The Commissioner of Exchange Street

His card reads, simply, “Charlie Barklind,” without further note. There is plenty of space available to add a phone number, a comment, or something else of interest.

Cards are important to Charlie. His apartment in downtown Saint Paul is filled with them – a collection reaching back several decades. The index cards help him to catalog and organize the events of his daily life. “Everyone,” Charlie says, “needs an information retrieval system.”

Much of what Charlie maintains in this system has a political cast to it. The walls of his home feature letters from office holders of all political stripes – the leavings of his voluminous correspondence with public officials. The letters even trail him to his workplace, further down Exchange Street. On the kitchen wall of Central Presbyterian Church, a curled document hangs above the dish sink. On White House stationary, President Barak Obama thanks Charlie for his correspondence, and extends his thoughts and prayers.

Charlie is a Republican, as he will quickly tell you, but a Republican “of the party of Lincoln.” A McCarthy supporter in 1968, he joined the Student Peace Union during his year at Macalester College. By 1972, he voted for Nixon, and subsequently for Ford and Reagan.

Public service was stressed from an early age in the Barklind family. His grandfather – an immigrant of Swedish extraction – served as a Commissioner of Polk County, Wisconsin. By seventh grade, Charlie had been elected Captain of the School Patrol.

In 1978, Charlie ran for a seat on the District Seven Planning Council. His father – who always championed the importance of voting – went with him to the polls, and ended up casting the contest’s decisive ballot. Charlie served for a year, but had his sights set on a run for a Ramsey County Commissioner’s seat. He lost to John Finley in ’78, and then to Janice Reitman.

As 67 years of age, Charlie holds down three jobs. “People are happier,” he says, “when they can generate their own means of support.” In the late hours of a snowy day, Charlie can be seen on the staircase of Central, clearing the steps for the coming morn.

On Tuesdays, Charlie attends the regular meeting of the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. Every fourth year, he files. “It’s difficult to run as a Republican,” he confides, “in a town that’s sixty percent Democratic.” In the meantime, he takes inspiration from Winston Churchill, who failed at his bids for public office until he was taken captive in the Boer War, and returned a hero.

He stays in the race each cycle to keep his issues in play. Recent decisions by the Board’s members to increase their own compensation have disappointed him. “It doesn’t set a good example,” he maintains. “When I ran, I told the press that I’d donate my salary to the poor.”

On a Sunday morning in December, Charlie dons a blue jumpsuit and walks the block from Presbyterian Towers to Central Church. The air is crisp; his gait is purposeful. “I’m doing my best to be a good public citizen,” he says.

Ramsey County registration forms have a space reserved for candidate filing statements. Charlie’s contains a single, handwritten sentence. “I promise peace and prosperity,” it says.

Charlie Barklind will next seek election as a Ramsey County Commissioner in 2014.

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