Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Moorhead’s long line of city fathers took on a new look five years ago when Del Rae Williams became the 33rd to join their number.
Running for mayor came as something of a surprise – “it was never on my bucket list,” she notes. Outdistancing the far better-known male candidates, both outspoken members of the city council, was even more of a shock, especially since she’d thrown her metaphorical hat into the ring just a day before the deadline.
“No one was more surprised than I was,” she smiles now, as she prepares to wrap up her five-year term – the first woman to run for the city’s top job and the first to be elected. “I hadn’t even considered it. I remember turning to my husband Ron as we were falling asleep that night and asking, ‘What would you say if I ran for mayor?’”
He mumbled, “Okay,” and she was off.
Though she remembers herself as a “complete unknown,” the city’s chief executive was familiar to many Moorheaders – just not in the business-oriented, mostly male circles that traditionally produced chief executives. Active in the League of Women Voters, the accountant was familiar to for her work with the Human Rights Commission, the Healthy Community Initiative, Freedom Resources for Independent Living, Mujeres Unidas, Friends of the Library, the F-M Coalition for the Homeless and other community and church-related initiatives, as well as her work as a public accountant.
All those fellow volunteers’ energy turned the tide, and Moorhead’s leadership will never look quite the same. Though a dozen women have served on the city council since Ruth Wensel was the first elected in 1954, the eight-member council generally held just one or two at a time. Since Del Rae’s took the gavel, they’ve gained the majority, with only three men serving today; council member Brenda Elmer became the second to run for mayor last fall. Moreover, the average age has fallen dramatically, with members in their 30s and 40s tipping the balance and the oldest, the mayor herself, who just turned 60.
“When elected leaders look more like the people they serve, that’s a good thing,” she observes. “I’ve tried to keep that in mind when I’ve made appointments to boards and committees as well. In gender, age, ethnic heritage and career experience, I think they’re much more reflective of Moorhead now than they may have in the past.”
Reflecting her neighbors’ priorities and concerns has been a key to the mayor’s effectiveness in shepherding the sometimes-fractious council and the issues that have arisen during her tenure. She laid the groundwork during her single political campaign, when she made an effort to talk to householders all over the city. “When I knocked on doors, I found one common denominator all over town: People didn’t feel connected to their city. They felt their words didn’t count.”
She set out to change that. Among her first steps after the election was to emphasize that she was on board to listen. She dived into Facebook, where she chose a cheerful smiling sun as her personal icon. She showed up at community meetings and events of every stripe. She wrote a weekly column for the Moorhead Extra. She launched monthly listening sessions she dubbed “Coffee with the Mayor,” where she has hosted all kinds of residents with all kinds of issues twice, morning and evening, in the atrium of City Hall.
“That’s something I encourage all electeds to do. You need to know where your community is coming from,” she says. “You won’t always have time to ask when issues arise and you need to make a decision, so it’s important to keep it up all the time.”
Before her election, Del Rae says she was an unlikely choice for public office. “I’m an introvert. I need time to myself to keep up my energy,” she says. “I used to watch my husband chatting with people everywhere he went. Give him ten minutes with someone he’s just met, and they’re best friends. I always wondered, ‘How does he do that?’
“But you have to be the position you’re filling. The city needs someone who’s out there in the community, hearing and listening. I had to step well outside my comfort zone … and it has changed me. Now I talk to everyone. I love meeting them and listening to their stories. That’s one of the unexpected gifts of these five years.”
Why limit herself to serving a single term? Del Rae was clear about that during her first and only campaign, and remains convinced it was the right decision. “I figured five years should be enough to get done what I wanted,” she says. It turns out, she adds, that she was mostly right: “There are just a few minor things out there that I expect will still happen.” There have been disappointments, including several controversies over city personnel, that still bother her, but she’s come to terms with the outcome: “You have to acknowledge that you can’t control everything.”
Life, too, has a way of slipping out of control. Both Del Rae and Ron have faced serious health challenges, she with Crohn’s disease, he with a form of leukemia that’s now in remission. They’re still dealing with the unexpected death of her mother last summer and its aftermath. “She had just sold her businesses and retired,” she says. “She was putting the finishing touches on her new apartment. We were making plans to travel together after I was done as mayor. She was happy and excited about life … then had a heart attack.”
The lesson, Del Rae says, is one she learned long ago when her father died young. “I guess I’ve always been in ‘life is short’ mode. Live life to your fullest – the right time is now!” She adds, “Don’t ever let fear guide what you do.”
Del Rae and her husband are already looking beyond Jan. 6, the day her term officially ends. They plan to spend the next month on Anna Maria Island near Sarasota, a destination highly recommended by the Facebook friends to whom she turned for suggestions. They’ll decompress on the beach, where she plans to relax, read “silly entertaining books,” and contemplate what comes next.
She’s been deluged with invitations to serve on community boards and help with worthy causes. Some she’s already accepted – Big Brother Big Sister, the Anne Carlsen Center and the Longest Table community conversations, as well as getting back into the groove with the League of Women Voters. Others she still weighs. “I know I have a tendency overdo it. This time I want to stay involved with those that give me energy and and pass on the rest.
“If I get to the point where I tell myself, ‘I’d like to read a book this afternoon,’ but can’t find the time to do it … I’ve overbooked again.”
After five years running at full speed as Moorhead’s most public face and the city’s chief executive, she’s looking forward to once again being a private citizen who can make her own choices and chart her own course. But there seems to be just a tinge of regret as she says goodbye to her time as mayor. “It has been an experience I’ll always love. It has changed me,” she says. “I’ll always be involved in our community – but not as an elected.”
Changing the Look of Moorhead
Nancy Edmonds Hanson