Moorhead elects first female mayor
Del Rae Williams’ house a few blocks south of campus is a bit of a shrine to Moorhead. Whether it be a local artist’s renderings of Dairy Queen and Atomic Coffee or her newest acquisition, a throw pillow with “56560” printed on it, the retired CPA and long-time community volunteer effuses pride for her adopted hometown.
A first-time candidate, Williams made history last week when voters elected her as the first woman Moorhead mayor. She defeated three challengers, including two sitting council members, with 37 percent of the vote. In January, she will replace Mayor Mark Voxland, who declined to run for reelection after serving 12 years.
“It’s cool to be history,” she said in an interview Thursday at her home. “It’s just a bonus.”
After promising friends she would consider it and failing to convince a few other people to join the race, Williams decided to run just before the filing deadline, while lying in bed one August morning.
“I thought we needed another choice,” she said. “I’ve always regretted the things I don’t do, not the things I’ve done.”
When she whispered, “I’m going to do it,” to her husband, MSUM construction management professor Ron Williams, he knew exactly what she meant.
“I won’t have anything to wear at the inaugural ball,” Ron Williams remembered joking to her.
The Williams’ daughter, MSUM archaeology sophomore Lyndi Williams, said she was not surprised, and was glad she jumped in.
“I have a very high opinion of my mother,” Lyndi Williams said.
Until that point, Del Rae Williams’ political activity had been behind the scenes, serving as treasurer for nearly a dozen campaigns. But that work, and her other involvement over more than 20 years living in Moorhead, including at the F-M Coalition for Homeless Persons, League of Women Voters, Moorhead Human Rights Commission, Moorhead Healthy Community Initiative and the Friends of the Moorhead Library, meant she had a vast network of friends to help her in her first bid for office.
“Having that foundation of involvement will really bring her a long way during her tenure as mayor,” said Williams’ friend Julian Dahlquist, a MSUM art photography alumnus who lost his race for a 3rd Ward city council seat last week.
Williams quickly launched a website and depended on others for the “mechanics of the campaign.”
“I needed to focus on the issues and talking to people,” Williams said.
She tapped Moorhead writer, singer and activist Athena Gracyk to be her campaign manager.
Williams, Gracyk said, is “smart. She’s well-informed, she pays attention and she’s able to reach beyond herself for ideas and bring other people into the conversation.
“That’s why I chose to work with her – I believe in her ability to work with others. I’m excited for the kind of changes that are possible.”
Edna Szymanski, MSUM’s first female president, said she was “tickled” at Williams’ election.
“She has my support,” Symanski said. “I am just absolutely thrilled.”
Student Senate President Kevin Struxness said he also looks forward to working with the new mayor.
“I would like the city as a whole more connected to the college,” Williams said.
Student concerns have been on her radar for a while, she said, noting she joined Facebook to keep track of parking issues a few years back. She’s also made frequent visits to campus, including early in her campaign when she attended the Sidewalk Café event.
That’s where she met MSUM sociology senior Clare Palmer, whose mother, the late Cindy Palmer, ran unsuccessfully for Moorhead mayor in 1989 before serving a term on the city council.
“(Williams) really does care about the people of Moorhead – temporary residents included,” said Palmer, who marched in parades and distributed buttons on campus.
She said if her mother were still alive she “would have been campaigning for (Williams) right along side of me.”
Mayoral terms usually last for four years, but because last week Moorhead voters approved moving city elections to even years, Williams will be in office for an additional year.
During that time, she said she will focus on improving city services where that’s needed, improving the city’s arts, cultural and business environment and making sure citizens with great ideas get the support at City Hall to make them a reality.
There are lots of ideas out there ready to go, such as Theatre B moving to Moorhead, she said, “as long as somebody doesn’t stand in the way.”
Voters, Williams said, seemed to be expressing a wish for a “fresh look at things, not the status quo.
“They are excited about the possibilities for Moorhead, and they see me as someone who will help things happen.”
Williams is going to hold listening sessions in each ward and also host regular “Coffee with the Mayor” meetings to keep in touch with constituents.
“As I door-knocked, you could tell people felt disconnected from the city,” she said. “I felt like I could be accessible that way.”
She emphasized that she’s the mayor for the whole city, not just the people who voted for her. She said she looks forward to working with the diverse group of council members – including former mayoral opponent Mike Hulett, who represents 3rd Ward – even if they might disagree on some issues.
“We all have a common goal,” Williams said, “to have Moorhead be the best place to work and play. If we all have that common goal (working together) shouldn’t be that hard.”
BY BRYCE HAUGEN