— Three candidates are running to become the next mayor of the city of Willmar and will face off in the primary Aug. 9, with the top two vote-getters moving forward to the general election Nov. 8.
The three candidates are Zeke Dahl, Steve Peppin and Doug Reese. Dahl and Reese gave interviews to the West Central Tribune regarding their candidacy.
Peppin submitted a brief statement stating his promise to the city not to campaign for mayor until after the country music festival he is organizing is held in September.
Originally from California, Dahl has lived in Willmar for five years. He works at Cash Wise, does landscaping as a side job at times and helps people with pre-legal paperwork, filling out bankruptcy and other forms for court, he said.
Dahl was going to school for criminal justice at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota, before he had to drop out due to getting in trouble for being a felon in possession of a handgun in 2014, he said.
The felony for which Dahl was on probation when charged with gross misdemeanor gun possession was a check forgery charge for stealing $8,000 from his grandmother in 2011.
Dahl has been charged and convicted of misdemeanor theft in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and is on unsupervised probation through September for the most recent conviction.
Dahl ran for Willmar mayor in 2018 and Willmar City Council in 2020, and decided to run again this year because he feels there are things that need to be done in the city, like fixing the potholes. He would also like to see the MinnWest Technology Campus stop getting tax breaks and start paying their fair share in taxes, he said.
One of the biggest issues for Dahl is housing, which has affected him personally. He shared personal experiences he's had with various housing entities, such as being told there was no low-income housing available, needing a good credit score in order to get into housing, or needing a certain amount of money in order to get into housing.
His criminal history has also affected his ability to find housing, he said, explaining people can be disqualified for government low-income housing due to their record.
One idea he has regarding fixing the housing issue would be using hotels for temporary housing. He noted there are some hotels in Willmar that often have vacancies that could be used.
Another idea he has is working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fix up abandoned houses. "Get that house on the market and get families in there instead of just sitting," he said. "There's a lot of foreclosed houses or houses just sitting for sale that haven't moved."
Dahl said he would like to collaborate with others on the issues facing Willmar, as well as hiring a grant writer for the city to seek funding to address those problems.
Some of the positive things Dahl sees in Willmar are the local food shelf, the humane society and the city's nice parks.
However, he would also like to see people not needing to use the food shelf.
"Get someone where they don't need to go to the food shelf — get a job so they don't need to go to the food shelf. It's a help-up, not a hand-out," he said. "It should be if someone wants to do better or try better, they should be able to do better."
While Dahl acknowledged his background may be concerning, he sees it as a positive and would like if voters "just don't look at the underlying stuff. I mean, some of that stuff is really old . . . like my check forgery conviction — that was like 12 years ago — and some other things," he said. "That was because of my addiction to gambling."
Stating that nobody is perfect, Dahl said, "I have things in my past, but that shouldn't affect my future, which it has. I've lost jobs, career jobs, because they pull up my background and I don't have a chance to explain it."
He stated that everybody has problems, and it's the way you work on your problems or your addiction, and what you do about it and not dwell in it.
He added that he would be more concerned about someone who was portraying themself as perfect.
"No one is perfect in this life. I'm not," he said. " ... But I always try to do the right thing, always. My addiction got the best of me."
Peppin chose not to interview with the West Central Tribune, instead providing a statement. His statement read, "I gave my word to the City of Willmar that I wouldn't campaign for mayor until the festival I'm hosting on Sept. 10 is over. I will give you a small statement. I don't want anyone to vote for me. I want them to vote for themselves through me. For I am the people with or without a title."
This is Peppin's third run for office in Willmar, having run for City Council in 2016 and mayor in 2018.
He has now lived in Willmar for about 18 years, and he lives with his fiancee Megan Davis and has four children.
In his previous run for mayor, Peppin's main issues were bringing higher-paying manufacturing and industrial jobs to Willmar and increasing activities for teenagers and young adults in the city, according to West Central Tribune archives. He supported the local option sales tax — which was approved by voters in 2020 to build the new recreation center and sports fields among other projects. He said he felt having those amenities could help reduce crime and drug use in the community.
Peppin also said at that time that he wanted to be a mayor for all people, no matter their background, and that he wanted to continue to give back to the community that has given him a second chance so he can do the same for other people.
In his past runs for council and mayor, Peppin openly talked about his past criminal convictions. He grew up in Pine City, and as a young adult, he said he got involved with the wrong people and participated in a rash of robberies in Minneapolis and the metro area, serving several years in prison for felony first-degree aggravated robbery.
While in prison, he earned his master barber license. When he was released, he came to Willmar and attended Ridgewater College, which gave him the opportunity to go to school and play football.
