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Erik Burgess, Published December 09 2013

From 'Mayor' back to 'Mark': Voxland relishes return to life as prank-pulling introvert

MOORHEAD - For a little more than a decade, residents here have trusted Mayor Mark Voxland with the key to the city. But starting soon, you might not want to trust the master electrician with the key to your house.

Voxland, who is retiring Dec. 31 after 12 years as mayor, has a penchant for practical jokes, a trade he begrudgingly set aside during his mayoral term but hopes to pick up again once he’s left office.

There was his spree of exchanging his friends’ perfectly decent lighting fixtures with hideous, gaudy ones he collected over the years.

Or his finely tuned craft of filling dish-shaped fixtures with neon Jell-O.

“Nobody lets me babysit their house anymore,” Voxland said with a smile during an interview last week.

But some close to the mayor said as Voxland and his good-spirited sense of humor head for the exit, it marks the stark difference between two eras of the City Council here – the past, when council members would get along and compromise, and the future, where they won’t.

“There doesn’t seem to be quite the respect for differing opinions that there used to be, so (Mark) felt really bad about that,” said Donna Voxland, Mark’s wife of 42 years. “It’s a very unfortunate change, and that really bothers him.”

With his quiet but steady voice, Voxland was the perfect “referee” in Moorhead’s weak-mayor system, where the mayor doesn’t vote except in ties, because he encouraged camaraderie and cooperation, said outgoing Councilman Mark Altenburg.

That camaraderie started to fade about two years ago, Altenburg said, made worse by the fizzling of a decades-long tradition of the entire council going out for drinks after meetings.

Members also stopped going out of town for annual weekend retreats, which used to provide much-needed social time away from City Hall to grow trust and bond with fellow members, Altenburg said,

“We’d sit around the pool at 10, 11 o’clock at night after the kids went to bed and just chat, just talk so you got to know each other personally, and that’s gone,” he said. “I don’t know if this council can pull that back together without Mark there.”

Introvert as mayor

Being mayor is a strange career choice for someone who doesn’t like the spotlight.

“We’re both more introverts,” Donna Voxland said. “So it’s not a natural thing to put yourself out and forward that much and also to put yourself in the middle of controversial issues and to allow yourself to be the whipping boy in a lot of cases.

“The patience that he’s had with people, it’s just amazing, I think.”

Voxland was persuaded to run for City Council in 1988 after the incumbent called him not once but twice to encourage him. It’s not like the electrician was poorly trained to be a leader. He graduated in 1972 from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in political science and economics. That same year, he started serving as scoutmaster for local Boy Scout Troop 637.

“He has been a public leader since probably high school,” said Curt Bye, a longtime friend who worked on all three of Voxland’s mayoral campaigns.

After Voxland served several terms on council, Morrie Lanning announced he was done as mayor in 2001. Voxland was again persuaded to run, this time for mayor, and he won in a landslide, capturing 62 percent of the vote.

After winning, the quiet electrician said he usually spends “more time listening than talking,” according to a Forum story from Nov. 8, 2001, two days after he was elected.

Twelve years later, that sentiment hasn’t changed a bit, and Voxland almost gave an identical answer last week when asked of the challenges of being an introvert and a mayor, a job that often thrusts him into the limelight as the city’s spokesman.

“It’s very different for me,” he said. “I’m not a loud and talkative person.”

Council more polarized

While Voxland doesn’t always want to grab the microphone, he has an uncanny ability to make other people converse and work together, his friends and colleagues agreed.

At a private ceremony last month, Councilwoman Nancy Otto pointed out that in Voxland’s 26 years as a councilman and mayor, he’s worked with 30 council members and five city managers.

“He’s very open-minded and listens to both sides of any argument and is very calming,” Bye said. “He was very good at peacemaking.”

It’s that peacemaking ability that Altenburg fears the polarized council needs now more than ever.

Otto, who has served for 14 years and will be the longest-serving member once Voxland leaves, said she also believes the current council is more divided than previous ones.

“I mean, Mark and I get along fine, but some of the other ones, they kind of,” she paused with a short laugh, “you’ll have to ask them about that.”

Altenburg, who lost in his bid for re-election last month, thinks the root of the problem is that council members don’t socialize outside of the chambers as much as they used to.

It was at an after-council meeting at Speakeasy when Altenburg first learned of Voxland’s obsession with Tabasco hot sauce – a love the mayor developed while eating bland food on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. Voxland is such a fanatic about Tabasco he typically has a bottle on him at all times.

“When the only time you run into each other is when you’re battling at the dais, I think you start to create suspicion and some ill will towards each other,” Altenburg said. “Hopefully that can be repaired within the next couple years.”

Councilman Mark Hintermeyer, who served eight years in the 4th Ward before losing in a race for mayor last month, said he thinks any perceived prickliness on the council is just “normal tension” that the board experiences.

