Candidates for Eden Prairie City Council and mayor have begun putting their campaign strategies into play and differentiating themselves from competitors. The Wednesday, Aug. 31, candidate forum held by the League of Women Voters was an important step in that process.
The two-hour forum, held by LWV members from Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Hopkins, allowed the six candidates to share their visions and show their knowledge of Eden Prairie city government and the issues on which it deliberates.
The six are: two candidates for mayor, incumbent Ron Case and challenger Tracey Schowalter; and four candidates for two city council member seats, incumbents Mark Freiberg and Kathy Nelson, and challengers Greg Lehman and Micah Olson. The winners in the Nov. 8 election will serve four-year terms on the council, which has five members overall, including the mayor.
The three incumbents, not surprisingly, are running on their experience and record:
- Combined 46 years of elected experience and nearly 115 years living in Eden Prairie; and
- High satisfaction levels among constituents, with 93 percent of respondents in a 2021 survey rating their overall quality of life as excellent or good, which places Eden Prairie’s quality of life rating higher than benchmark communities.
“Why would we change course?” Case asked. “For what reason? And what’s the expected outcome?”
That means the challengers – all running for city office for the first time (Lehman has previously served on the Eden Prairie School Board) – are focusing on better ways to serve residents, tapping under-involved demographics, bringing new ideas to the council, or setting themselves apart in other ways.
Olson, for example, acknowledged that he is “young and new” to Eden Prairie but, as such, can appeal to a largely untapped demographic. “It’s time to do politics differently,” he said, adding that his campaign focuses on creating safe neighborhoods, economic opportunity, and greater trust and engagement.
Lehman emphasized his problem-solving skills honed in tech support, and his work with people of varying international backgrounds. He noted that city leaders have been good stewards of the community. “I want to participate in continuing that,” he added.
And, Schowalter spoke to the importance of having an empathetic approach to constituents and their concerns “in a very tumultuous time.” She said she feels that, in a city of roughly 65,000 residents, an incumbent mayor should not go unchallenged in an election.
The format Wednesday, aside from opening and closing statements from each candidate, consisted of questions the LWV recruited from constituents and posed to all candidates. Each candidate was allotted two minutes to respond to a question. It resulted in almost no back-and-forth debate between the candidates.
Most questions focused on candidates’ backgrounds and priorities, with only a few on specific policy matters, and those disclosed few stark differences between candidates.
There were some small variations in responses to questions about how to create more affordable housing.
Incumbents Case, Freiberg, and Nelson noted that the city is already taking steps in that area, including strategies outlined in a long-range plan and the recent implementation of an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance that requires apartment-complex developers to include a specific percentage of units rented at below-market rates.
Olson urged attention to regulations across a broad array of government levels that together raise housing prices. Schowalter and Lehman acknowledged the shortage of affordable housing, but encouraged the city to look at under-utilized sites, possibly properties formerly eyed for commercial use, as potential apartment locations – but not valuable open space or areas with critical natural habitat, Schowalter added.
Similarly, a range of answers came in response to a question about how the city might prevent gun violence in general and specifically incidents such as the recent one at Scheels, where a teenager asked to see a gun, ran off with it, apparently loaded the weapon with ammunition he brought to the store, and killed himself.
Freiberg said he would be open to sitting down with businesses and exploring whether additional, voluntary safety measures could be put in place. Nelson and Case suggested working with other cities and state officials to explore law changes, while Olson, Lehman, and Schowalter emphasized work on the mental health side of the gun-violence issue.
A question about banning plastic bag use at local retailers showed very little support among candidates. Likewise, none of the candidates supported material changes to the city’s budget, though all voiced favor for a “high-service, low-tax” approach.
All candidates also said they would entertain new or expanded ways of notifying residents in advance about issues affecting them, specifically nearby development proposals. Schowalter encouraged a look at wide-scale text messaging. Case and Freiberg spoke of expanding the benchmark used to mail such notices – a 500-foot distance from the development – to 750 feet or even 1,000 feet, when called for, while Lehman and Olson suggested that current practices may be dated, with Olson noting that residents may currently find city council meetings too intimidating.
The League will hold a similar forum featuring local candidates for the Minnesota Legislature on Wednesday, Sept. 7, and another featuring Eden Prairie School Board candidates on Wednesday, Sept. 14. Both start at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers of the Eden Prairie City Center, 8080 Mitchell Road.