Peppin is a businessman and owns Pep's Barber Shop, Relentless Ink and Studio 38. He is currently organizing a country music festival at Robbins Island on Sept. 10, and his businesses frequently sponsor Midwest All-Star Wrestling events in Willmar.
He has also discussed opening a bar and nightclub at 1600 11th Ave. N.E., but told the West Central Tribune he has put that on the back burner until the campaign and country music festival are over.
In the past, Peppin has faced financial difficulties with his businesses and personal life. He previously operated two bars — one in Willmar and one in Atwater — that were unsuccessful and closed, and he's filed bankruptcy twice in the past. According to West Central Tribune archives, the last bankruptcy was filed May 31, 2018, and closed Oct. 10, 2018, during his run for mayor, and the previous bankruptcy was filed Feb. 25, 2010, and closed June 17, 2010.
In the 2018 bankruptcy, Peppin reported $634,848 in liabilities and $63,848 in assets. At the time he said, "In business, there are times you get overwhelmed and you make mistakes." He was also adamant at the time that he would make everything right and pay back the debt he owed, even though he was no longer legally obligated to pay it.
In the 2010 bankruptcy, Peppin reported $199,114 in liabilities and $78,900 in assets. The debts for that bankruptcy were personal in nature, not business-related. In 2018, he said he paid everyone back for this bankruptcy.
Reese graduated from high school in Winthrop, then served in the Navy and attended college at Mankato State University. He earned a degree in civil technology/civil engineering and went to work for Minnesota Highway Department (now called the Minnesota Department of Transportation).
When he married his wife, Marion, in 1970, "We decided we didn't want to be living in the metro area," he said. "We were both from small towns and wanted to raise a family in a smaller town."
He found an engineering job with the city of Hutchinson before getting an engineering job with the city of Willmar in 1972.
In 1975, Reese took a position as a national representative for the Christian Labor Association, a Christian labor union, and worked there for 37 years until his retirement in 2007. He served as the national president of the organization from 1994 through 2007.
He then helped found and became the director for Willmar Area Faith at Work, which helps businesses carry faith into the workplace.
All three of Reese's children graduated from Willmar High School. He has eight grandchildren.
Reese served on the Willmar City Council from 1987-2012, followed by a four-year stint as a Kandiyohi County Commissioner.
Reese said he is running for mayor because he loves Willmar.
"We've absolutely loved living here," he said. "... It's such a nice area with the lakes and the hunting areas and the woods, and on the edge of the prairie."
He did not file for office until the last minute, but said he thought Willmar needed him with his previous experience.
"I talked myself into filing, because of my love for the city and I wanted to see it prosper and continue to grow," he said.
Reese promises to be a mayor of common sense, leading a council that sets the policy and staff that administers the policy.
"I want to be a mayor that runs the meetings, breaks ties and maybe vetoes if I absolutely feel that it's not a good policy that the council's proposing," he said, noting it is unlikely he would need to veto anything. "I want to be welcoming to people coming to town, whether coming to live here or start a new business or convention. I just want to be the face of Willmar."
Reese said the top three issues facing Willmar currently are the condition of its streets, single-family housing and leveraging the experience and expertise of its department heads.
"We've been falling behind for two decades and our streets are in terrible shape," he said, noting he would like to develop a plan where street upgrades are programmed in.
He also said he would like to explore the ability to get rid of assessments for street repairs. "I haven't developed a plan, but streets are probably top of my list," he added.
There are very few houses being built, or land that is developed with the infrastructure needed to bring about single-family dwellings, Reese said, noting there are a lot of apartments being built.
He plans to work with developers and people in home construction to add more single-family housing in the city, which would mean working with developers and contractors to prepare lots by installing the needed infrastructure, he said.
"The City Council is our policy makers and the best way to learn is to lean towards strategies that leverage the experience and expertise of those who are most familiar, like our department heads, with the challenges that the city faces," Reese said. "In terms of public safety, we need to tap the information of the people that run all those public safety departments — what should we be doing, what can we be doing, that would make it better in the city of Willmar, safer."
Reese said the city is running well as a whole, commending the Police Department and police chief, the Public Works Department under the leadership of Gary Manzer, and the developments that have taken place at the Civic Center complex and Robbins Island due to the local option sales tax projects.
He remembered Robbins Island having a little, narrow road going out to the island until they dredged the bottom of the lake and used it to fill the shoreline and make it what it is today.
"Look at Rockin' Robbins now out there," Reese said. " ... Just a lot of good things for the citizens, and I think we have a vibrant community and we need to recognize that."