DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Lucas Wakefield said he was nervous as he waited for Ramsey County Commission results to come in Tuesday during the general election.
But by the end of Election Day, the 23-year-old from Devils Lake had done something no one in Ramsey County had ever accomplished: Wakefield went from being a write-in candidate in the primary election to becoming the youngest resident to win a seat on the commission in the county's history.
"It was a pretty incredible thing," he said. "I had swells of nervousness where I thought there was no way coming in as a write-in that I could have interacted with enough people. I have consistently been humbled by the outpouring of support from this community."
Wakefield, a challenger who earlier this year moved back to his hometown from the Washington, D.C., area, won 26 percent of the 13,130 votes cast in the Ramsey County Commission election that had five candidates campaigning for three seats. Newcomer Jeff Frith grabbed the most votes with 28 percent. County Vice Chairman Mark Olson won the third seat with 17 percent.
Wakefield, Frith and Olson will be sworn into office Dec. 6 during a Ramsey County Commission meeting
Wakefield's win comes more than a decade after he was in a car accident that took the life of his father, Thomas, 59, brother Mikkal, 7, and sister Nicole, 4. In January 2005, he minivan the Wakefields were in was struck head on by another vehicle that lost control on Interstate 94, critically injuring both Wakefield and his mother, Loydene.
Wakefield, who was 12 years old at the time, lost his right arm in the crash.
The challenges he faced growing up that would typically "shake you to your foundation" gave him an opportunity to prosper, he said. He had a large support base from his family, friends and the community after the crash, adding they continue to support him.
"In some ways, I am fortunate to have had such a challenging life," he said. "I think when we as people are exposed to crises, challenges and things that loom over us, we have two choices. Those choices are we can choose to cower away or we can choose to grow to be larger than the problem."
Road to office
Wakefield attended Devils Lake High School, and during his junior year in 2009, he was selected to be a page for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. After graduating from the class of 2015 from Georgetown University in Washington, he worked as a legislative correspondent for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., working on issues pertaining to health care, homeland security and the U.S. Postal Service.
When he returned in May to Ramsey County, he intended to open a real estate business with his friends, though now he is expected to begin work as an Edward Jones representative later this month.
He originally didn't have any ambition to run for office, but he was encouraged by others to campaign. He missed the deadline by a couple of days to get his name on the ballot for the primary election in June, meaning he would have to ask people to write his name in during that election.
With 372 write-in votes, he grabbed 5.05 percent of the 7,372 votes counted in the Ramsey County Commission race, well exceeding the amount he needed to get his name on the general election ballot.
"Once that happened, I felt that I was on equal footing with the other candidates, that it was really anyone's ball game and that if I really went out and tried, it could be mine," he said.
In a statement to the Herald, Heitkamp said Wakefield was committed to "serving the state he knows and love" while working at her office in Washington, adding she was proud of his victory.
"Lucas knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles, and this race was no exception," Heitkamp said. "He knew he had an uphill battle, but he put in the hard work and didn't take anything for granted."
Goals for growth
Wakefield said he is focused on making Ramsey County a more attractive place for residents to live, particularly young people. He said the demographics in rural America, including Devils Lake, have shifted, with the younger population moving to bigger cities and older populations staying in rural communities.
"If we don't start working now to make Ramsey County an attractive place for young people to come to or return to ... then we are going to be facing a crisis rather than a challenge," he said, adding the commission needs to make sure the county is better in 10 years than it is now. "As a young person, I have this unique ability to take the long view of this."
In the near term, he is concerned with the level of communication, accountability and transparency throughout the county and its affiliated organizations. He mentioned the visitors and delegations section of the commission meetings when residents can voice their concerns and ask questions of commissioners. That was removed from the agenda in June after Chairwoman Myrna Heisler said that portion of the meeting became disruptive. Heisler, who was up for re-election, took fifth in the general election.
Wakefield said there are a lot of people working for the betterment of the county, though he understands sometimes communications and the drive to be transparent break down. He said removing visitors from the agenda was "a step in the wrong direction" in building trust with the county's residents. The county should listen to concerns and address them instead of bury and ignore them, he said.
"I think one of things that really resonated both at the local level in my election and what we witnessed at the national level is people feel that government is not accountable to them, is not responsible to them," he said. "I've always taken the stance that it is not about me; it's about the people and the county."
Bill Mertens, who this year declined to run for his seat on the commission, said he has been impressed with Wakefield's ideas and his drive to listen to residents.
"He is here to do a good job for the community. He is coming in with a well-rounded education and well-rounded view point as to what the needs are of this community," Mertens said. "He has so much to offer for us."
When asked if he would seek a higher office, Wakefield said he was focused on the present and his goals for Ramsey County.
He said he feels the loss of his siblings and father on his shoulders, and it has driven him to live better for them. He also said he owes an unrepayable debt of gratitude to those who supported him through his time of need.
"Every day, you have people that go above and beyond to make you feel cared for and welcomed in this community," he said of Ramsey County. "Having lived in D.C., I know that is not something that occurs elsewhere, and that is something works fighting for."