Rhonda Pownell said she wasn’t surprised to come out on top in a four-way race to fill an unexpired two-year term for an at-large seat on the Northfield City Council.
“I have energy and excitement and I’m encouraging others to come along,” Pownell said over a cup of herbal tea at the Bittersweet eatery on Thursday.
She took 33 percent of the 7,112 votes cast for that seat, currently held by Dixon Bond. Bond was appointed by the council after Noah Cashman resigned from the spot in July to pursue a job opportunity and care for an ill sister. Bond may step down early to allow Pownell to begin her work this month, instead of waiting until January when newly elected officials usually begin.
Pownell’s opponents, Joseph Gasior, C. Lynn Vincent and Victor Summa, expressed some surprise at her victory this week. Pownell, 37, has no prior job experience in municipal government and she has been a member of a once much-discussed group that sits in the audience during City Council meetings to quietly pray for the city.
“Rhonda obviously had a strong following across the city,” Summa said. “I was surprised, but considering her affiliation with a strong church base, I understand the outcome.”
Gasior, 36, said on Monday he had done some thinking about the results of the election after he and Vincent nearly tied for second. Each of them won 23 percent of the vote.
“Before, if I had to pick someone to beat, I would have picked Victor, to be honest,” Gasior said. “Now, I can see that, at all the different forums, we would talk about how good we thought Northfield was, but then say, ‘On the other hand, things are going to be rather rough down the road. Rhonda never really took that tack. So, I think people looked at her as the more upbeat candidate.”
As another explanation for the results, Gasior said, using broad speculation, he and Vincent appealed to the same voters, and so could have shared that group’s vote.
Summa, 76, said he believed he and Pownell each had a distinctive group following. Summa won 22 percent of the vote.
“While the four-way race made some difference, I’d speculate that my numbers would not have been much better in a two-way race,” Summa said. “I also doubt Rhonda’s count would have increased dramatically in a two-way contest. Joe was the great unknown and while I was the only other male, I’m not sure I would have gotten his votes, but doubt many if any of his votes would have gone to Rhonda.”
All of Pownell’s opponents mentioned her seniority as an asset. Summa, Gasior and Vincent are relative newcomers in comparison, although each has lived in the city for years. Pownell, a native of Sioux Falls, S.D., moved as a teenager to Northfield to study social work at Saint Olaf College, married a Northfield man after graduating, and has lived in the city ever since.
“The people of Northfield have spoken,” Vincent, 64, said of Pownell’s win. “I think the fact that she and her family have lived in Northfield all their lives was important.”
Pownell, mother of five children, cited her longevity in Northfield and her positive attitude for her win on Thursday. She said she had not been surprised to come out on top.
“I ran to win,” Pownell said.
She said she does not think the recent and ongoing conflicts between various members of the city government necessarily indicate something bad.
“Many people in this city obviously have heart,” she said. “They’re passionate and full of life. That’s what draws more people to come.”
Northfield is a place filled with leaders, she said. The trick is to organize the leaders in a way that allows all of them to work well together.
Pownell said her prayers often ask for the city’s leaders to work with united vision. Her family is a member of Rejoice! Lutheran Church.
A few city residents who believe in a strict divide between church and state have expressed concerned with the prayer group’s presence at City Council meetings. Pownell said she hoped residents would see every person brings his or her own set of beliefs into the room and her faith leads her to be honest and caring.
Pownell said her experience with home-schooling her children and running a household have also given her the ability to be exceptionally organized and efficient-two qualities she hopes will define all of the council’s meetings in the future.
Pownell’s opponents expressed disappointment with their losses, but felt they could not have done much differently during their campaigns to have changed the outcome of the election.
“It’s a tough job,” Gasior said of the council position. “There’s always someone who doesn’t agree with you, and you have to deal with it without taking it personally.”
“Challenge the staff,” Summa said of what an effective council member should do. “Drive the dialog. Spend more time seeking legislation that meets the needs of the community, and less time extolling the virtues of all those around you. Candor is what the public clamors for.”