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St. Joseph has another young mayor
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Richard Carlbom is a 2004 graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was elected mayor of nearby St. Joseph a few months later. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Richard Carlbom is settling into his new position as mayor of the small central Minnesota town of St. Joseph. Carlbom is getting up to speed on local issues, while laying out a vision for his time in office. He says St. Joseph can count on him to be a dedicated and energetic leader, something he credits to his age, he's 23. But this isn't the first time the residents of St. Joseph have picked a young mayor.

St. Joseph and Collegeville, Minn. — Richard Carlbom could easily pass for a college student on the campus of St. John's University. He was one, just last year. Carlbom graduated in May of 2004 with a degree in political science. Now he works in the university's student programs office.

Carlbom spends his time talking with students about their vocation. For Catholics, that means a higher calling. It could be a religious calling. But it can also mean volunteerism, or family life, or in Carlbom's case, politics.

"I have a calling to policy and to make sure public policy is working for it's citizens," Carlbom says.

Carlbom answered his calling by running for mayor of St. Joseph, a town just down the road from his alma mater. 5,000 people live in the town known as St. Joe. A couple thousand of them are college students, from St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict.

Despite his lack of political experience, Carlbom got 55 percent of the vote last November. He won the election over a sitting councilman.

"I look forward to dumping as much of my free time into this as possible. I love politics, I love this process. To me it's one of the most exciting things to do," Carlbom said.

According to Carlbom it was a political science professor at St. John's who sparked his interest in politics. Bob Weber says the student vote helped Carlbom win. But he says the candidate worked hard for votes from long time residents, going door to door to introduce himself. Weber knew Carlbom had a future in politics even when he was a student.

"He could form friendships with people who were on the opposite side of the political fence from him. He could disagree with people without being disagreeable. He had a capacity for bridging that kind of gap," Weber said.

While St. Joseph's new, young mayor isn't the norm in Minnesota, it's not unusual for this town. In 2000 Larry Hosch was elected mayor of St. Joseph at the age of 23. Like Carlbom, Hosch was a new graduate of St. John's University. When Hosch first took office, he had to fight the view that as a young person he didn't know what he was doing. Hosch says his lack of experience in politics actually helped him, just as it will Mayor Carlbom.

"He's coming in without a whole bunch of preconceived notions. I think a lot of times, especially in smaller towns, you can build alliances and coalitions with people and become trapped in that one mindset. Richard's not coming in with a particular mindset, he's coming in to work hard and listen to people and be inclusive of all ideas," Hosch said.

For Larry Hosch, serving as mayor of St. Joseph launched him further into politics. Now the 27-year-old represents the St. Joseph area as state legislator. Last fall Hosch was elected, as a Democrat, to the Minnesota house.

There's concern in St. Joe, about a second young mayor. Some fear students will have the run of the town or that Mayor Carlbom will overlook underage drinking or loud parties. Former mayor Hosch says that didn't happen when he was in office. Current Mayor Richard Carlbom says it won't happen under his administration either.

"I've never going to satisfy both the college students and the citizens who've lived in St. Joseph for 40 years. But I want to make sure that everybody is treated fairly, with an open mind, and the solution that we come to will benefit the city, and benefit the community of St. Joseph more than it will benefit just one individual," Carlbom said.

According to Carlbom, dealing with students is the least of his problems. St. Joseph is a fast growing community, he has to worry about things like upgrading sewer and water connections for new housing developments.

As far as his future, Carlbom says he'll stay in politics, but doesn't know if he'll run for another elected office. His political science professor from college considers Carlbom a rising star in Minnesota politics, and one people should watch in the future.