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Former state representative to run for commissioner

Karla Bigham, a former state lawmaker and Cottage Grove City Council member, will challenge Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke in this fall’s election.

Bigham announced Monday she’ll run for the County Board seat representing District 4, which includes all of Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park and Denmark and Grey Cloud Island townships and a small part of southern Woodbury.

Bigham said she has a passion for the area and does not believe Lehrke is representing the community. Bigham pointed to the Red Rock Corridor commuter project, noting Lehrke’s recent abstention from a key vote on construction of the Newport Transit Station.

“If she can’t vote on it, how is she going to represent the area?” Bigham said.

Lehrke said in an interview that she consulted with the Washington County Attorney’s Office on the Newport Transit Station vote because she and her husband, Derrick, are planning to buy the nearby Red Rock Saloon. She said she does not expect to abstain from any future Red Rock-related votes, with the possible exception of TIF district decisions.

“It’s a concern that’s not really a concern,” Lehrke said.

The Red Rock Corridor initiative and expanded commuter transportation could offer great economic benefit to south Washington County, Bigham said, and a county commissioner representing the area should do more to increase bus ridership along the corridor. She did not provide specifics on how she would work to increase commuter ridership, but said she would want to work closer with the Metropolitan Council.

“We need somebody who is going to advocate for the needs of the area and I’ve done that in the past and I’ll do that in the future,” Bigham said. 

Lehrke said she has supported the Red Rock project and a “data-driven” decision to focus on bus rapid transit instead of commuter rail for the corridor. It’s more efficient and would save taxpayers money, she said.

“My advocacy for the Red Rock Corridor is one of the hardest things I’ve been working on,” she said.

Bigham, 34, is a lifelong resident of the area. She graduated from Park High School and received her bachelor’s degree as a paralegal from Winona State University in 2001.

Bigham served on the Cottage Grove City Council before she won two two-year terms in the Minnesota House. A Democrat, she represented much of the area that is included in the commissioner district she’ll now seek. Bigham stepped down from the Legislature in 2010, and later was appointed co-chair of the Cottage Grove Charter Commission.

She earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Minnesota and works for Northern Tier Retail, a division of Northern Tier Energy. She lives with her husband, John Stechmann, in Cottage Grove.

Lehrke’s four-year commissioner term will expire this year. She said she plans to seek re-election but believes in serving no more than two or three total terms.

In 2010, Lehrke ran against longtime incumbent Myra Peterson. Her upset win came the same year as her husband, Derrick, won a seat on the Cottage Grove City Council. Together they own residential rental properties in south Washington County and plan to open a brew-pub at the Red Rock Saloon.

She has a master’s in management from the College of St. Scholastica and a master’s in business administration from University of Phoenix.

Lehrke, 32, recently has touted her work on transportation, including increased funding for road projects in south Washington County. She said safety improvements made last fall along 70th Street in Cottage Grove were a result of her actions following safety concerns she heard from area residents.

“There wasn’t something planned until 2017 and I got something done in weeks,” Lehrke said of pushing for the improvements.

Bigham said the work that Lehrke championed only was a temporary fix and that a larger reconstruction of 70th Street has been pushed back by the county.

“I feel like it’s just been Band-Aids put over it instead of an actual construction so it’s a more safer road,” she said.

The county has made progress on improving its roads that are in poor condition, Lehrke said, and she said she will push to direct any new road construction money to the 70th Street project.

“One thing that people will tell you is I’m one that follows through,” she said.

Bigham said her work at the city and state level could benefit the community if she’s elected to the five-member County Board. She acknowledged that her elected experience could be an advantage in the county commissioner campaign; she said she has a “core group” of supporters who will help.

The County Board technically is a nonpartisan position, but Bigham and Lehrke have differing political views. Bigham is a DFLer and Lehrke has been involved in the Republican Party.

A county commissioner is paid about $52,700 annually.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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