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Denise Kolpack's victory means historic first for Fargo City Commission

With Denise Kolpack's win on June 14, the Fargo City Commission has two women serving simultaneously for the first time. Here are some experiences that may shape her view of issues that come before the city.

Denise Kolpack stands on a stairway at Fargo City Hall with a representation of the Red River behind her
Denise Kolpack is the newest member of the Fargo City Commission.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — The election of Denise Kolpack to the Fargo City Commission on June 14 marks a milestone for the city.

It’s the first time in modern city history that two women are seated on the five-member commission at the same time, according to City Auditor Steve Sprague.

Kolpack will serve with Arlette Preston, who keeps her commission seat after an unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Tim Mahoney, along with incumbents Dave Piepkorn and John Strand.

City records indicate since the early 1990s, female commissioners have each been the lone woman on the board.

Preston served previously from 1992 to 2000, Jean Rayl from 2000 to 2004, Linda Coates from 2004 to 2008 and Melissa Sobolik from 2012 to 2016, Sprague said.

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None of their terms overlapped.

Sprague said prior to then, it’s difficult to determine whether a commissioner was male or female because they are listed by last name only in city records.

Kolpack said while historic, it’s “sad” that this level of representation hasn’t happened until now.

As an identical twin, Kolpack said a sense of fairness was instilled in her early on — that everyone is equal and should be afforded the same opportunities.

Her mother was always adamant that whatever one daughter got, the other one got.

During a recent interview with The Forum, Kolpack said she’ll bring that same bipartisan view to the commission, to which she was sworn in as its newest member on Tuesday, June 28.

“I've always been very careful to be professional and objective in my approach,” she said.

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Fargo Municipal Judge Steve Dawson administers the oath of office to City Commissioners Denise Kolpack and Dave Piepkorn and Mayor Tim Mahoney during ceremonies in City Hall on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Also ingrained were leadership qualities, as Kolpack was president of her high school senior class and her college sorority.

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“When I join a board … and I don't mean this arrogantly, I just always end up leading,” she said.

'Why not me?'

It may not come as a surprise, then, that newcomer Kolpack received more votes than any of the other 14 candidates vying for two commission seats up for grabs in June.

Though well-connected professionally and personally, she said people she’d never met voted for her, based on feedback from the eight public forums she participated in before the election.

Under the city’s approval voting system, where residents may vote for or “approve of” as many candidates as they wish, Kolpack drew 6,412 votes to incumbent Dave Piepkorn’s 5,834 votes.

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Fargo City Commission candidate Denise Kolpack talks with supporters Tuesday, June 14, 2022, at Tailgators, Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

The two were elected to four-year terms, with Kolpack taking the place of former commissioner Tony Gehrig, who chose not to run for reelection.

Hers may have been a familiar name to many on the ballot.

A former marketing executive for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Kolpack is married to longtime journalist Dave Kolpack, who works for the Associated Press, and is the sister-in-law of longtime Forum sports reporter Jeff Kolpack.

Now 59, she retired in December of 2021, and it didn’t take long to set her sights on running for public office on the suggestion of others.

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“I did some homework and I thought, ‘Why not me?’” Kolpack said.

She was also spurred on by her parents, Judith and George Hanson of Moorhead.

Her mother died in May 2021 from Ataxia, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that can affect the ability to talk, walk, use fingers, hands and arms, and swallow.

In her mom’s final months, Kolpack was on medical leave to recover from a third knee replacement surgery and was able to be with her.

During that time, her mom made her promise two things: that she try to retire early and that she run for public office, Kolpack recalled, fighting back tears.

Her mom gave her a $5,000 check to get started and her dad later gave her a second check for the final stretch of the campaign.

As a tribute to her mom, Kolpack joined the board of the National Ataxia Foundation, which is headquartered in Minneapolis.

“She was a big inspiration,” Kolpack said.

'I truly am bipartisan'

Military and law enforcement backgrounds in the family and her own background in public relations have helped shape Kolpack’s views.

George Hanson served in the U.S. Air Force in the Philippines and Vietnam while his wife was on her own raising the twin girls.

Kolpack’s father also had short stints as a county sheriff in California and as a police chief in Northwood, North Dakota, when the family moved back to the area to be closer to their native East Grand Forks, Minnesota.

Supporting police and fire departments and other aspects of safety and security are important to her, she said.

After his law enforcement career, George Hanson opened a gas and service station with his brothers in East Grand Forks, and Kolpack worked jobs from the age of 14 at the local drug store and Home of Economy.

Upon graduation from East Grand Forks Senior High, Kolpack attended the University of North Dakota to study communications and public relations.

Her first husband was John Bjornson, longtime director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, with whom she has a son, Andrew Bjornson.

Kolpack’s work history includes the North Dakota Newspaper Association, the North Dakota Water Coalition, United Blood Services and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

She’s lobbied on behalf of water issues and for open meetings and open records, which she said is “really good background for me now.”

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Denise Kolpack is the newest member of the Fargo City Commission.
David Samson/The Forum

Kolpack met former democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in the 1990s while Heitkamp was North Dakota Attorney General and later convinced her to run her campaign for governor.

Because of that affiliation, some might assume Kolpack is a Democrat, but that’s not the case, she said. Over the years, others have assumed she was a Republican.

“I truly am bipartisan,” she said.

As for where her allegiances might lie when it comes to other city commissioners, Kolpack said she intends to work with all of them.

More coverage of the Fargo City Commission:
Commissioners unanimously passed Mayor Tim Mahoney's motion to approve the city's 2023 Preliminary Budget. The budget is down $10 million from the approved 2022 budget

In the wake of recent dust-ups during meetings where tempers have flared, Kolpack said first she intends to lead by example with decorum and respect.

“I think Fargo deserves professionalism … and I think city employees deserve that,” she said.

Commissioners need to sign and agree to a code of conduct, she said, an idea Mahoney brought up previously.

Whether Kolpack might someday have her eye on the mayor’s seat, she won’t say.

“These next four years, I’m going to be committed to doing the job I was elected to do. … I’ll leave it at that,” she said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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