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Would Dick Lang, the five-term Anoka County commissioner who vowed to decline his $60,000 salary if reelected, actually run for office? Even after he filed for election, nobody was certain. Not even Lang.

He kept Anoka County voters and politicians guessing until Thursday, when he withdrew his candidacy -- a day after saying he was likely to remain in the race, despite family health concerns that he prefers not to discuss publicly.

"It pains me to do this," said Lang, 70. "But the pressure of family health problems was too much.

"When I woke up this morning, I knew this was the only decision. It didn't come easily."

Five other candidates have filed for a District 2 seat that Lang has held, on and off, for much of three decades. They are former state Rep. Andy Westerberg; former Ham Lake City Council Member Jolynn Erikson; Ham Lake City Council Member and former Mayor Gary Kirkeide; 10-year state Sen. Debbie Johnson and Erik Evenson.

"My dropping out has nothing to do with the race," Lang said. "I have no doubt that I would have been reelected."

He garnered 59 percent of the vote when he was reelected in 2006.

"Frankly, I'm more surprised that he filed at all," said County Board Chairman Dennis Berg, who announced last month that he would not seek reelection and will retire from public service.

"I'm happy for him. He's been in the harness for a long time. He needs some time for himself and his family. I know that since I announced I wasn't running, I've been sleeping better than I have in months."

Only two are sure to remain

Lang's decision means there will be at least three -- and as many as five -- new commissioners on the seven-member board. The seats of Dan Erhart and Rhonda Sivarajah are the only ones not up for election this year. Scott LeDoux resigned from office last month for health reasons. Incumbents Jim Kordiak and Robyn West each face challengers in their bids for reelection.

Lang has been the anti-politician who would rather roll up his sleeves and hold court with the regulars at the Red Ox Cafe in Ham Lake than sit in a board room. The county's silver fox knows the board isn't likely to see another like him in a while.

An ex-Marine and St. Cloud State football captain, Lang's comfortable kissing pigs to raise money for 4-H or talking to flowers. When he said he would return as commissioner for $1 a day, voters and county officials might not have taken him seriously, but he got their attention. "My point was that there are programs that could use the money," Lang said. "These conservatives who worry about cutting back this and that should realize that if we don't fund worthwhile programs, this county will go backward.

"Transportation is a key issue in this county. It was easier to take a bus from Ham Lake to Minneapolis when I was a kid than it is now. We need to put more into our transit system, not less."

Berg agreed, saying the Northstar commuter rail line, which runs form Minneapolis to Big Lake, needs to be extended to St. Cloud. A passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth, with commuter traffic from the Target Field station to Cambridge, would further enhance Anoka County's future, Berg said.

"We're leaving the county well positioned financially and program-wise," Berg said. "We're clearly not in a crisis mode and we have hard workers like Dick Lang and Scott LeDoux to thank for that."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419