TUPPER: All signs point to Mel for mayor of MitchellMel Olson is the only high-profile leader who has a winning record lately in the sport of local controversy.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
One of the advantages of being in the news business is that it’s easy for people to start a conversation with me. They just think of something in the news and ask me about it.
The question I’m hearing these days is, “So, were you surprised by how the election came out?” When people ask that question, I know they’re referring to the proposal to add a city manager in Mitchell, which was crushed Tuesday by a vote of 66 percent to 34 percent.
My standard response is that I was surprised, but I should have known better. Glancing back at recent history tells us that when a bunch of well-heeled people and politicians start telling people in Mitchell what to do, it often backfires.
Remember last year’s Sunday off-sale liquor vote? Most of the city’s high-profile leaders thought it was time to allow the sale of packaged liquor on Sundays, but the people disagreed and rejected the idea at the ballot box.
Then there was The Great Ponderosa Pine Controversy of 2010. The mayor and City Council, in conjunction with one of the wealthiest guys in town, tried to swap a much-beloved and tree-covered parcel of public property for some private land and a building. People rose up and shot down the proposal, and then they passed a ballot initiative to designate that parcel and every other public parcel around Lake Mitchell as park land.
In both of those cases, voters spoke loudly and clearly and told the city’s leaders that the people are ultimately in charge. Yet, nobody in power seemed to learn the lesson.
Nobody, that is, except City Councilman Mel Olson. As far as I can tell, he is the only high-profile leader who has a winning record lately in the sport of local controversy.
Granted, Olson was on the “no” side of the park land issue and was repudiated along with all the other city leaders. But he was a public face of opposition to Sunday off-sale liquor and the public face of opposition to the city-manager proposal. During both of those controversies, he was a lonely voice in the halls of power, but he emerged victorious with a crowd of voters behind him.
It was no wonder, then, that Olson was asked during a June 2 debate on the city-manager proposal if he aspires to be mayor. As a media panelist, I asked the question from the audience. I had planned to ask it myself, but since I received the written question from two audience members, I pinned it on them.
Olson’s response drew laughter from the 60 or so people at the debate, because it seemed so characteristic of that special brand of non-answer that only an aspiring politician can provide.
Instead of saying whether he wants to be mayor, Olson waxed poetic about Theodore Roosevelt.
“Serve in every office like it’s your last,” Olson said, paraphrasing the advice of the former president. “I plan on running for re-election (to the City Council) when I’m up next year, and I have found people who look beyond the next election tend not to have to worry about that, because they get beat.”
Contrasted with the response of Olson’s debate opponent, state Sen. Mike Vehle, who was asked the same question and flatly said he has “no desire” to be mayor, Mel’s non-answer seemed all the more nakedly ambitious.
Will he run? All the signs seem to point toward it. His City Council term is up next spring, as is the term of Mayor Lou Sebert, who has said that without a city manager to take over the day-to-day minutiae of running city government, he probably will not seek re-election.
Olson has all the traits of a formidable candidate: name-recognition from his longtime local teaching career and 12 years in the Legislature representing Mitchell’s district; political experience from multiple campaigns and a stint as the state House minority leader; and time to serve, now that his children are older and, at age 51, retirement from his day job is a near-future possibility.
He also knows how to utilize the media, as he showed so clearly with his comment that people who want a city manager “hate democracy.” Though that comment brought him criticism and he later apologized, it also brought him repeated opportunities to explain his position in the newspaper.
Ultimately, I don’t have any more insight into Olson’s future plans than anybody else, and I could easily be wrong. The next mayoral election is only one year away and, given the usual deadline for entering the race, we’ll probably know his intentions in nine months.