(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about the three outgoing members of the Sherburne County Board.)
by Joni Astrup
As a Sherburne County commissioner and in life, Rachel Leonard has worked hard and fought for what she felt was right.
Through it all, whatever the issue, she never felt like she was working alone. Leonard said every time she has accomplished something, it’s been with help from someone else.
“Everywhere along the way in my life, pivotal people that I didn’t count on have helped,” she said.
After serving 16 years on the Sherburne County Board, Leonard did not seek re-election this fall. Lisa Fobbe won the race for her seat and was sworn in Jan. 3.
Sherburne County Administrator Steve Taylor said Leonard has been very cognizant of Sherburne County’s history and has had a concern for her constituents.
“She always brought a sense of history to the table and a strong voice, which was always constituent-driven,” he said. “She often talked about her constituents and, ‘How would they vote on this?’ or ‘How would they feel about that?’”
Looking back over her years as a county commissioner, Leonard said one of the things she’s particularly proud of is the county’s Legacy Grant, which was her idea.
“I really fought for that Legacy Grant,” she said.
The first grant was awarded in 2007. The program uses landfill surcharge monies to give one-time grants to cities and townships in Sherburne County that use a certain percentage of recycled materials in their building projects. Elk River, for instance, got a $2 million grant for the Elk River YMCA.
“I was very much for things going green,” Leonard said.
She threw her support behind another “green” project that captures gas produced by decomposing garbage at the Elk River Landfill and uses it to generate electricity. It supplies the energy needs for about 1,600 homes in Elk River.
The project also includes a classroom at the landfill that is used by students, Scouts and tour groups from as far away as Japan, Leonard said.
Leonard recapped some other highlights of her career:
•She advocated for providing a place where people could safely dispose of unused prescription drugs. The Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department currently has a drop-off site.
•She is pleased with the expansion of the county’s park system from one park when she started as a county commissioner to four parks now, including Grams Regional Park near Zimmerman. “I fought very hard for Grams Park,” Leonard said.
•She supported economic development, including the establishment of two data centers near the county government center in Elk River. “They increase the tax base with hardly any services,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”
•She supported planning for roads and bridges to take advantage of money available for “shovel-ready” projects, the expansion of the jail to allow the county to house federal prisoners for a fee, maintenance of the Sentence to Serve program and the use of volunteers to help in the county.
Leonard said she also has advocated for county employees.
“My whole 16 years (on the County Board) has been two-pronged: for the constituents and for the employees,” she said.
She described the employees as tremendous and the constituents as wonderful.
Getting things done
Leonard was first elected to the County Board in 2000 after supporters encouraged her to run. She faced five men in the primary election that year.
“I ran against five good guys. I thought, ‘I’ll never make it through,’ but I did,” she said.
She went on to win the general election and was re-elected in subsequent elections.
Leonard has lived in Livonia Township since 1973 when she and her brother relocated their families from Southeast Minneapolis to a farm near Zimmerman.
Leonard’s husband had died of cancer when the youngest of their three children was 2. Leonard thought the farm would be a good place to raise her children. Two of them would go on to become doctors and one, a lawyer.
Leonard grew up in a rural area herself. She graduated from high school in Winnebago, where she was the class salutatorian and the homecoming queen.
Despite her success at school, her childhood was a hardscrabble existence. But Leonard said her mother was a steadying influence and a hard worker and taught her not to be bitter.
Leonard worked for others from an early age, hoeing beans, doing housework and child care, ironing shirts, being a companion to the elderly and working in a store. At times she lived with the families where she worked, some of whom she now believes stepped forward just to help her.
“All those things made me what I am,” she said.
After high school, she thought about entering the military or becoming a stewardess. But adults at her school, including the principal, saw promise in Leonard and encouraged her to go to college. She chose the University of Minnesota, paying for her education by working evenings at the Normandy Inn switchboard in downtown Minneapolis.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and another bachelor’s degree in education.
Leonard later completed a master’s degree and then, in her 50s, earned a law degree at William Mitchell College of Law.
Leonard worked for 30 years in public education, including as assistant principal at Edison High School in Minneapolis, where Leonard said she had to fight to prove she could do the job.
“They threw everything at me, figured I’d sink,” Leonard recalled. “But I was determined not to sink.”
While at Edison, she worked with Prince’s mother, who was a school social worker. Leonard remembers being invited to an open house for Prince, which was held at his mother’s home.
“That was the last time I saw him. He was very polite,” she said. “I thought highly of him.”
Leonard also was an instructor at the University of Minnesota for two years and served on the Elk River Area School Board for four years before being elected to the County Board.
Her accomplishments have been noticed by the University of Minnesota. She was featured in a university publication this fall, in a piece titled, “Getting Things Done.”
Leonard said, “The things I’ve done, I’ve tried to do for other people.”