Meredith Holt, Published January 04 2014
Women of Influence: The Del Rae way
MOORHEAD – Every day during her campaign, Moorhead Mayor-elect Del Rae Williams wore a locket bearing a tiny map of the city.
It’s the city her kids grew up in, the city she loves, and the city she’ll lead.
When she’s sworn in on Jan. 13, the 55-year-old retired certified public accountant will become the first female mayor in the city’s 132-year history.
Since her historic win the night of Nov. 5, she’s been “going nonstop” preparing for it.
Husband Ron Williams says Del Rae’s schedule is packed with meetings and coffee dates. Everyone has a story or an opinion they want to share before she becomes mayor.
Listening to stories and considering all sides of an issue is something she does well, he says.
Donna Chalimonczyk, one of Del Rae’s longtime mentors and friends, says it’s that ability that makes her a natural leader.
“She understands how to get people to build consensus – find what we agree on and then work on what we don’t,” the 80-year-old Moorhead resident says.
The women first met when Del Rae joined the women in business group Chalimonczyk started in the ’80s. Del Rae, a graduate of Minot (N.D.) State University, was just starting her accounting firm.
Instead of telling people what they should do in a situation, she helps them work through the problem and come to a conclusion that works for everyone.
“She was that way in that group, and she has been ever since then,” Chalimonczyk says.
CONTINUING THE MOMENTUM
Del Rae says Moorhead has been gaining momentum in the past 10 years or so, and Chalimonczyk says she has what it takes to keep that momentum going as the city’s woman-in-charge.
In a Forum survey this fall, she listed economic development, housing development and “responsible government that is committed to listening to community needs to help Moorhead grow, and working together with community citizens and organizations to move Moorhead forward” as her top three priorities.
She understands people from all walks of life, Chalimonczyk says, and that helps her guide them in their own decision-making.
“She works just as well with men as I’ve seen her work with women. Maybe it’s the CPA in her: ‘Here are the facts; how do we deal with them?’ ” she says.
Perhaps that’s why Del Rae is such a good mentor.
It’s not something she usually talks about, but several young people in the community have shown up on her Internet doorstep seeking guidance and advice, usually after being referred to her.
She acts as a sounding board for them, helps them through life changes, and acts as a “connector.”
“It’s not unusual for somebody to say, ‘Del Rae, I need this kind of individual. Who do you think would be good?’ ” Del Rae says.
Those connections come from years of business ownership, volunteer work and social activism.
She’s involved in multiple organizations, including the Freedom Resource Center for Independent Living, and she volunteers her services as a tax preparer for low-income families and individuals through the Lakes & Prairies Community Action Partnership.
Recently, she helped start Uplift Fargo Moorhead, a campaign to collect bus passes for Moorhead’s Churches United for the Homeless.
Is she giving up any of her causes now that she’s taking on a new role? Nope.
“If (former mayors) Morrie Lanning can be the vice president of Concordia and Mark Voxland can have his own business at the same time, I think as a retired person, I can do some of my favorite things I like to do,” she says.
ADJUSTING TO AN EMPTY NEST
Ron Williams laughs when asked what they do together when they have free time. “What’s that?”
The couple, who’ve been married for 32 years, became empty nesters this summer when their 18-year-old son, Sam, left for college at Winona (Minn.) State University. Daughter Lindi, 20, attends Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Del Rae was a little worried about Sam’s ability to transition to college life, especially since he’s on the autism spectrum, but apparently she needn’t have worried.
The engineering student is getting good grades and doing well socially to boot.
For his first birthday away from his family, for example, his friends surprised him by filling his dorm room with balloons and his favorite drink, Diet Coke, plus a cake.
When Del Rae counsels other parents of autistic kids, she tells them, “This too can pass, you can work through it, and they’ll be fabulous adults.”
Skype helps, too.
Sam’s move has been more of an adjustment for mom and dad.
Their Moorhead home is quieter, Ron says, and going from four, to three, to two family members has made meal planning easier.
But Ron, the cook of the house, says Del Rae’s busy schedule doesn’t allow for as many meals at home.
Regardless, he says she has no regrets. He says for as long as he’s known her, she’s been willing to give things a try, and running for mayor was no different.
“She doesn’t really have any regrets of the things she’s done. If she has regrets, it’s that she didn’t try something,” he says.
At lunch with a group of previous Moorhead mayors, Lanning and Voxland told her that they thought they knew what they were getting into when they became mayor because they’d worked on the City Council for a long time, but they were wrong.
Del Rae, who doesn’t consider herself a politician, says she has no preconceived ideas about what to expect, and that might be a good thing.
“I’m jumping in,” she says.
NO APRIL FOOLS THIS TIME
Thanks to an April Fools’ joke several years ago, Del Rae knew she’d have the support she’d need when she decided to jump in to the Moorhead mayoral race.
On the April Fools’ Day before her 50th birthday, she “announced” on Facebook that she was going to run for the Minnesota House. What she didn’t expect was the level of excitement her post was met with.
Her Facebook notifications blew up with likes and positive comments.
Even after admitting it was a joke, they kept coming in, and a month later people were still asking her about her “race” for House.
Five years later (and no April Fools), those same friends still had her back.
“I did know friends would come out from wherever, and I needed that at the last minute because you do not do a campaign that last-minute,” she says.
Del Rae recalls an exercise she did that was facilitated by Deb White, a local champion for women in politics.
White asked participants to think about what they’d do differently if they were in a position of leadership, as well as to think about other women who’d be good at it and how they could help them.
The visualization techniques helped the women think about politics as a possibility.
“There’s no reason you can’t do stuff just because you’re a woman, because we do that as women – at least my women friends do. My men friends don’t seem to think twice about, ‘Would I do this?’ or ‘Am I worthy?’ ” Del Rae says.
She says Chalimonczyk has a long line of her own “firsts.” So what does she think of Del Rae’s?
“She’s tickled,” she says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590