Barnum challenger defeats long-time commissioner
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Gary Peterson, challenger for the post of District 5 county commissioner, stayed up until 2 a.m. on election night without ever hearing the final results in his race against long-time incumbent Ted Pihlman. It wasn’t until his wife called him at 5 a.m. that he found out he’d actually won.
“I was really excited,” he said Wednesday morning. “I really didn’t know whether I’d have a chance of winning, but when I was a teacher and coach, I used to tell my kids to give me their best effort, which is what I did. I spent a lot of time and worked hard at it.”
Peterson, who said he’s never run for any public office before, taught American history, government and social studies for 32 years and used to hold mock elections in his classes.
“I always taught my students that people have to get involved and that competition makes people work harder,” Peterson said. “Now that I’m retired and our kids are grown, I decided it was time for me to do just that.”
Peterson admitted that he figured more than just two people would file for the District 5 post and that it would probably go to a primary. He was somewhat surprised when he discovered the race would be just between him and Pihlman, who has served the district for 24 years. He decided to get busy right away and go out and start knocking on doors.
“I was very interested in going out into the 5th District, meeting with the people and finding out what their concerns are,” Peterson said.
One thing he discovered was there was a lot of respect for his competitor.
“He ran a real clean campaign and he’s done a lot in the 24 years he’s been in office,” stated Peterson. “I simply wanted to offer the people a choice.”
Peterson grew up on a farm in Mahtowa and he and his wife both graduated from Barnum High School. He worked for a time at Conwed in Cloquet and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin Superior before going on to pursue his master’s degree in secondary school counseling from Winona State University. He taught in Sandstone and, for a time, in Austin, Minn.
Following retirement, he and his wife moved back to Carlton County where most of their family still lives and built a house in Skelton Township.
Peterson said he is looking forward to learning more about the issues facing the county and plans on taking his time in moving forward.
“I never make a decision until I research it first,” he said.
He said he is especially concerned about being careful how the county spends the taxpayers’ money and finding ways to lower taxes.
“This isn’t my victory, but a victory for those who supported me,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t have done it without all of the word of mouth they passed along in my behalf, the signs they allowed me to put in their yards and, of course, their votes.”
Pihlman was gracious in defeat.
“I am one who is willing to take life the way it’s offered,” he commented the morning following the election.
In all, Pihlman has spent 30 years in public service – six years on the Moose Lake City Council and 24 years on the county board. He operates his own business in Moose Lake, Ted’s Glass Service, and admitted he didn’t have as much opportunity to go door-to-door this election as he would have liked to.
“I’m kind of a dinosaur in my own right,” he said. “There are a lot of new people in our area who don’t recognize names like folks used to.”
Pihlman said he is proud of the work he did on the county board, in particular the role the county played in getting Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College going.
“The board made a tough decision to give $400,000 of our economic development money to the cause,” Pihlman said, “which depleted our funds to less than $40,000. It wasn’t a popular decision with everyone, but Florian Chmielewski [who also worked to get the college funded] once told me, ‘If it wasn’t for Carlton County pitching in, the college would likely never have been there.’ I’m very proud that we were able to help provide affordable education for the people of the area.”
Pihlman said he is equally proud of the fact that the board has always balanced the county budget during the entire time he has served and made every effort to keep the tax levy to the absolute minimum.
At the age of 71, Pihlman said he plans to keep on working and will enthusiastically fulfill the balance of his term right up until the end of the year.
“Sometimes an incumbent who has been defeated just kind of drops out at that point,” Pihlman reflected, “but I believe in doing the work my constituents supported me to do.”