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An Autumn surprise

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When Autumn Lehrke announced early this year she would run against longtime Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson, the 28-year-old Cottage Grove businesswoman didn't get the most positive feedback.

"When I first decided to run," Lehrke said, "I was told Myra could never be beat."

For 17 years, that was the case. Peterson had such a lockdown on District 4 she twice ran unopposed for her seat and never had an opponent seriously challenge her.

But voters last Tuesday handed a shocking win to Lehrke, a political newcomer seeking public office for the first time, by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. Despite a terrible year for incumbents across the country, it was a result that surprised local observers and leaves the Washington County Board without its second-longest tenured commissioner.

Lehrke chalks her victory up to "a combination of a lot of different things."

"I think a lot of people thought it was time for a change," she said. "A lot of people aren't too fond of career politicians."

Peterson, 71, disputes the career politician tag -- she owned her own small business for years before becoming deeply involved in county politics.

But in a year when voters went to the polls angry, her message got lost, she said. Voters wanted something new, both candidates said in interviews last week.

"The public is just angry," Peterson said, ticking off national issues that helped Republicans sweep back into power nationally and meant trouble for many incumbents. "They're angry about jobs; they're frustrated. The economy doesn't look wonderful."

Peterson's experience message "didn't sell," she said. "I think Autumn ran a very good campaign. She was very aggressive."

During the campaign, Lehrke argued the county needed someone with a new perspective, removed from the day-to-day of county politics, while facing tightened budgets and tough decisions on the levels of service Washington County can afford to provide to its residents. Now, voters will get the "fresh set of eyes" she promised on the campaign trail -- what does it mean for south Washington County?

Lehrke acknowledges she will take her seat in Stillwater at a difficult time.

"I think it's definitely going to be challenging, and that's why it's so appealing to me," she said. "I like challenges; I don't take the easy road."

'Hope someone else will pick up the mantle'

But, local political figures interviewed said the county has lost one of its most experienced and forceful voices, particularly on transportation issues.

Peterson played a key role in the Wakota Bridge reconstruction and Highway 61 projects, lobbying for federal dollars that helped move the huge infrastructure upgrades up by at least a decade.

Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty, who in his first stint as the city's leader in the 1990s worked closely with Peterson and other officials to get the project off the ground, said the county had lost a "strong supporter of Newport."

"I just hope someone else will pick up the mantle" of transportation planning, Geraghty said, including commuter rail that is slated to roll through the area and stop in Newport.

Longtime Woodbury Mayor Bill Hargis is another local figure who worked closely with Peterson over the years.

Hargis, who is retiring this year as mayor, said Peterson's absence from future county transportation discussions "will be an issue." However, Hargis added, one of Peterson's accomplishments was to get other area officials interested in transportation and transit issues.

"That's what she's helped motivate," Hargis said of a greater focus on east-metro transportation needs.

Retiring state Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, worked with Peterson both as a Cottage Grove City Council Member from 2004 through 2006, and as a state legislator since 2007. The change in south Washington County's representation is "a huge loss for transit and transportation options," she said.

'New person with new ideas'

With budgets tight and the state facing a massive budget deficit, tough decisions loom for Washington County Commissioners. Peterson's experience could be missed, the DFLer said.

"I think the community has lost an advocate for this area," Bigham said. "She has a wealth of knowledge -- she knows a lot about everything."

Transportation has long been Peterson's pet issue -- commissioner Bill Pulkrabek called Peterson the board's "transportation guru" during a debate last month -- and she herself is worried it won't receive the same attention without her at the table.

"I hope that the leadership of the cities, the county and the region will stay focused on rail," she said, saying long-term economic development relies on it.

During her campaign, Lehrke argued against investing heavily in commuter or high-speed rail right now, saying "it isn't the right time" in the face of a struggling economy and studies that show rail ridership could be light.

But Peterson's defeat doesn't mean there isn't someone looking out for south Washington County in Stillwater, Lehrke said. It's just someone new.

"It's not like the help ends here," she said. "It's just a new person with new ideas."