Mayoral hopefuls embrace Moorhead's growing diversity

Newzad Brifki, Brenda Elmer and Johnathan Judd are all running for mayor in Moorhead, Minn. They participated in a candidates forum at the library last month. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

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This fall, voters in Moorhead will decide among the most diverse slate of candidates for mayor in the city's history.

The candidates — a man who arrived 26 years ago as a refugee fleeing war in Iraq; a city councilwoman who first moved to the city from South Dakota to attend college; and a criminal defense attorney originally from North Carolina who is likely the first African-American candidate for mayor — are all originally from somewhere else, and all say they see their diversity as a strength. And they have remarkably similar visions for the future of Moorhead.

Historically, Moorhead has chosen native sons to lead the city. But in 2013, voters elected Del Rae Williams as the city's first female mayor. She's not seeking a second term.

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All three candidates say race, ethnicity — and where they're originally from — haven't been an issue on the campaign trail. Moorhead is still 90 percent white, but has a growing population of refugees, immigrants and minorities relocating from across the country. Each of the candidates said that growing diversity is a strength the city should embrace.

"There are very few, if any, cities in the Upper Midwest that can say that we have a community that has that diversity," said Johnathan Judd, the attorney.

Johnathan Judd

Johnathan Judd answers questions from audience members after a public forum. Judd is a criminal defense attorney making his first run for mayor. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

When Judd moved to Fargo, N.D., from the South as a teenager, he experienced culture shock firsthand. In 1990, he was the only African-American student in his graduating class.

He stayed in North Dakota to attend college and law school, later taking a job in the Twin Cities. He returned to Moorhead 15 years ago and now works as a criminal defense attorney.

If he wins the race in November, he'd likely be the city's first African-American mayor. The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County is still reviewing its archives, but officials there believe Judd is the city's first African-American mayoral candidate.

"It's a safe community. It's got a great education system. And people, honestly — and I really mean this — people here are welcoming," said Judd.

As mayor, Judd said he sees himself as a consensus-builder. Among his highest priorities: a citywide conversation about the identity of Moorhead, a city that's often in the shadow of Fargo, its larger and faster-growing neighbor just across the Red River.

"I would argue that we have a higher quality of life on this side of the river, and I'm not gonna apologize for that statement," Judd said. "That's why my wife and I live here."

Tax disparities between Minnesota and North Dakota make it difficult for Moorhead to compete economically, he said, and he'd like to see the city focus its economic development efforts on creating a vibrant downtown and high-quality amenities and services.

Judd said Moorhead should embrace its identity as a college town, with its three post-secondary schools and strong arts community.

Brenda Elmer

Brenda Elmer talks with local residents after a candidates forum at the Moorhead Public Library. Elmer is a two-term City Council member. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Brenda Elmer grew up in South Dakota, moved to Moorhead to attend college — and stayed. She has a master's degree in public administration, runs a small business and has served two terms on the Moorhead City Council.

Elmer thinks the city needs to be more aggressive in lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for tax breaks to help border cities like Moorhead be competitive.

She also thinks Moorhead is being held back by the lack of a coherent vision and clear identity.

"We need to identify what our strengths are and really go with that," she said.

The cities of Moorhead and Fargo are interdependent economies — Moorhead has long struggled to compete against its neighbor across the river, where lower taxes often lure business — but Elmer said she thinks Moorhead has an edge over Fargo when it comes to housing costs and quality of life. She's a strong proponent for more city amenities, like an aquatic center and better parks.

"I think that's something that helps attract families [and] residents to live in our community, and we need to step up the game there," she said.

Newzad Brifki

Newzad Brifki greets an attendee at a candidate forum. Brifki, a Kurdish-American who came to Moorhead as a refugee, is running for mayor. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Newzad Brifki also wants to improve amenities like parks and city services.

But Moorhead, he said, shouldn't defer to Fargo on economic development. He said he would aggressively lobby the state Legislature for innovative ways address cross border tax disparities if he were elected.

"There's ways to go about it, but we just need the Twin Cities' attention, as well. You know, everything in Minnesota can't be focused on on the Twin Cities," said Brifki, who has a master's degree in business administration, and said he would try to target business growth in areas with the greatest chance of success.

Brifki arrived in Moorhead in 1992 as a 7-year-old refugee. He experienced poverty and discrimination. But he said the support he received as a refugee is a big reason he's running for public office.

"This country gave me a chance and opportunity, a safe haven," he said. "And now I have a country to call home a place to call home where I can raise a family."

Brifki now runs the Kurdish Community of America, which serves as a resource center for the Kurdish community.

The mayoral race

All three candidates support improved flood control for the city. Moorhead is a partner in the more than $2 billion Fargo Moorhead Area Diversion Project now under review by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Moorhead has already spent more than $100 million removing flood-prone homes and building levees along the Red River.

Government transparency is also a shared issue. All three candidates said they would make an effort to engage more residents in city decisions.

The Moorhead mayor's office is a nonpartisan position, but politics has often been in the background, with candidates getting help from political party organizers.

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In this year's race, Judd has strong Democratic support and Elmer has been active in Republican politics. But all three candidates insist they have supporters across the political spectrum.

Elmer said she rejects any effort to inject partisan politics into the race: "I don't think parks and potholes should be partisan, because, you know, we don't have a Republican or a Democrat park or pothole."

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