer said: “I do not make formal political endorsements for any candidate in any race–local, state or national–because I would not want that to be interpreted as an institutional endorsement. I also do not talk publicly about my private political views.”

The Carleton College Republicans do not officially endorse any candidates, but the Carleton Democrats have officially endorsed Pownell stating: “We strongly endorse Rhonda Pownell for Mayor of Northfield. She believes that the best path forward for Northfield is smart, contiguous growth that keeps Northfield from resembling just any sprawling town.”

For those interested in seeing a full, unedited version of the debate, a video is available on Northfield Initiative’s website:

Voting will be held Tuesday, Nov. 8 for almost all students in the UCC Church across from the Weitz Center. Students not living in dorms should check what precinct they are living in, as Northfield option and some on-campus houses vote elsewhere.

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