Hintermeyer said he believes those social events stopped this year because the mayoral race included two sitting council members.

But in his mind, Voxland said, the council’s polarization is not typical. He traces it to the nationwide trend of branding politicians who change their mind as “flip-floppers,” a label he says didn’t exist when he was first elected.

“Compromise isn’t such a big thing right now,” he said. “You can’t change your mind, and I find that just disappointing.”

‘Inferiority complex’

Voxland’s took the helm as mayor expecting to serve only two terms. That is, until the devastating flood of 2009, when much of the city was evacuated.

“That was very stressful,” Donna Voxland said. “It was a very helpless feeling for him.”

But it was the mayor’s response to the flood that marked one of his greatest accomplishments, Altenburg said. In just four years’ time, Voxland worked with the state to get $100 million in comprehensive flood protection for Moorhead.

“He’s really a guy who gets things done,” Altenburg said. “That was impressive to me, and that was a huge project.”

Perhaps it all goes back to Voxland’s career as an electrician, a job he reluctantly took up one summer in college to help his father, from whom he eventually bought the family company.

“I started this (electrician job), and I kept doing it because I enjoy starting and finishing projects and getting things to work,” Voxland said.

That work ethic impressed many across the state, Lanning said during that private event last month. Voxland may have been soft-spoken in Moorhead, but his commitment to bettering the city spoke volumes at the Capitol, Lanning said.

Still, despite the success stories, Voxland said he recognizes the bad rap Moorhead gets in the metro and said that they too-often compare themselves to “big brother” Fargo.

“I think (we) have a little bit of an inferiority complex, because (we) can’t do things like Fargo,” Voxland said. “Well, Fargo’s in a different state.”

“It’s been like that forever,” Voxland continued. “When I was growing up, it was the same thing. Nothing’s changed. The volume gets louder sometimes, and softer sometimes.”

Still, he said, when the two communities need to come together – like during bad flood years – they do.

“And we cooperate like crazy,” Voxland said.

‘Being normal’ again

When Del Rae Williams takes the mayor’s chair in January, it’ll be the first time in the city’s 132-year history that a woman has held that role. It’ll also be the first time in decades that the mayor isn’t a long-serving council member.

Before Voxland, Lanning served for 22 years as mayor, then went on to give 10 more years representing Moorhead at the Capitol. Voxland says he doesn’t have bigger political aspirations than the mayor’s chair.

The electrician is simply excited to run his company and spend quality time with his six grandchildren.

“At the same time, he’s going to miss (being mayor), a lot,” Donna Voxland said. “It was a job that he thoroughly enjoyed and will definitely miss. There were countless times he really felt like he made a difference, and he liked knowing that.”

The couple, who first met as teenagers at Moorhead High, also enjoy camping. They visited Yellowstone National Park last fall and saw Old Faithful on a clear, moonlit night. They’ve also been working on a lake home on Big Sugar Bush Lake north of Detroit Lakes.

On Saturday, Voxland was planning to attend the ceremony for Boy Scout Troop 637’s 100th Eagle Scout, the highest ranking possible. Voxland became the group’s 19th Eagle Scout in 1964, and he’s been a merit badge counselor since 1973.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the mild-mannered mayor – other than the holster he wears to make sure he’s always carrying Tabasco – is all the practical jokes.

With proud gusto, Voxland can recall step-by-step the best prank he’s ever pulled. It was the early 1980s, and his neighbor at the time – David Haarstad – wanted Voxland to help him sod his yard. Haarstad said they’d plan a big party, invite all their friends, and have a beer or two while they did the job.

But the day the sod was delivered, Haarstad forgot he’d be out of town at a softball tournament.

“So here I am baby-sitting his house, and it’s a hot, miserable day,” Voxland said.

When the work was done, Voxland and his friends had about half a pallet left of sod and didn’t want it to go to waste.

“I said, ‘Let’s put sod on the roof,’ ” he recalled matter-of-factly, as if it were the only option.

Once the shingles were covered, Voxland wiped the sweat from his brow and realized the grass was probably a bit thirsty, too.

“We thought, ‘Well, jeez, it’s going to turn brown by the time he gets home,’ ” Voxland said. “So we put a sprinkler on the roof.”

The mayor insists now that his neighbors thought it was “pretty funny.”

Donna Voxland said her husband is not overly concerned about his place in Moorhead history. He’s maybe more worried about his ability to blend in.

“He keeps saying that he’s kind of looking forward to nobody knowing him around town anymore,” she said. “Or that he can get his first name back, because everybody calls him ‘Mayor,’ and so he said he can be ‘Mark’ again.”

Take that as a warning, Moorhead residents. Mark Voxland is going back to being Mark again.

“As I’ve been mayor, I’ve gotten way too serious, so it’ll be good to get to being normal,” Voxland said. “You can’t have the mayor doing silly things around town.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518